The 4,004-room ARIA Resort & Casino has more celebrity chef restaurants than most U.S. cities—in its lobby. Just off reception, you have four: Julian Serrano, Todd English P.U.B., barMASA by Chef Masa Takayama, and Sage by Iron Chef winner Shawn McClain. Upstairs, there’s Jean Georges Steakhouse and AMERICAN FISH by Michael Mina.
That’s a special kind of dinearound destination with six star chefs in one building. And there’s a bunch more at the rest of MGM Resorts, which combined provide over 40,000 guestrooms and three million sf of meeting space. For example, there’s Joël Robuchon Restaurant at MGM Grand and Alain Ducasse’s miX at the top of Mandalay Bay. Those two chefs are #1 and #2 in terms of the most Michelin stars awarded over a career.
I’m visiting all of the above during a pre-IMEX America trip in October, but surprisingly the biggest thrill isn’t the food. It’s meeting the chefs themselves and learning everything from leadership training to defining excellence in any field. Planners can easily create the same experience for their VIP groups with one phone call to MGM Resorts.
“I believe that chefs are the rock stars of the meeting industry, and they are true partners with us,” says Mike Dominguez, senior vp of corporate sales at MGM Resorts. “With our food and beverage experience, we’re sharing with companies the cachet of these amazing chefs. The quality of the food is kind of a given. We’re trying to promote to the industry the breadth and diversity that we offer, and I don’t think there’s any other company that can match it.”
THE ROI OF TAPAS
Julian Serrano at ARIA seats semi-private groups up to 100 diners, with a menu well regarded for its paella and seafood that Spanish visitors in online reviews say is as good as any in Barcelona. Chef Serrano has hosted events for groups from 10-500 for cooking classes/demos and Q&A sessions at his restaurant, Bellagio’s Tuscany Kitchen and MGM ballrooms.
“People ask all kinds of things, like how to run a restaurant, how to make great paella and my philosophy of food,” he says.
So I ask him about his philosophy of food.
“You need to smell, think and feel about food as much as you taste it,” he explains, rubbing his fingers together under his nose.
Then I ask Serrano what elevates a chef to “celebrity chef.”
“You have to learn how to trust people,” he answers quickly. “You have to learn how to find and see people who are smart enough and have the ability to work well when you’re not in the kitchen. The food is only part of the equation.”
That struck a note because a star chef is a great business mind above all else, so an event with them in person is a compelling and engaging way to learn about everything from branding to HR. The parallels between good paella and good management skills suddenly seem clear. Then I mentioned how tapas are well suited for groups because of the variety.
“Ah, tapas are the best for big parties,” he exclaims, his eyes lighting up. “Everyone can share, and the moment everyone gets into that rhythm it’s fantastic. Because you’re not just sharing the food, you’re sharing the conversation. What you’re doing is creating an energy.”
It’s 11 a.m. and Chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten, one of the world’s top 10 chefs, is showing us his Jean Georges Steakhouse and two gorgeous private dining rooms for 16/20 pax. We’re scheduled to just swing through the kitchen for a tour but Vongerichten insists we must be hungry. He starts whipping up some Japanese Wagyu, “Angus 300” hybrid Japanese/Australian Wagyu from Brisbane, and some prime U.S. beef wet-aged for two weeks and dry for three. The extra large kitchen hosts events like these for up to 50.
Having always thought Japanese Wagyu a little overly tender, the slightly firmer Aussie hybrid is by far the best steak I’ve ever tasted. And I don’t know what goes in his miso mustard and scotch bonnet hot sauces, but the big name food writers in our group couldn’t stop smiling.
Vongerichten tells me, “Here at ARIA we have a little more fun with food, kind of a ‘Best Of’ experience, serving the freshest ingredients and best meats with an Asian influence.” That day, the 6-oz. Japanese Wagyu from Kagoshima was priced at $180, so this is not an inexpensive event but it’s certainly one of the most memorable.
Check with MGM to find out when Chef V is in town. He also helms Prime Steakhouse nearby at Bellagio, where you should try to get a seat by the tall windows framing the hotel’s famous fountain show. And definitely order the seafood platter.
NEW AMERICAN SEAFOOD
Next door to Jean-Georges, the wood burning stoves at AMERICAN FISH by Michael Mina are blazing, open for view across the entire back wall. Chef Mina has placed a table for 24 parallel to that wall for a taste of his Mediterannean branzino baked in sea salt, mustard-marinated black cod and Hudson Valley foie gras. Mina only uses wood to grill and smoke fish, and he’s considered one of the world’s top seafood chefs.
Not at the same level of the food writers I’m with, I ask Mina my stock question, “So what’s your philosophy of food?”
“I want to taste all of the ingredients but you need to be careful,” he says. “Too much or too little ruins everything, so I believe in balance above all else.”
In September, Mina launched his new Cook Taste Eat website. He says, “It gives info in bite size pieces, and there’s nothing else anywhere like it in terms of the wealth of information and sophistication.”
CAVIAR & TORO
Chef Masa Takayama operates the Michelin 3-star MASA in New York and barMASA at ARIA—the hotel’s most striking restaurant. We’re seated around one of his teppanyaki tables, which together host semi-private events for about 40. While Masa is chopping steak, he starts us off with a caviar/toro app served in hi-ball glasses with a cup of artisanal sake.
Watching a master chef prepare lunch in front of you is a decided treat. Afterward while talking alone, I say, “Chef Masa, can you tell me please about your philosophy of food.”
“I love the simple stuff,” he says. “Simple grill, simple sauce and the best ingredients.”
Apparently, that’s about it. So I ask my other question, “What is it that makes a celebrity chef a celebrity?”
“Sensibility,” says Masa. “People have to have a sensibility about how to make connections. I can teach someone how to make 10 dishes, but if they don’t have the right sensibility, they’re only going to know how to make 10 dishes.”
“Can you provide an example?” I ask.
“I see the earth and a beautiful river, and there’s a flower bud just breaking the surface of the snow,” he says. “So that gives me an idea about a radish and a piece of triggerfish.”
I tell him, “I feel like I’ve just been given a lesson in Zen.”
Masa smiles. Waving his hand at the room, he says, “This is about more than chopping steak and chopping vegetables.”