First-Class Comfort Food

With simple details and creativity, Sam DeMarco is redefining our country’s cuisine at First Food

Chef Sammy D never expected to dedicate his professional life to delivering creative culinary comfort food for the masses. Nah, this rising superstar chef thought he’d employ those skills to pay the bills, then devote most of his time and vision to higher gastronomic pursuits. You know, one of those classy joints that elevates dining to an art form. But a funny thing happened on his way to that dream: He realized he is exactly where he should be.

“This style of food is back. Las Vegas got too high end all of a sudden and there are not enough casual places,” says Sammy D (a.k.a. Sam DeMarco).

Credit: Anthony MairSammy D’s sliders.

Seven Things Sam DeMarco Can’t Live Without

  • Kiehl’s. I am addicted to their products. They feel so good going on and smell great. Plus they are very good for your skin.
  • Sex. My wife and I are trying hard practicing how to produce more children.
  • The kitchen. Like sex, it gives that immediate gratification I crave. Plus, you make things you get to put in people’s mouths.
  • The sun. It’s one of the best things about Vegas. It makes you happy and inspires all things that are great.
  • Cuban tobacco. I love smoking cigars, especially the Hemingway Short Story. It has a lot of get up and go, and is a great smoke.
  • Dr. Edward Hoffman. My doctor has embraced me and made me feel comfortable in a strange town. It is good to have someone who gets you, and his attention to detail is great.
  • Scotch. Both blends and single malts, depending on the mood. I love Johnny Walker Blue; it’s the one thing in life that almost took me down.

Good thing he opened First Food and Bar at the Palazzo last year, at the cusp of this trend. And Sammy D’s deconstruction techniques, combined with adding new elemental twists, are pushing taste buds everywhere to reset their notion of what the American panoply of flavors is all about.

Take, for example, the tuna nachos. You won’t find actual nachos here. Instead, high-grade ahi tuna is covered in a spicy mayo that sits on a bed of plantain chips. And that Philly cheesesteak you ordered arrives as a dumpling served with Sriracha ketchup.

It’s that type of creative interplay between ingredients that won him a fan base composed of many of today’s top chefs. It’s like those comics that every comedian lauds yet aren’t widely known outside the comedy clique. He’s an underground luminary whose original First Food in New York City was a vaunted getaway for the myriad chefs you now see all over television and whose names grace this city’s most renown restaurants. After guys such as Mario Batali and Bobby Flay turned off their stove tops, they’d hang out at Sammy’s place and share war stories, drink and feast on his latest concoction.

“I fed them all,” says Sammy, who was 29 when his NYC First Food opened in 1992. “It seemed as if everyone hung out there. It was a distinct community and culture.”

It was also a food revolution incubator. He started exploring what American cuisine really could be: a mirroring of the disparate cultures that all came together here and in the process created something wholly new. “Food was still very basic,” he says. “French was French. Thai was Thai. There was no global dining under one roof until then. The idea of American food was confusing, and in some ways still is. It is really everything representing all cultures, and this food represents our very diverse nation.”

A typical Brooklyn boy, by the time he got to high school he was getting into trouble. One day a teacher dragged him to the Culinary Institute of America so he could see a better path in life. “The experience really taught me the ropes of what I could be doing with my life if I focused more,” he says.

He started at the bottom, washing dishes, but he would come in early to help out the team and learn about food. It wasn’t long before he was climbing the culinary food chain.

That climb actually included an earlier shot at making it in Vegas. He had a place back in the nascent days of Bellagio, when there was still a Wild West attitude concerning big-city chefs coming to this desert outpost. Although Sam’s American didn’t work out the way he’d planned (he came in after the space was designed, and it never fit his vision), the restaurant did lay the groundwork for his return.

Now he’s making First Food a preeminent place for late-night grub. To Sammy that means food for the drinking crowd, from fully loaded foot-longs to chicken and waffles.

He’s in the kitchen every day to ensure that while his food may work with basic ingredients, excruciating effort goes into each dish. “It’s all about the details,” he says. “I may stay true to traditions and not utilize a lot of unusual flavors, but you can see the details in the way we do things.”

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