At one time, Oliver Wharton worked behind the scenes in the kitchen. But almost from the moment he made the jump to the front of house, he caught the eye of famously exacting hospitality giants such as chef José Andrés and Steve Wynn, and he has been on the front lines of new projects ever since. In rapid time, he has come to be known in Las Vegas as “The Opener,” and it’s a niche he pretty much alone occupies: the hired gun who opens and ushers the highest-end venues through their precious first days.
“People hire me because they understand that I can work with visionary entrepreneurs and deliver them a great product right out of the gates,” Wharton says. “All these projects are high-risk, but somehow I have the ability to figure out their taste.”
As a result, SBE Hotel Group’s vice president is in increasingly high demand. Wharton has been hand-selected to work for such big names as Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Michael Mina and the Light Group, which allowed him to collaborate with top hospitality dogs such as Gamal Aziz, Bobby Baldwin and Randy Morton.
“It’s always a buzz to work for these guys with such high expectation,” he says. “And no one gives me a road map; there’s no road map. The risk is that you’re accountable for every decision.”
Decisions that are often made in haste in the free-for-all that is a restaurant opening. Wharton’s knack, on the other hand, is for opening venues the right way the first time, thus preventing the owners from having to bring in someone later to troubleshoot.
Wharton, once the youngest dining room captain in Manhattan, spent several years as director of restaurant operations for Mina’s San Francisco-based Aqua Development Corp., then moved on to milestones such as his first partnership at Stack and first casino opening at Encore. Now he’s fully engaged in his latest chapter, Vegas nightlife, which was a high-profile jump in his circles, but an almost requisite evolution when working for Sam Nazarian and SBE.
Wharton’s current project is operating Hyde Bellagio, which serves wine, fresh Bellinis, innovative cocktails and small plates till 11 p.m., when the organized chaos of nightlife subsumes the space.
Open less than a month, Hyde is already the talk of the town. But eventually Wharton will make his next move. As soon as one of his projects is stable and running smoothly, wanderlust sets in, and off he goes to the next challenge. This is what an adrenaline junkie might look like in a work setting: Someone who fearlessly steps up to challenges like a bridge to be bungeed, and speeds up as he approaches the next learning curve.
“There’s a ridiculous allure about the unknown,” he says.
But as with Hyde, it’s all about taking pride in the systems and product he’s going to leave behind.
“I think as the projects get bigger, you can’t micromanage anymore,” he says. “You have to trust these great people who are working with you more, and you have to follow up even more. Trust a little, follow up a lot.”