Spanish-born chef Julian Serrano’s thick accent alerts you to his Iberian origins. But Serrano has much more to offer than just his tapas joint at ARIA Resort & Casino. There’s even more to the two-time James Beard Award winner than his Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star French restaurant, Picasso, in Bellagio. For starters, there’s Lago, Serrano’s white-hot, April-opened Italian spot on the Bellagio lakeside. There’s also an Italian-Spanish concept in the works that the chef is itching to talk about. In between all of that, the Las Vegas culinary star discusses the proper order for dining and his trouble with tomatoes. Didn’t we say the man had a lot to offer?
Lago has not been open very long in Bellagio. How has the response been thus far?
The customers are responding quite well. The employee response is fantastic.
Also in Bellagio, Picasso serves predominantly French cuisine. And Julian Serrano Tapas in ARIA is pretty much an all-Spanish extravaganza. How do you characterize the cuisine at Lago?
It’s Italian cooking. Cicchetti is more or less “tapas” in Italian. But I didn’t want to do a cicchetti [restaurant], because cicchetti are focused [just] in the [Venice] area, and that is why we decided to not do it. But the food is Italian.
What is your personal background and experience with Italian cuisine?
I am a chef, first. I’ve been a chef for more than 40 years. I consider myself an international chef; in the past 35 years, I’ve focused very much on French food. And, more or less, I have a great knowledge of Spanish food. I’ve traveled to Italy, and when they asked me to do a restaurant, I came up with the idea to do Italian. Every property that has 13 or 14 restaurants, one of them has to be Italian. Italian ingredients are very similar to Spanish. In Spain, we don’t eat a lot of pasta; in Italy, we eat a lot of pasta, but both [cuisines] are based on oil, tomatoes, garlic and onion.
Four of my favorite things.
Mine, too. And can you believe I have allergies to those last three?
No! Chef, you’re breaking my heart.
Yeah, I cannot eat onion. I cannot eat garlic. I cannot eat raw tomatoes. I think I ate too much of those things. Now my stomach cannot take it.
Using those very ingredients, your paella is very much a signature dish at Julian Serrano. Where do we see your signature at Lago?
I wanted to introduce America to crudo, raw fish. The Japanese eat sashimi or sushi, but I can’t handle the soy sauce anymore. It’s too salty for me. In Europe and in Italy, we eat a lot of raw fish. The difference between the Japanese and the European preparation is that we cure the fish with citrus and olive oil. For me, it’s healthier and it tastes better because you really taste the fish. It’s something that I wanted to introduce in Lago.
How does Lago’s location right on Lake Bellagio affect the restaurant’s design?
We changed the design twice. Next year we will change the design [again]. Bellagio is [nearly] 17 years old. We had to be sensitive not to do something totally crazy or out of place, because Bellagio is a beautiful, classic hotel. Which is why we were thinking to do something new, modern, fresh and clean. Personally, I think that we scored well in these things.
Can you talk a little bit about the choice to do Italian in a small-plates format?
The people, that’s what they want. They want to taste different things, not to have one dish. The women [visiting Las Vegas], they all dress the same: high heels, very tight skirts. If they go to a restaurant and have this big plate of pasta [put in front of them], they’ll have probably two bites and then sit around. I think the majority of the clientele that come into Lago is between 25 and 50 years old. And I have feeling this is what they like to eat. They like to share; they like to order three or four different items. They like to order four or five different kinds of wine. It’s fun to eat like that, and this is what I wanted to achieve in Lago. We also have big portions, main courses. But I think this is the way to go these days, to eat smaller portions and share.
Is there a suggested order for dining at Lago?
Crudo in the beginning. After that, you go with salad, if you want it. Then I will jump into pasta or risotto. Then fish. Then meat.
You have some classic regional Italian dishes on the menu, such as the vitello tonnato — veal with tuna sauce — a chilled surf-and-turf dish I’m willing to bet most Americans have never tried. How did you approach these challenging dishes at Lago?
I want to share with my customers a little bit of everything — new ways, the old ways. In Italy, [vitello tonnato] is extremely popular. Here in America, you don’t see it on the menu very much. I wanted to put things like that on the menu so you can feel this really is an Italian restaurant. We have the flavor of Italian food.
According to your team, you’re a fixture in the Picasso kitchen. How are you splitting your time now that you have Picasso, Julian Serrano Tapas and Lago?
I am like a machine. I enjoy it more with three restaurants than with two. I have had many opportunities to open restaurants in other [cities] and, either way, I say no because of the distance. I can be in Picasso now and, in six seconds, I can be in Lago. I’m a really controlling person. I have to know what’s going on. Going from one place to another, so far it’s working fantastic for me.
But you could have three restaurants in any city. Why triple-down on Las Vegas specifically?
Because MGM Resorts International is a great partner. People I like to work with, people I trust. Everything in life is about trust. The chairman of the company is a personal friend of mine. Like I said, I’ve had opportunities to do restaurants in many places before, but with people that I don’t even know, people who are just talking, people who don’t understand the business, people hungry for money. When I do something, like there has to be security with my partners. In this case, I am 100 percent secure with my partners. MGM supports me 100 percent and I support them 100 percent. It’s the reason I’m not interested in moving to other places.
When Julian Serrano opened in 2009, it did so as “Julian Serrano.” At some point down the road you added “Tapas” to the name. Why did you do that?
Well, I’m a little bit famous, but not world famous. If someone from Alabama walks into ARIA and sees “Julian Serrano,” this person is going to say, “Julian Serrano? What kind of restaurant is this?” They’ll not have any clue. When someone now walks into Julian Serrano Tapas, right away they know the restaurant is Spanish and serving tapas. I feel that’s important. Lago, the same thing. It’s very hard to [select] an Italian name that people recognize is Italian. It’s very important for people, when you walk in, to know right away, what kind of food you serving there.
How involved were you in Lago’s beverage program?
100 percent. I sat down with [property mixologist] Ricardo Murcia. I told Ricardo what I wanted. My idea was to use the cocktail like food, to treat the cocktail like the food — simple. You cook meat in your house, you put some garnish, correct? Potatoes, whatever. I wanted to do that with the cocktails. And we started talking and that’s why we have seven cocktails and each one of them has something to eat [with it]. Something married with something. A little more eclectic, a little different from everybody else.
I especially love the Negroni aged in a Spanish goat wineskin bota instead of, say, a barrel.
It’s a great idea, and [garnished with] the perfect chorizo and capers — it’s working really well. People really like it because they never see any [interesting] garnishes. The garnish is always the same: the fruit, the lemon, the lime, something like that. At [Vegas] Uncork’d, we did a Bloody Mary. Oh, my God, the garnish! The bacon, the celery, all the herbs they filled it with. I like to drink like that. To drink and have something small to eat.
Well, that’s the Spanish way, no? The original meaning of tapa: a cover, a little something on top of your drink.
Yes, exactly. It was one piece of something — one potato chip, one something. That was why they called it “tapas.”
If you were to add a fourth restaurant to your empire, what cuisine or what technique would you tackle next?
I want it to be combination of Italian and Spanish, between cicchetti and tapas. The best things on each menu. The best of Spanish — the tapas — and the best of Italian, I want to do a combination on one plate. Both cuisines are very popular. You have to do it someplace where the majority of the people know this kind of cooking. They need something else, and I’m working on that.
Can you give me a few examples of cuisine that would be a halfway between Spanish and Italian?
I can use the Serrano ham and I can use the Parma [ham]. I can use the cheeses. I can do pasta stuffed with Spanish flavors. Risottos and paellas.
Would you also open this fourth spot in Las Vegas?
I’m working on something, as a matter of fact, with MGM [Resorts International]. I cannot tell you right now where, but we’re working together and they want it to happen next year. At the moment, we’re not talking about this, but you will be the first one to know.