By Amanda McDougall
Las Vegas: Longitude 36° 5' N, latitude 115° 10' W – smack dab in the middle of the Nevada desert.
A seaside port bringing in fresh caught fish? None.
A vibrant farmer’s market to shop for seasonal produce? Not really.
Acres of farmland and farmers eager to grow products? Kind of.
Dozens of high-end restaurants within a two mile radius of each other? Definitely.
An enormous and growing demand for top-of-the-line products? Oh, yea.
The geography of Vegas is a quandary for the Vegas chefs who seek and require the best products in the market. But we met a handful of chefs who are working to change that. They are reaching out to the few farmers in the area, and building relationships with the agriculture program at the University of Nevada to spark what they hope will turn into a full-blown movement for the Vegas culinary scene.
Pastry Chef Andrea Sans’ Cheesecake with Santa Monica Farmer's Market Blueberries
Bradley Ogden was one of the first restaurants in Vegas that pushed the market-driven menu concept in Vegas. Five and a half years later – with a battery of Bradley Ogden alum now leading their own kitchens – “farm fresh” is taking roots in this desert city. We asked Vegas chefs about the trends they are seeing in their local culinary community; the most common response was an increasing awareness and commitment to using seasonal products. In Gerald Chin’s words: “When I was at Bradley, we brought the market cuisine here. There weren’t all the organic [products] – now everyone is using the highest quality ingredients, and the hotels can afford it.”
Seasonality seems somewhat antithetical in Vegas – a town where tourism is booming all but three months of the year; seasons range from hot to hotter; and tourists spend nearly all their time in air-conditioned casinos, malls, or resorts. Nonetheless, chefs are pushing the issue, even if the majority of their tourist/high-roller/local customers aren’t demanding it yet.
The Santa Monica Farmers Market in Los Angeles is still the “closest” (i.e. 270 miles) large-scale market and restaurants, even as big as Tao, get market updates from vendors like L.A. Specialty. Other restaurants are hiring small scale purveyors to drive to and from Santa Monica once or twice a week to get the seasonal products into their kitchens. Pastry Chef Andrea Sans of Bradley Ogden gets deliveries of fresh California-grown berries and other products from a former Bradley cook who jumped to the supply side of the business.
Striving for even more local produce, chefs are also looking to northern Arizona and to the handful of farmers in Nevada. Zach Allen of Carnevino, B&B Ristorante, and Enoteca San Marco buys herbs and tomatoes from local producers, and has been connecting with farmers through Alex Strata of Alex. Tapping into the University of Nevada’s Agriculture Experiment Station (with a 1,000-acre multi-functional farm) is also a small gold mine for many chefs, including Allen, Joe Isidori of DJT, Rick Moonen and Brian Rae of RM Seafood to name just a few. The university’s farm is producing stonefruit, figs, asparagus, garlic, and myriad heritage and heirloom varieties of produce.
However, as Anthony Amoroso of Michael Mina points out, there are setbacks: “There are some [local products], but you'll find that you deplete the supply very quickly. They can't keep up with us.” Vegas is, after all, all about volume. We’ve heard the stories about chefs getting teams of cooks from their kitchens to get to the farm as early as possible to get the first pick of product, only to find another restaurant’s kitchen gang has beat them to it.
Allen is thoroughly positive about the progress he’s made with farmers and farms in the last 18 months since opening the three Batali/Bastianich enterprises. “Hopefully, we’re starting our own trend with starting to get local produce in Vegas. We’re trying to get people to show us what they can do here,” he states.
Seafood is another story all together for Vegas. Chefs can do a lot, but they can’t move oceans. Mike Minor of Border Grill and Rick Moonen of RM Seafood are leading the charge for sustainable seafood in Vegas by using only sustainable seafood on their menus and making a point to get the word out to chefs and guests alike. Besides seeking out only the best products and adhering to fish seasons, they are making sure that the next generation of Vegas cooks and chefs know at least a little something about the subject of sustainability. The two chefs are teaching sustainable seafood classes at the Vegas Le Cordon Bleu. On top of that, Minor puts Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch wallet guides on each place setting at the restaurant and often visits diners to tell them about the sustainable products they are eating.
Vegas may not be at the vanguard of the seasonal, local, and sustainable movement in the U.S., but the chefs are busting desert stereotypes and joining forces with each other and producers to bring more market products to their guests’ tables.