Susan Wolfla doesn’t need your congratulations for being a woman.
Mandalay Bay’s new executive chef may have the honor of being the first woman to hold that position in the Strip’s history, but she thinks there are far more interesting topics to talk about. For instance, the unforgettable roast pork she ate while in the red-light district of Hong Kong. Or her recent forays into molecular gastronomy. Or the slow extinction of the city’s shrimp-cocktail specials. Anything food-related is up for discussion; talk of the industry’s gender gap is not.
“I’d like to think that I’ve been successful for the very fact that I never thought of myself as a female chef, but only a chef,” she says. “I never compared myself to men, and I’ve never felt that men have had an advantage over me in the kitchen.”
Still, it’s hard not to root for her, even if she insists that you don’t. With looks that belie her 45 years and a genuinely cheerful demeanor, Wolfla seems to be the antithesis of the chefs that dominate pop culture. You know the ones: the weathered bad boys with inflated egos and foul mouths, reveling in the frenetic energy of a busy kitchen.
In some respects, she’s a welcome breath of fresh air. Wolfla, who manages more than 500 cooks and seven of the property’s restaurants, including Shanghai Lilly and The Café, keeps her kitchens peaceful and her profile low. When it comes to career goals, celebrity chef status is nowhere on her list of priorities.
“I’ve never auditioned for one of those reality-TV cooking shows and I’d never want to,” Wolfla says. “They’re really entertaining, but they put you in situations that, as a chef, you try to avoid.” Success in this business isn’t defined by exposure or name recognition, she says, but “by being prepared, super organized and being a perfectionist.”
If that’s the case, Wolfla—like it or not—is primed for greatness. The Indiana native credits a biology degree from Purdue University for first honing her Type-A tendencies. She eventually passed on a science career to follow her passion for cooking, but found that her meticulous nature and methodical approach to work were as crucial in a kitchen as they were in a lab.
This is not to say that she brings a sterile approach to her job. Beyond her detail-oriented personality is a bit of a madcap chef who has done it all. One minute Wolfla is talking about a previous stint in butchering; the next, she’s telling you about the time she worked as an ice carver. She recently collaborated with a Mandalay Bay mixologist to create avant-garde cocktails. After all—and it should be to no one’s surprise—she even has a background in booze.
“My first job after college was in a liquor store,” she says. “It was way more fun than my first cooking job, when I would come home crying with Band-Aids on every finger.”
With experience in countless facets of the food and wine world, nothing can separate Wolfla from her male counterparts … except for maybe one thing: “My ghetto onion,” she says with a laugh. “It’s something old coworkers used to say, meaning I’ve got a booty.”
With that unexpected dose of raunchy humor, Wolfla is right. Take off the kid gloves; she’s a chef just like any other.
Wolfla believes travel is important for keeping a chef’s palate fresh. For the myriad destinations she’s visited, her favorite is Caye Caulker, off the coast of Belize. “The food is great,” she says. “It’s a tasty fusion of Mexico, France, India and Africa.”
Off the beaten path
Las Vegas has staked its claim on the country’s fine-dining map, but Wolfla also gives props to the city’s mom-and-pops. “If there are three local restaurants I would recommend to tourists, they would be Due Forni for pizza, Raku for Japanese and Pho Kim Long for Vietnamese.”
The secret to a free meal from a top chef? Be under the age of 12. “Baking and pastry is the one culinary skill I don’t feel I’ve mastered, but I’ve been pushing myself lately to get better,” Wolfla says. “I do this mostly at home, and the neighbor kids help me by trying out my creations.”
Before enrolling in the Culinary Institute of America, Wolfla cut her teeth—and her fingers—as an entry-level cook. “I would advise anyone considering culinary school to work in a kitchen first,” she says. “Some find that they really love it, but others learn that it’s not the glamorous job they thought it would be.”
Next to her knives, there’s one thing the chef can’t live without: her library card. “I’m currently trying to make my way through Marcus Aurelius’ The Meditations, but it’s some dense reading!”