ELV note: The following article appears in this month’s issue of VEGAS magazine. Click here to read it in its original format, or continue reading below…and try not to start salivating for a superior steak.
How Nicole Brisson Handles the Manliest Meat in the World
When you ask to see the chef in most steakhouses, a big, brawny guy appears looking like he knows his way around a side of beef. Not so at Mario Batali’s Carnevino. Instead, a pint-size female walks out looking no bigger than a filet mignon. Nicole Brisson is 5-foot-2 and has talents and responsibilities that make her unique in the world of porterhouses and prime. As executive chef, she supervises the cooking and the (almost all male) staff of 120 employees at what may be the best steakhouse in America—serving what are certainly the oldest aged steaks anywhere, along with authentic eats given the weighty Batali/Bastianich seal of approval. It doesn’t get more exalted than that in the steak or Italian food world.
Brisson, 30, started her career as a prep cook in upstate New York when she was a mere 14 years old. After high school, she went on to Johnson & Wales University, the renowned cooking school, before Italian food maven Faith Willinger arranged for her to stage at some of the best kitchens in Italy—including Dario Cecchini in Chianti, the same butcher who trained Batali’s father, the man behind the Salumi line of artisan-cured meats.
“Talent and crafty strategy will always win out over mere brute strength,” says the younger Batali. “That said, she is a tough cookie and never takes any heat from anyone on her path to perfect steak and divinity in dining.”
Proving Herself In a Man’s World
Acclaimed Italian chef Stephen Kalt brought Brisson to Vegas when he opened Corsa Cucina in the Wynn in 2005, and from there she worked with Paul Bartolotta before jumping into the universe of Batali and winemaker Joe Bastianich in 2007 and rising through the ranks to take over the Carnevino kitchen in June of 2010. “The hardest part [about being a female chef] is every time I walk into a new kitchen, they always direct me to the pastries,” she sighs. So how does Brisson prove herself in this male-dominated universe? “By not acting like a girl, and busting my ass,” she says. “Fabio Picchi [of Cibrèo in Florence] told me I was the hardest-working American who had ever been in his kitchen. It was the greatest compliment I’ve ever gotten.”
Indeed, you can’t be either lazy or stupid in this world of high-stakes steaks. “My life is dominated by meat,” Brisson says. “You have to be tough, you have to be strong. I still get on the line and show the cooks that I can turn out more covers than they can.”
Steaks to Die For
Carnevino’s sirloins, porterhouses and rib eyes have caught the attention of Black Angus aficionados the world over, and meat lovers now flock here to get them. There may be a certain civic pride behind my calling Carnevino the greatest steakhouse in America, but I’ll stack the following arguments up against any emporium of prime anywhere. First, there’s the meat: All natural, hormone-free, hand-selected by Adam Perry Lang, a professional “meat forager,” a man of whom Rachael Ray (along with many others) has said “has raised the industry standard” for the beef we eat. All steaks are dry-aged in Las Vegas by the restaurant itself—not by some middleman—in a climate-controlled, 2,000-square-foot meat locker off of Dean Martin Drive (a process we’re sure Dino would have approved of). This protein achieves otherworldly tenderness and taste from two to eight months (the prime amount of time for these beauties and “riserva” cuts to reach their peak, according to Brisson). No other steakhouse in America has such a hands-on, intensive-care selection and aging process.
Forget the steaks (which is hard to do since they’re unforgettable and fabulous): It’s also one of the great Italian restaurants anywhere, with a pedigree as impeccable as its beef, springing as it does from the souls of Batali and Bastianich. Thus, this kitchen also dazzles with everything from house-cured salumi such as coppa, lardo and lonza, as well as a variety of pastas as diverse as ricotta and egg ravioli to a black fettucine with crab, jalapeños and shallots. Put these together with the purest Pennsylvania free-range veal from Marshal Farms and Heritage Foods pork, and you have a steakhouse of uncommon sophistication.
About the only thing the restaurant doesn’t have going for it is a past. Aficionados of prime can be suckers for a little history with their hunks o’beef. No mafia kingpin has ever been shot there. Carnevino is a mere tyke compared to venerable New York steak stores like Peter Luger (established in 1887) or Keens (1885).
Batali and Bastianich hatched the idea for this temple of prime in 2007 after their successes with B & B Ristorante and Otto in The Venetian. “I love American beef and Italian wine, and I wanted to celebrate them both within the recognizable framework of a steakhouse,” says Molto Mario. “The sourcing of the beef and the aging of it to create a specific and intensely American flavor came through working with genius chef Zach Allen and our old pal Adam [Perry Lang].”
Meat: An Art Form
The process of creating the perfect steak is itself an art form. “Steaks are like wine,” Lang says. “Each piece of beef develops in its own way and at its own pace.” Allen, who makes daily trips to the facility to personally monitor each side of beef’s progress, says that the state of aged, concentrated, condensed perfection he looks for in his riserva steaks is that 240-day mark. “It’s their sweet spot,” he says, “the time when they develop the most flavor and tenderness without the tissue actually breaking down and the meat collapsing on itself.”
The riservas taste like beef from another planet and can be intense for the more casual meat eaters. “It’s beef as ham” is how one connoisseur put it. The color is deep, mahogany red, the texture almost cured pork-like, the taste like meat infused with some vague, subtle, gamy, blue-cheese essence, with foie gras undertones. You know you’re eating beef, but it’s beef that has transcended its humble roots and metamorphosed into something ethereal—earthy, silky and soft—with an umami depth charge that lasts a full five minutes after you’ve swallowed a morsel. By way of comparison, the 60-day, bone-in, New York strip is everything you’d want a regular steak to be: beefy, rich, marbled, tangy and with just a tad of roasted, mineral funk that puts to shame most aged beef in other steakhouses.
The intensity of the meat has won Brisson over. “I trained to go into fine dining,” she says. “But now, thanks to Adam and Mario, my life is handling giant slabs of meat. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Of course, with celebrity beef and celebrity chefs comes no shortage of celebrity customers. An A-list clientele flock here for their Vegas steak fix including Conan O’Brien, Jimmie Johnson, John Cusack, Nomar Garciaparra (and wife Mia Hamm) and both Wilson Brothers. Top comic (and Vegas resident) Carrot Top considers it his “prime place to hang out with friends,” and plastic surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Roth—who works with Top Rank Boxing and Manny Pacquiao— wouldn’t think of going anywhere else for his spaghetti ai frutti di mare, or when he has “a business dinner with associates who want great steaks and others who are very demanding when it comes to genuine Italian food.”
It’s that punching combination that knocks out the competition. New York may still have the greatest concentration of boffo beef palaces on earth, but Las Vegas is a serious contender these days, and because of meat geniuses like Batali, Lang and Allen, and a petite powerhouse of a chef, this is where the champ resides.