ark Andelbradt is the Executive Chef of Tao Las Vegas, the highest grossing restaurant in the country. Previous to his desert days at Tao, Andelbradt was searing fish and inoculating tomatoes with CO2 at Tru in Chicago and Morimoto in New York as chef de cuisine; before that he had spent time in the kitchens of Daniel and was executive chef at Compass. The leap to the massive-volume Tao and Vegas is a big one; we want to find out what makes this chef and Tao tick.
We catch Andelbradt on a Saturday afternoon – he has 15 minutes to spare, but not really. We scurry through Tao’s back stairwells, hallways, dry storage rooms, and prep kitchens to finally land in Andelbradt’s cramped galley-style office that he shares with the buyer. He hands us never-seen-outside-of-the-premises Cokes in aluminum twist-top bottles exclusively sold to Tao and what they use at The Beach (Tao’s rooftop mock beach/club – with a strict no glass policy). When you have buying power like Tao, companies are willing to do things for you. Andelbradt glances at his watch and looks askance at us. A battery of questions and answers ensues….We leave 40 minutes later – so much for the 15 minutes, but this is a man who puts out 1,200 covers a night. He has a way with time.
Antoinette Bruno: What does Tao mean?
Mark Andelbradt: Tao means “the path.” It’s actually pronounced “dao.” No one knows that you’re not supposed to pronounce the T and use a D instead. The public has already named it one way, so you have to roll with it.
AB: When did you join the Tao LV team?
MA: Last January. 17 months ago – 18 months at the end of this month.
AB: Pretty different from Morimoto in Philadelphia.
MA: It’s all volume. It’s doing high quality product and doing hundreds and hundreds of it a week. We have to sell 900 portions of Chilean sea bass a week.
AB: You serve Chilean sea bass – you know it’s overfished and predicted to be gone in a few years? How do you get it of your menu?
MA: The problem is that the public loves this thing. They love the fish because of its versatility.
AB: When there isn’t any more what will you do?
MA: We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. We’d have to look for a farm-raised option.
AB: What about using black cod instead?
MA: Black cod has a much lower yield. The Chilean sea bass has such a perfect balance of oil that it can be frozen and thawed well; black cod gets mushy and you lose parts of the fish. There’s a guy in Chile who delivers [Chilean sea bass] fresh and claims it’s sustainable. His references aren’t stellar, but that’s what he says….
AB: What is your most popular dish?
MA: Miso-Glazed Chilean Sea Bass – you don’t want to print that, do you?
AB: No, I want you to take it off your menu! We’ll have to discuss this more at another time. I read that in 2006 Tao did over $55 mill in business;, what did 2007 look like?
MA: The official published numbers were around $68 million. In banquet sales alone we did what Morimoto does in all his sales. Some people say it’s the night club, but it’s the banquet and restaurant that does $45 million. We’re a restaurant first and foremost. The original [Tao in NYC] doesn’t have a nightclub.
AB: How do you compare to Buddakan in Manhattan?
MA: The Buddakan in New York, if that menu were here, it wouldn’t be as successful. People want things less fussy [in Vegas]. They are a little bit daring, and they have the money, but it’s a huge, huge Midwest clientele here.
AB: But Chicago has progressive food – you have Alinea, Schwa, Avenues…
MA: Yes, but you have international clients going there. It’s not the local population supporting those restaurants. Those also fit into trendy restaurant neighborhoods.
Tim Graham was my intern at my second time around at Tru. His background is in food science and to his credit he probably can successfully pull off this molecular gastronomy more than the other guys. I don’t like xantham gum and that stuff. I like to play, but I want it to be real. I’m not about trying to stretch it – to make a piece of paper be sushi or put a spray of white truffle essence in my nose and eat a plain bowl of risotto. The influence of Ferran Adrià is great, but El Bulli is closed six months a year and he has outside [revenue] resources – that’s how he does it.
I’m not in this just to make food, I’m in it to make money. It’s a business.
AB: What are your goals for 2008?
MA: For 2008, it’s just to hold on. Business is down in Vegas – reduced revenues. We are up from 2007. There was a $15 to 20 million spread between 2006 and 2007; to hold level with that would be great; to gain would be phenomenal; to lose would not be good, but it wouldn’t be terrible… you never want to lose. This is serious business here.
AB: Is there any other city that could pull off another Tao like this one?
MA: You have to ask Rich Wolf or Marc Packer. I think Miami is on the drawing board – in South Beach. All I know is that it’s a historic landmark building, an old theater, which fits the big, grandiose, tall ceilings setting – like Vegas, but smaller. A lounge, club, and restaurant, but smaller.
AB: Do you plan to expand further in Las Vegas?
MA: Lavo is the next part of the expansion. That’s the only information that I’m privy to, so that can be public. We plan to be very well planted. We’re moving to a 10,000 square foot office space for marketing, planning, and the owners. We’re planting roots here.
AB: Who is your closest competitor?
MA: In Vegas? I don’t know. I would say ourselves. We beat ourselves up on a daily basis to operate better than the day before.
AB: How would you describe Tao’s core philosophy?
MA: Quality in food and service. We do a lot of things. As big as we are, we still care a lot about guest experience and perception. If people complain, we correct it. We try to reach out to locals, which includes L.A. We know their phone numbers, so when they call in we can identify them. In July and August Las Vegas is a ghost town, and if you don’t have locals to support your business it makes for a long 2 months. Quality of service and ingredients is the reason why we’re up in a year when everyone else is down.
AB: What do you think has made Tao so incredibly successful?
MA: Quality and consistency – consistency is huge. We use outside services that shop us. How long it should take for apps to hit the table; how many rings it takes to pick up phone; how long it takes to get a drink. The areas that don’t score will get attacked immediately.
AB: What is your food cost percent?
MA: Less than 27 percent.
AB: That’s great.
MA: It’s a challenge. We do inventory weekly and we bid out. We have our prime vendors, unless someone has a contract. The meat vendor doesn’t want to be locked down and neither do we. If we lock down at $20 a pound, and market is for $18.50 pound, and we’re doing hundreds of portions a week with a $1.50 difference – it adds up.
We have a buyer five days a week. He manages inventory: the sous chefs get [inventory counts] to him Monday mornings, and then he finishes the warehouse (dry storage and freezer). The butcher will turn in everything portioned and un-portioned. All numbers are processed by Thursday. The buyer creates a purchase order for probably 98 percent of everything that comes in the door.
AB: What do you think is key to being successful in the restaurant industry?
MA: It’s a daily challenge. The better you can manage the line cooks’ personalities, the better you can put the food out.
AB: How do you do that?
MA: You make them feel good about what they do well, and you don’t berate them for not doing something perfectly. I have a really great home life and I always think that if you’re happy at home you will be happy at work. The labor pool isn't necessarily the most skilled, and they don’t’ have my background, but they try hard. They make mistakes, but that is how people learn.
AB: What’s next for you?
MA: I plan to stay in Vegas for a while. Las Vegas has been very good to me… but I always have something up my sleeve.
How many covers do you do a night?
900 to 1,000 average; Friday night is 1,200 to 1,300. The max was 1,512 and that doesn’t include the seats at the sushi bar.
What is your average dinner check?
$70 with a glass of wine – just the restaurant.
What percent of revenue is from the restaurant, and what percent is from the club?
60% restaurant and banquet; 40% club.
How many employees are there at Tao?
Number of cooks in the kitchen during service?
19; 25 with the sushi bar; 31 kitchen staff with sous chefs.
What is your most profitable dish?
Bowl of white rice. All of our rice dishes do very well, but with the cost of rice lately that could change quickly.
3355 Las Vegas Blvd.
Las Vegas, NV