Vegas Aces – The Chefs Who Are Transforming Our Town

ELV note: The following article appears in this month’s edition of VEGAS magazine, and we can’t tell you what we’re prouder of: how great the chefs look, how good they sounded, and/or how much they’re accomplishing in our humble burg. Until we can figure out a way to link to the original article (and upload and better picture of all of them), continue below to read our interview with Daniel Krohmer (Other Mama), Howard Choi (Fish N Bowl), David Clawson (David Clawson), Daniel Ontiveros (Therapy), and Bradley Manchester (Glutton). Merci beaucoup to all of them, and to VEGAS for giving us such a plum (and worthwhile) assignment.

There is a revolution going on in Las Vegas. As revolutions go, it’s a quiet
one. But unlike most social upheavals, there is nary a bitter pill to swallow.
This revolution is chef-driven, but not by celebrity chefs. Its pioneers are
fiercely independent souls who have cut the cord and abandoned the safety net of the Strip to boldly go where precious few chefs have gone before: straight into the heart of the suburbs and Downtown Las Vegas. In the process, they’re redrawing neighborhoods around the Las Vegas Valley. When you ask these trailblazers why they made the bold, almost unprecedented move of opening a small, personal, chef-driven restaurant in the neighborhoods, their reasons are remarkably similar.

Howard Choi: I learned a lot from working seven years on the Strip, most notably with Rick Moonen at RM Seafood, and wanted people to enjoy good, Strip-quality dining and ingredients without having to drive down there for it. Until I worked [on the Strip], I had never really had the chance to work with really good chefs, but once I did, it really sparked my interest and gave me inspiration to open my own place.

Daniel Ontiveros: I wanted to show people they didn’t have to go to the
hotels to experience good quality product. There was a huge change I saw
coming when Glutton, Carson Kitchen, and Le Thai all opened Downtown.
I just wanted to be part of the boom and become part of the food community and help change the way Las Vegas eats.

Bradley Manchester: My whole background was running multiple
concepts in huge, busy hotel operations with large staffs [most recently
as executive chef at Green Valley Ranch and Red Rock Resort], so I was
ready for a change. I have lived in larger cities like Chicago and Houston
and fell in love with the whole dining concept where you could just walk
down the street and get really good things to eat. I knew Vegas was on the
cusp of that sort of revolution, and I really wanted to be a part of it. On the
Strip, every day you have tourists who come in and out, and you never see
the same people again. Here we have people who come in three, four times
a week and shake my hand and ask, “How’s it going?” I wanted to create
that feel of what other cities have in Las Vegas and wanted to bring that to
my restaurant.

Even the two chefs who hadn’t worked for one of Vegas’s mega-hotel-casinos knew that change was in the wind and wanted to be part of it.
David Clawson: I had been cooking in Vail, Colorado, for seven years at my
own restaurant and was semiretired. We would go out to eat in Henderson
two to three times a week and generally be very unhappy with the choices
and how we were spending our money. This went on for about a year before I decided to open my own place. From my time in Colorado, I could defnitely see that people were looking for quality products they weren’t getting here.
Daniel Krohmer: I had never worked on the Strip and never really had any interest in working on the Strip and serving tourists—not that I have anything against tourists, but I wanted to get to know my customers, learn their faces, and teach them about new products, fish, and seafood, and get them to try something new, and get them to know me. That’s one of the reasons we have an open kitchen.

It sounds like all of you were ready for a career change, but how
did you know there were customers out there ready to make the
move away from brand-name restaurants to something smaller and
more personal?

 Krohmer: I serve a lot of people who work on the Strip—people who
know good food and want it in a nonpretentious environment. They want
to be able to relax, kick back, and enjoy themselves. Folks who work for
Robuchon and other Michelin-starred restaurants, who know all the details
of great dining, come to my restaurant but don’t need all the rhetoric in
order to have a good time.

Clawson: I knew [from my Colorado restaurant] they didn’t want to pay $60
for composed plates, and that really drove my small-plate concept. With that,
I could still use quality products and charge under $20 per plate for my food.
By reducing the portion, I could afford to sell the plates for less. My recipes
and plates were ones that had been signature dishes in other places I had
worked, and I quickly found that people loved them here as well.

Manchester: From the outset, we decided to cook good raw materials
and put our spin and creativity on them, and so far it’s been well-received.
Downtown is starting a new revolution in dining out in Las Vegas, and for us
it’s all about doing the food we want to do.

Are customers more sophisticated now than they were five years ago?

Choi: Yes. Everyone’s using a smartphone, which makes it easier to locate
new restaurants and good food. Seventy-fve percent of my customers are
under 40 years old; they’re younger families with one or two children. With
so many other sushi restaurants, you don’t taste any rice, you don’t taste any
fsh. We want to bring out the favor of the main ingredient. People right now
are getting used to it, and I’m hoping to teach them.

Krohmer: I think we’re blessed here. Unlike Salt Lake City or some other
mid-size city, we can totally piggyback on the stuff that’s coming in to the
Strip. All the great lobsters and oysters and caviar that are brought in by
these quality boutique companies that are on their way to the Strip—I can
call them and say, “Hey, on your way there, can I get 10 pounds of your matsutake
mushroom?” People still look at my [oyster] bar and say, “Oysters in
the desert? That just sounds weird,” and I say to them, “It’s 2015—this stuff
isn’t coming here by horse and carriage.”

Ontiveros: It was nerve-racking to leave the Strip and come downtown.
When we looked there, we saw lots of pizza and burgers, and the fact that
we’ve added things like steak tartare, pig ears, and braised oxtail to the
menu shows we’re trying to educate diners. I just had a group of girls come
in and try the pig ears, and now they come back to the restaurant every week
just for the pig ears, something they never thought they’d love.

Clawson: A lot of my customers are professionals on the Strip—hotel
executives and people associated with the hospitality industry. From salt to
pepper to soda, I try to bring the top-of-the-line products to my customers
to impress them, and in a lot of cases they haven’t had them before, so their
expectations have been exceeded—from their usual Diet Pepsi, or better sea
salt than they’re used to.

What stops Vegas from having more chef-driven restaurants like yours?

Choi: I’ve been here 13 years, and the sad fact is many people in Vegas are
still looking for a lot of food for a very little amount of money. The other side
of that is that people think that if your ingredients are off the Strip, they must
be cheap or not any good. It’s up to us to show the customers that the food
can be just as good and the experience of eating in a chef-owned restaurant
even better.

Krohmer: Right now I have slices on my hands, I’m starting to get arthritis,
I have back pains, I have all kinds of issues at 35 years old, but I know I have
an expiration date. I’m not trying to get rich from this restaurant. I want to
make a salary hopefully comparable to what I might be making with a Strip
job. I want to provide jobs for my friends. I want to listen to the music I want
to listen to when I work. I want to close if it’s my girlfriend’s birthday, and if
my mom’s in town, I want to be able to leave early.

What needs to happen for Vegas to continue to evolve as a food town?

Ontiveros: In many ways, it’s already happening. We’re coming together as
a community of chefs, supporting each other and making Las Vegas a much
better place to go out to eat.

Clawson: Now people can go to a smaller restaurant where they can look
and see the chef standing there at the stove and giving that personal touch to
the plates… and really experience a chef-driven restaurant.

Choi: I just want to show my food to the people and see how they enjoy
my food. When I see them finish their plates, then I see that they’re happy and I am happy.

1 thought on “Vegas Aces – The Chefs Who Are Transforming Our Town

Comments are closed.