Julian Serrano’s journey to owning one of the top restaurants in the country started on cruise ships in Miami. The Madrid-born chef worked his way west after arriving in the United States in the mid-’70s, landing at Masa’s, San Francisco’s most celebrated French restaurant, in 1983. It was another French restaurant, Bellagio’s Picasso, that gave Las Vegas an introduction to Serrano’s cooking. But it wasn’t until he was approached by CityCenter that Serrano finally got the chance to realize his dream of owning a Spanish-style tapas restaurant in the United States. Julian Serrano, the restaurant, opened at Aria in December, and this year was the only Las Vegas restaurant to be named to Esquire’s esteemed Best New Restaurant list. Serrano will be one of the chefs featured at the Food & Wine All-Star Weekend at Bellagio on Nov. 5-7.
How does it feel to be the only Las Vegas restaurant on the Esquire list?
Fantastic, for me personally, for the restaurant and for the people that work here. The restaurant is a team, and they make it possible. It’s incredible for the city of Las Vegas. In Las Vegas, 10 or 15 years ago, it was “forget it about anything.” Now, Las Vegas is one of the cities in the United States that new restaurants are looking into. It’s very positive for everyone. For me, obviously, it’s great because it’s my restaurant and my name, but also it’s for everyone—the company and the people.
How is Julian Serrano different from restaurants you’ve done in the past?
It’s totally different. I’ve cooked French in other restaurants and this is Spanish food, tapas. It’s not a new concept, and there have been restaurants that serve tapas in Las Vegas before, but not many. The people have started to like the concept, the food and to share, they feel like it’s fun to eat in this type of restaurant. You can come in with friends, and it’s fun to share the food and talk. There’s no real format. It’s not like you have to sit down and then the first course comes. Here everything goes. It has a lot of energy.
What do you love about cooking?
Cooking makes people happy. One of my joys at Picasso or [Julian Serrano] is when the food comes and I see people taste the food and I see their expression. That is what I like about cooking.
What do you like about CityCenter?
I like that it’s fresh. I like that it’s green. I like that it’s the hotel for the future—maybe not today but for tomorrow. It smells good. I like it for many more reasons. I like the company and how it’s run. I like that we’re working hard to make it to this point. It was so difficult to open this property that every day I think the business is better, and you feel better. Before it opened we were worried about not opening. We hired people, had tables and then we thought we couldn’t open. Now that we’re open, everything tastes better.
How do you relax?
Now is not time for me to relax. I’m not thinking about it. I’m thinking about work. I’m thinking sometimes in the morning when I’m awake and so tired, I think I need some time off. But when my body starts moving I realize it’s not time for me to rest. I can tell you the things I like. I go to the Pacific, to the islands alone, but it’s not time for me to do that. It is so important to be here.
What’s next for you?
I would like to expand with this restaurant. I would like to expand here in Vegas with MGM. I can open nothing else without them here. It would have to be with them, but I don’t mind. They are good partners, but if I could open somewhere else I wouldn’t mind doing this kind of restaurant in other cities. But I’m not a person to jump at any offer. I’ve been around for a while and the people talk too much and then they don’t have anything. My goal is not to open 20 or 30 of these. I am happy with one or two. I would like that.
What would your last meal be?
I like things very expensive and I like things very cheap. My favorite thing is french fries. I can’t eat them, but I crave them a lot. What I would make is something stupid like french fries with mayonnaise.