In 2007, Mario Batali opened not one, but two restaurants in Forbes Travel Guide Four-Star The Venetian Las Vegas — B&B Ristorante, a Forbes Travel Guide Recommended restaurant, and Otto Enoteca Pizzeria.
That was the height of the celebrity chef era in Las Vegas, a period ushered in by big-name culinary talents like Joël Robuchon, Emeril Lagasse and Wolfgang Puck. Since then, the roster has been amplified up and down the city’s famous boulevard with additions like Giada De Laurentiis and Gordon Ramsay. And there is no end in sight.
Batali recently returned to his Venetian locations to celebrate the 10th anniversary with a special dinner party — and to kick off month-long special menus at each restaurant, showcasing classic dishes such as Mint Love Letters with Merguez sausage, short rib al Barolo with Anson Mills polenta and horseradish at B&B; and calzone with ricotta and Prosciutto di Parma and grilled radicchio with smoked mozzarella and aceto cavedone at Otto.
“These dishes are the distillation of our philosophy on Italian food: cook using local —and sometimes unpredictable — ingredients with the spirit of the Italian peninsula,” Batali says. “This is all in service of creating an exciting but familiar and delicious bite each and every time.”
At the anniversary party, Forbes Travel Guide sat down with the international food impresario to reflect on a decade in the desert.
What was the Las Vegas dining scene like when you opened these restaurants?
Keep in mind, guys like Wolfgang Puck have been here quite some time. They had already redefined it. Ten years ago, there was still the $2.99 prime rib buffet. There was still the “shovel them in, shovel them out.”
In the last 10 years — not because we got here, we’ve just been participants — the Vegas customer has come to expect international, super high-quality, super great value across the board. All of the talent, from Robuchon, [Pierre] Gagnaire and [Alain] Ducasse to the American talent, [is good].
I was at lunch today at Yardbird; it was fantastic. José Andrés and Lagasse continue to kick butt all over town. It’s an amazing place where you can go down a five-mile strip and eat all over the world.
Who is not here in Las Vegas that you want to see from your group of chef friends?
[The Chew host and chef] Michael Symon. And I’d love to have Nancy Silverton, my partner in the Osteria and Pizzeria Mozza in Los Angeles.
When is Las Vegas getting a Mozza?
We’re trying to figure it out. We’re working on an Eataly [coming to the new Park MGM, formerly Monte Carlo] right now, so we’re going to see how that feels and smells.
This has been an incredible wave of celebrity chef-dom. What keeps you motivated?
I would say the fact that the seasons continue to change every year. Asparagus and morel started about two weeks ago and they will lead the way to strawberries, and then summer squash, and then, eventually, tomatoes and porcini mushrooms, and then acorn squash and into the fall.
It’s just the circuitous pattern of the magnificent produce and the fact that we’ve been able to find stuff, and farmers, and purveyors, and foragers out here that bring me new things to paint with virtually every day that makes me excited. It’s truly still for me about cooking food and putting it on a plate.
You have a tremendous commitment to local. What is it about Vegas that’s unique for you when you go out in the field? What do you look for?
I look for things you can’t get anywhere else. We have a relationship with the University of Nevada where we grow some stone fruit. The apricots that you have here [are interesting].
I grew up in Washington state, where apricots were something special. The ones that we have here speak to me [about this place]: the flavor of the wind, the smell of the intermittent, [infrequent] rain. It captures the way that this geography tells me its song should be sung.
Where’s your next trip?
Next weekend we’re going to the Caribbean. I need to take my wife to a beach where we just sit there and read books and there’s nobody cool around. No hipsters. No movie stars. It’s just us reading and hanging.
What’s your favorite new culinary trend?
People cooking at home. I think the message for me is, “Yeah, come to my restaurants,” but I want people to really understand that the worst decision is fast food. Get away from mechanized food. I think the satisfaction you can get from creating something from your own hands is going to transcend almost everything else.