Hotel Chef Award: Joe Isidori
formerly of DJT at Trump | Las Vegas
Joe Isidori comes from a long line of chefs – in a sense, he was born a chef. Throughout his childhood and adolescence he trained in his father’s kitchens, and at 21 he was awarded a scholarship to attend The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Isidori was snatched up by the Nemo Restaurant Group in Miami Beach, Florida upon graduation and served as their chef de cuisine. But it wasn’t too long before his talents were noticed by real estate mega-millionaire Donald Trump.
At the age of 25, Isidori was named the corporate executive chef of Trump Golf Management and charged with creating and launching the dining concepts of the latest of Trump’s business enterprise, The Trump National Golf Clubs in Bedminster, NJ, Westchester, NY and The Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach. Additionally, Isidori served as Mr. Trump’s personal chef in addition to chef for the Trump family.
After successfully launching the Golf property concepts, in 2006 Isidori was promoted to vice president of food and beverage and executive chef of the exclusive Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, overseeing three dining rooms and still managing Trump family functions as well as several Palm Beach society events. In 2007, Isidori was promoted again to oversee the Trump Hotel Collection’s dining concepts; he was the lead in both the Chicago and Las Vegas projects. Additionally, he remained the executive chef of the Las Vegas property’s flagship restaurant, DJT, including the poolside H2[eau] café, banqueting, and in-suite dining for the 1,200-plus rooms.
Since severing ties with Trump, Isadori has moved back to the East Coast and is pursuing future projects in the New York area.
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StarChefs: At the Trump Hotel in Las Vegas, you were “Chef and B.” Can you explain this role, and how it differs from a chef position, and a F&B director position?
Joe Isidori: With Chef and B you think of a chef who is in touch with everything. It’s not just an 8-ounce hamburger patty sent up to a room, it’s fresh ground sirloin on a brioche bun; at the pool, a raw bar, sushi, salads; the lobby bar has small plates, just smaller versions of our signature dishes; the bar’s cocktails made with fresh fruit. The only way you get consistency is with that Chef and B influence.
Usually executive chefs come into a kitchen that’s already built and designed. For me, I came in and evaluated the demographics in the marketplace and created a plan. The design of the plan always starts with the back of the house – to develop the engine, which is the kitchen. And then comes the front of the house.
It’s about the integrity and quality of detail, not about a person in an office, pushing papers and crunching numbers. It’s chef-driven.
The DJT experience had to be loud and clear in banquet, in-suite dining, at the pool and in the lobby. The restaurant was meant to be the heart and nucleus. At any spot you consume something here, it’s my responsibly. The term “hotel chef” goes bye-bye with that.
SC: What has been the greatest challenge?
JI: The most front of mind for me is culture – creating a culture. Whether you’re serving strip or foie gras torchon, it doesn’t matter if you don’t have culture in your staff. It’s high maintenance, constant upkeep. Making sure people are motivated, knowledgeable, and friendly. It’s even down to how they speak. That’s every day. It’s not just about great food. It’s the attitude of the staff that is the most high maintenance – but not a challenge.
Not many people can carry out that maintenance. I look at myself as a coach not a chef. I make their talent shine. At the the end of the day it’s 90 percent passion and attitude and 10 percent skills. That has been keeping my sharp, maintaining the culture.
SC: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
JI: What kind of cooking techniques are you currently using in the kitchen? I am looking for a mix of fundamentals and avant garde cooking techniques, and a basic understanding/approach of how certain techniques affect certain proteins. I also like to ask: What is your favorite way to prepare wild ramps when in season?
SC: How would you describe your cuisine?
JI: Modern American with strong Southeast Asian profiles. I love the combination of sweet and sour.
SC: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool? Why?
JI: My Winston CVAP, and my Thermomix…..it is similar to a Vita-Prep, but does much more.
SC: What are your favorite cookbooks?
JI: The French Laundry Cookbook by Thomas Keller.
SC: Where do you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
JI: The Mediterranean region because of my love for seafood.
SC: What are your favorite restaurants?
JI: Recently I had a great meal at Fatty Crab in New York City. The watermelon and the pork belly was great! I also love Blue Ribbon’s steak tartar.
SC: Which person in history would you most like to cook for you?
SC: You’ve worked in a number of hotel settings, and were involved in Las Vegas from the get-go. What would you do differently?
JI: Jean-Georges Vongerichten—I enjoy the flavor profiles of his food immensely.
JI: …I’d build a bigger room service kitchen. The importance of that operation always goes to the way side. It‘s an 800 pound gorilla. I would build a space that is more comfortable to work in. It’s all about staging, and it takes a lot of space. [In Vegas we had] 240 room service carts. Where do you set that up? There are fire code issues that restrict where you can put things. A challenge would be to rebuild room service kitchens. You have to transfer efficiencies of a regular kitchen to a room service kitchen. I would do that to the extreme next time.
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