It all started with a phone call.
“George [Maloof] called me and said, ‘Barry, sounds like the big dog is coming in tonight.’ I thought he was talking in third person,” chef Barry Dakake recalls. “I said, ‘What time are you coming in?’”
“Oh no, no, no—not me,” Maloof said. “Former President Clinton is coming in.” And with that, his instructions for Dakake were simple: “Do what you do best,” and “make it all happen.’”
As executive chef of N9NE Steakhouse, Dakake had prepared hundreds of meals for A-list celebrities. Still, this one was special.
“When he walked in, you could hear a pin drop,” Dakake says. “Everyone was just in awe.”
The former president arrived in the dining room with a considerable entourage, including political heavyweights, members of the Maloof family and “a massive amount of Secret Service people,” says Dakake.
Once the food was out, Dakake asked Secret Service agents how he could meet Clinton. They replied with a question of their own: “How can we meet Vince Neil?” (The Mötley Crüe frontman is a N9NE regular, and was there for dinner that night.)
The deal was done on the spot, “They were more excited meeting Vince Neil than I was meeting the president,” Dakake says.
While it was his first, it wasn’t his last encounter with the former president. “I’ve cooked for him the past four years, all the time when he comes into town,” Dakake says. “He always gets creamed corn, and the baked apple pie—the pres loves the baked apple pie.”
Clinton isn’t the only man who has sat in the Oval Office for whom Dakake has cooked: He has prepared meals for Barack Obama, too.
“He was president-elect when I met him,” Dakake says, recalling his first encounter with Obama.
He and N9NE Group’s director of community relations, Jenna Morton, met the then-president-elect and the future first lady during a brief stopover in Las Vegas in 2008.
“The Secret Service had everything planned to a T,” Dakake says. “His plane landed, and I was up there, waiting with the food. I can remember exactly what he ate: It was a Dover sole, a Kobe cheeseburger with crispy bacon, a couple of salads and some pastry.”
He cooked for Obama again, in February 2010, at a $30,000-per-plate Democratic National Committee fundraiser in George Maloof’s sprawling home.
The 40-person dinner demanded meticulous planning, from table linens and china to the meal itself. “It wasn’t something where you could just say, ‘We’re going to cook,’ and then it’s over; we had to strategically plan this out,” Dakake says.
He put together a three-course meal that included Maine lobster, Alaskan king crab, American sturgeon caviar and filet mignon, followed by chocolate cheesecake for dessert.
Dakake has come a long way from his beginnings, serving up 99-cent breakfasts in his uncle’s diner in Rhode Island.
“My uncle started [by] making me wash the bottoms of the booths with a toothbrush,” he says.
Dakake worked his way up and went to culinary school at the Rhode Island School of Design. After graduation, he moved to New York, where he got a job with Charlie Palmer. It was here, during his four-year tenure, that he got his first taste of celebrity clientele.
“We would hear about Danny DeVito, Mickey Mantle … a lot of Yankees would come in for dinner. But we could never go out to see them, because you’re just a cook,” he says.
Dakake left New York in the ’90s, when he battled non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, but once he beat cancer, he was back in the kitchen. Again, it all started with a phone call—but this time, it was from his best friend, chef Joe Romano.
“He said, ‘Look, Charlie is opening an Aureole restaurant at Mandalay Bay. Why don’t you come and be a sous chef with me?’” Dakake says.
He accepted the offer, and moved across the country to work at Aureole and Palmer’s eponymous steakhouse at the Four Seasons.
“I met more celebrities when I started at Charlie Palmer’s steakhouse than I did anywhere else,” Dakake says. “That’s where it all started.”
But after two years, Dakake says “the Maloof brothers … scooped me up,” and he soon found himself in the kitchen at the Palms. (Romano also moved on, and is now the executive chef for PT’s Pubs.)
“I came [to N9NE] as a regular old line cook,” he says. “I wasn’t the chef here, Brian Massie was.” Six months later, Massie left N9NE (he is now executive chef for the Light Group) and Dakake took over. That was nine years ago.
The restaurant has been a magnet for celebrities since day one.
“You never know who’s going to be walking through that door,” Dakake says. “I’ve cooked for everybody from Michael Jordan to [Muhammad] Ali.” But he likes cooking for his friends and family the most. And unless you’re one of them (or one of his contacts in the Secret Service), you won’t get an invite to his annual Independence Day party.
“I became friends with them after that night,” Dakake says of the agents who first introduced him to Clinton in 2005.
His Fourth of July barbecue is an epic food fest. “The shrimp and lobster tails look like U-boats,” he says, “But the kicker, the biggest thing, every year, is from Buffalo, N.Y.: chicken wings and pizza flown in from La Nova.
“My mouth is watering just thinking about it!” he says. “I’m thinking of calling them right now and having a couple of pies sent over.”