Features Interview
Fast Facts

A New Breed of Hybrid Executive Chefs and Food & Beverage Directors:
Joe Isidori on Being “The Chef and B” of the New Trump International Hotel and Tower in Las Vegas

by Amanda McDougall
April 2008

Chef Joe Isidori of DJT Trump on StarChefs.com

Chef and B Joe Isidori

It was opening week at the sparkling new Trump International Hotel and Tower in Las Vegas. Nineteen months earlier the parcel of land was nothing more than a bit of Nevada desert; now stands a golden 64-story tower with 1200 plus rooms, two restaurants, a bar, in-suite dining, and banqueting services. Joe Isidori was there from the start. As “Chef and B” he played the key role in seeing the project through from design to construction and sand to tower. Now with the property up and running, the hotel guests and curious looky-loos strolling in, and the flagship restaurant DJT working out its kinks with a soft opening, Isidori is poised for the next phase of his Chef and B stewardship.

We stole a few minutes of Isidori’s time to ask him about the near billion dollar project and his role as Chef and B.

Amanda McDougall: I’ve been hearing a lot about a new hybrid position popping up in the industry. What’s your official title?
Joe Isidori: My official title is the Vice President of Food and Beverage and Executive Chef. The nickname is Chef and B.

AM: Your first week. How is it going?
JI: It’s going. The team has beautiful energy. I think we have the most talented team in Vegas as far as the kitchen goes. We’ve been open for three days and word on the street is that we’re the best breakfast in town. We’re not even open for dinner yet! We’re going to be the best in town.

AM: How long have you been with the Trump organization?
JI: I’ve been with Trump for over five years, starting with Trump Golf Management. I was responsible for all the Trump Golf Properties. I’ve been involved with five different openings. My first title was Corporate Executive Chef for Trump Golf Management.

AM: How long have you been involved with this Vegas project?
JI: 19 months. March 28th was 19 months. The anticipated opening was July of this year, so we’re actually early. We figured it would take me two years.

This isn’t the usual project. This one Mr. Trump wanted it to be my baby – my reward for doing stuff for him over the years. I came out here when it was gravel. Literally a patch of dirt and gravel. So, okay we’re going to build a building and then build a restaurant. It took longer than most projects because it was literally dirt at the start. From there I recruited architects, interior designers, brought in the kitchen equipment.... That’s what I do best. I can turn dirt into this. Build something up from the foundation. I have touched every square inch of this place.

AM: Tell me about your role here as Chef and B.
JI: 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.

I’m the person who sets it all up. The beauty is that I didn’t pass it on to anyone. I hired the F&B director, and I also hired a very talented chef de cuisine. This is a chef-driven operation. This isn’t a triple-Windsor-knot-F&B director-run operation. 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 “B” part is different. You wake up every day and find you have to balance yourself in an extreme manner. It’s not about just dinner, or breakfast. It’s about dealing with a guest who’s unhappy with room service. We’re a luxury property and you have to see that every aspect of the place is handled the same way, at the same level.

The DJT experience has to be loud and clear in banquet, in-suite dining, at the pool and in the lobby. The restaurant the will 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. 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.

AM: What’s unique about The Chef and B position?
JI: What a lot of chefs lack is the business sense. Some get overwhelmed by numbers. The key is to hire people to do this for you. Get the F&B person who is a rock and the chef de cuisine who is a rock. It can be a double edged sword because you need to balance wanting the best – the best produce, the best meat, the best wine – with business.

At the end of the day, my boss is Donald Trump. Financials must be proper and the food must be great; that’s his ideal for what makes it work. I’ve been by his side for five years. When I first started I was a chef, two years later I was a Chef and B. I learned how to make it in his world. It’s a New York mentality and it’s sink or swim. So far, I’ve been swimming.

AM: 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.

AM: And the greatest reward?
JI: The reward is how my staff has embraced everything and reacting to what we do here. Let me show you…

[Isidori calls over a young man, Jacob Wise, who’s bussing tables]

How do you feel about the team culture here?

JW: It’s awesome coming from an athletic perspective. It’s a team, unite as one, brotherhood. The way that Chef Joe here brought us together… it’s awesome.
JI: This man had no 5-star experience. I saw that he was a team player and all we had to do was motivate him. Now, he’s one of my best food runners.

AM: There’s always something unexpected that happens with huge projects like this one. What’s the big thing that happened here?
JI: That one thing. There are always construction issues. It’s no ones fault, it’s just misses. It could be a little measurement that’s off, something doesn’t align. Or like plugging the toaster into the wrong outlet! That happened. The fire marshal comes in and says, “no, that’s not supposed to be there.” We were shut down for a week; now we’re a week behind. These projects aren’t about someone handing me something and saying build this. There are a lot of moving parts and it’s always the littlest thing that bites you in the ass – oh my god, the toaster!!

AM: What would you do differently?
JI: I’m pretty comfortable with everything we’ve done.

[Long pause.]

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. We have 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.

AM: How many hours a week do you typically work?
JI: It depends. It’s always six days a week, and a minimum of 12 hours a day. 72 hours a week if I’m really organized. My passion and my drive keep me here longer. I like to go into the kitchen and play – find a corner and create new flavors and dishes. My social life is my professional life. I don’t gamble or do any of the Las Vegas scene. I lose my money at the restaurants. It’s a constant with me. But I get to cook everyday. I make sure of it. If I’m here at work, I’m in the kitchen at every dinner service. I get 9am to 5pm for the operational job, then 5 is pre-shift, 6 the doors open, and I’m in kitchen until 9, in bed by midnight, and back here at 8am. When I leave at night, I always tell the staff, “I’ll meet you in the kitchen for dinner.”

AM: What’s next for you?
JI: My base is Las Vegas because DJT is my signature restaurant. I will consult with new projects. I will guide them to fit to the standards that I set; consult; aid and guide them through the trial and errors that we’ve learned in building two new properties, Chicago and Vegas. Help with compliance with the brand standards, and to make sure that Mr. Trump is comfortable with the person in charge.

With being his personal chef – which I will always be – it’s his name on the restaurant. And I have to be here. Why would his personal chef not be in the kitchen of the restaurant with his name on it?

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Trump Las Vegas Fast Facts:

  • 64 floors and 1282 rooms (it’s the second largest residential building in Vegas)
  • Cost to build: $750 million
  • Flagship restaurant DJT : 125 seats, 50 in the breakfast room, the rest in the dinner room
  • Anticipated average covers: 150
  • Anticipated average check: $145-155
  • Cuisine of DJT: modern American with influence of Asian and Mediterranean flavors
  • In the kitchen during breakfast, lunch, and dinner service: a dozen cooks and chefs
  • Other Restaurants in Hotel: H2[eau] to open in May (poolside; only for hotel guests)
  • Cuisine of H2[eau]: Neo-Japanese and Mediterranean inspired cuisine (not Japanese and Mediterranean fused). Like hamachi sashimi with ginger foam or a falafel pita. No hot kitchen. Sushi, salad, pitas, panini, raw bar.

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   Published: April 2008