It Pays to Be a Little Bad

Garfield’s banks on a wild-child chef to turn the lakeside Summerlin sleeper into a hit

Jean Paul Labadie gives off a classic bad-boy vibe. He’s got that long hair, some well-toned and tatted muscles, and a touch of a Puerto Rican accent.

So it’s surprising that Labadie stays so close to a management script when he starts talking about Garfield’s Restaurant. As general manager and executive chef, Labadie’s all business about upcoming promotions, how beautiful the verandah seating is and the changes he’s made in the past 10 months to broaden his clientele.

Even his reason for leaving Emeril’s Fish House in 2008 (for Garfield’s neighbor, Marché Bacchus) was pretty pedestrian: Labadie’s just another dad trading glamour for convenience. “I do miss the flashiness of the Strip, but I didn’t like the hassle of driving down there,” he says.

The New Garfield’s

RAZING THE BAR. Garfield’s enclosed its front verandah to expand its once tiny bar and snapped up mixologist Mike Jones after another neighborhood restaurant, Rosemary’s, closed. Jones has boosted the spirits offerings, replacing bottled mixers with fresh juices, and developed the restaurant’s first cocktail menu, including Garfield’s signature cucumber martini.

EASY DOES IT. Garfield’s once-exhaustive menu suffered from an identity crisis. It had lasagna, steaks, leg of lamb and burgers. Labadie refined the menu to focus on seafood, and changed the beef from prime to Certified Angus Prime. Dated side dishes such as rice pilaf and broccoli have been swapped for couscous and trendier veggies.

NOTHING “FRESH.” Labadie hates the phrase “fresh seafood” and fought to have it dropped from the restaurant’s logo. “I’m a chef. People should expect the seafood to be fresh. If [a restaurant] has to point it out, then it has some serious problems.”

SOUND DECISIONS. Past entertainment was almost exclusively Sinatra and jazz standards. Now the rotation includes the Wedge Brothers’ acoustic rock, karaoke and Spanish guitar. Last month, the restaurant launched a food-truck night in the parking lot with a reggae band. “We wanted to give families around here an alternative to sitting on a curb downtown,” Labadie says. “We hope it becomes a quarterly event.”

Labadie doesn’t sound much like a winning contestant on Food Network’s Extreme Chef (which he is), a kind of man-against-nature cooking show. Then he casually mentions getting shot once in Puerto Rico. “I was in a bad neighborhood. We don’t think the bullet was meant for me,” he shrugs and waves off the follow-up questions. “Let’s just say it wasn’t my proudest moment.”

He starts talking about going to college for nine years before his dad finally told his only son it was time to get a job. A fast-food gig in Iowa led to culinary school in Portland, Ore., which led to a country-club position back in Iowa before he moved to New Orleans.

Labadie headed down to apply for a hotel cook position but stopped when he noticed a sign notifying applicants that they would be drug-tested. “I thought, ‘Oh, I’d better come back in a few weeks.’” So, all dressed up with nowhere to go, Labadie stopped into Emeril’s for a bite at the bar, started chatting with the staff and walked out with a job. “I guess it pays to be a little bit bad,” he says. Six months after it opened in 1996 at the MGM Grand, he moved to Las Vegas to work at Emeril’s Fish House.

At Garfield’s he’s now channeling his extreme chef ways to revive the neighborhood restaurant with the elegant view. The restaurant had been pulling a much older crowd and relying on its banquet service. Until recently, few guests ever lingered at the tiny bar, and the dinner crowd trickled out by 9 p.m. “I enjoy going home early, sure, but that wasn’t how it was supposed to be. I was getting way too much sleep.”

That changed quickly once Labadie started pushing changes. Prior to Labadie’s arrival, Garfield’s had previously cut corners in staffing. It wasn’t uncommon for the hostess to do double-duty busing dishes or for the bar to be lacking a bartender. “We weren’t giving the right message to people, and our service could be really inconsistent and slow,” Labadie says. “The regular staff saw I was committed and, I think, knew they’d end up making more money, but some of the management staff didn’t want to play,” he recalls. They quit on the same day, and he worked the next 30 days straight.

Now with the staff settled in, the menu refined and the bar expanded, Labadie expects to start drawing a younger crowd.

“I think we’re getting there—where this will be a place you have to make reservations,” Labadie says. “And I think they’ll come not because Emeril’s name is on the sign, but because Laurie is their favorite server and Mike will make them a perfect drink and because the kitchen does it right. Then I’ll feel like my day was worthwhile.”