FROM VELVEETA TO VELOUTÉ A decade has passed since Wolfgang Puck stormed into Vegas to open a branch of Spago, his celebrated L.A. restaurant. It's easy to forget just how risky this move was. Back in the B.S. (Before Spago) era, casino meals were meant to appease guests, not impress them. Restaurants competed by lowering prices, not by serving better food. In the days of $1.49 buffets, creativity was confined to the waitstaff costumes.
Spago broke the Jell-O mold. Though the Caesars Palace outpost couldn't match the original's flair, its tables were jammed every night with high rollers, conventioneers, and curious tourists. Casino owners were baffled—and intrigued. Soon, food stars such as Charlie Trotter and Jean-Louis Palladin were being invited to the Strip. But the haute dining trend really took off in 1998, with the opening of the $1.6 billion Bellagio resort. Gamal Aziz, its food and beverage director, was given a bold mandate: coax five or six of the nation's top chefs to open at Bellagio. Despite Spago's success, the plan was far from foolproof. "There was no indication that a hotel with half a dozen great restaurants would work," Aziz says now. Even Bellagio's then-owner, Vegas impresario Steve Wynn, had doubts, Aziz says. "His attitude was, 'Why complicate things with fancy chefs who'll want the asparagus to look a certain way?They'll drive the purchasing department crazy.' "
But Wynn eventually came around, and Bellagio recruited such culinary icons as Sirio Maccioni (of New York's Le Cirque), Jean-Georges Vongerichten (Jean Georges and Vong, in Manhattan), and Todd English (Olives, Boston) to create splashy, high-end dining rooms. The formula worked. "We expected to do a hundred twenty million dollars in food revenue our first year, and ended up doing two hundred million," Aziz says. "Suddenly our restaurants were running a twenty-five percent profit, which was unheard-of in Vegas." The feeding frenzy had begun.
These days, of course, celebrity chefs are household names, with the inevitable frozen pizza lines and Food Network shows to prove it. And nowhere are they more revered than in Vegas, the capital of brand worship. It's a given that a resort will have at least two big-name chefs heading up its "signature restaurants" (read: the good ones). It may seem odd to see Emeril Lagasse sharing a neon billboard with David Copperfield, but in today's Vegas, chefs are the new magicians.
"Twenty years ago, a young cook wanted to work in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, or San Francisco. That was it," Colicchio says. "Now Vegas is one of the top food cities in the country."