MGM Las Vegas All-Star Weekend #1: Chef Julian Serrano, ARIA Resort

MGM Las Vegas All Star Julian Serrano

We pulled a chair up for the 3rd annual Food & Wine All-Star Weekend over the last three days, hosted by MGM Resorts Las Vegas at ARIA, Bellagio, Mandalay Bay & MGM Grand. Through the rest of the month, we’re featuring a selection of restaurants available for group bookings, which combined together offer more top chef food than most cities. For an overview, visit our pre-event story.

I met chef Julian Serrano at his Spanish tapas restaurant inside the lobby of ARIA Resort & Casino Las Vegas. Serrano also operates the 5-diamond Picasso restaurant at Bellagio, another MGM Resort, two hotels down the Strip. Julian Serrano restaurant seats groups up to 100 diners comfortably, with a menu well regarded for its paella and seafood. Spanish visitors in online reviews say the paella is as good as any you’ll find in Barcelona. Make sure someone orders the scallops too.

Serrano has hosted private events for groups ranging from 10 to 500 pax for cooking classes, demos and Q&A sessions at his restaurant, Bellagio’s Tuscany Kitchen and many of MGM’s various 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.

“Food is like wine,” he explains. “A sommelier tastes fine wine and tells you about the new or old grapes and all of the different things in the earth. You have to build all these things into the wine to create something great. With food, things swim under the water and move around on the land…. I think about these places and how they affect the animals or plants. For example, you have venison. The small Fallow Deer in New Zealand eats a lot of apples so I include apples in the dish.”

Serrano rubs his fingers together and puts them under his nose. He says, “You have to smell, think and feel about food as much as you taste it.”

One thing that fascinates me about world class chefs is that quality that raises them above so many other excellent chefs and makes them a “celebrity.” I asked that question to a few of the chefs here during MGM’s All-Star Weekend, and I discovered there’s a certain ROI for groups visiting with these chefs who willingly share their management styles and philosophies.

“You have to learn how to trust people,” he says. “You have to learn how to find and see people who are smart enough and have ability to work well when you’re not in the kitchen. The food is only part of the equation.”

Then I raised the idea that tapas are well suited for large groups because there’s a lot of variety so you don’t have to invest in only a couple menu items.

“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.”

Serrano then sits up straight and stiff with a deadpan face.

“You know, you go to some restaurants and you’re like this, very serious,” he says. “No one is talking. It’s like, ‘Oh, look, there’s a fly on the wall.” Then he laughs, and relaxes again. “No way, I don’t want to run a restaurant like that.”

Serrano is one of those people who speaks with his hands. He’s animated, direct and wants to share his passion for food with you.

You’re coming for dinner, yes?” he asks.

Unfortunately, other dinners were booked that weekend. But I did go back later for the scallops at the crescent shaped bar. They were the best I’ve ever tried—just the right firmness, big, plump and crispy on the edges. You really want to try the scallops.

MGM Las Vegas All Star Julian Serrano