It’s Friday night at First Food & Bar in the Palazzo, and guests are tucking into family-style bowls of meze over casual dinner conversation. Artichoke hummus, baba ganoush and tabbouleh travel across the communal dining table before executive chef Sam “Sammy D” DeMarco unveils his pièce de résistance: a whole lamb, butchered and prepared in separate parts.
Relative to the many extravagant fine-dining options in Las Vegas, DeMarco’s Mediterranean spread looks like a simple repast. But what sets it apart from anything else being served in town is that it’s made almost exclusively with ingredients sourced from the new Downtown 3rd Farmers Market. This is the fourth installment in a new monthly dinner series that DeMarco calls “Farm to Strip.”
It used to be that celebrating local, organic and sustainably raised food was an ethos reserved for hippies and foodies living on the coasts. But as farmers markets continue to thrive, Las Vegas—and this event in particular—is proving that even the desert provides opportunities for eating well.
“The way Starbucks changed America’s coffee culture, I think Whole Foods helped us learn about eating food that’s organic and sustainable,” DeMarco says. “It’s our responsibility as chefs to also spread the message. It costs a little more to eat this way, but the long-term value is priceless.”
DeMarco’s menu is designed on the fly, and changes each month. On this night, the team at First has turned to produce purveyor Kerry Clasby, “The Intuitive Forager,” for sugary sweet berries that are spooned over flan, North Las Vegas’ RC Farms for braised and roasted lamb, and nearby Blue Oasis for fresh farm-raised shrimp served alongside a bracing gazpacho. DeMarco—a native New Yorker with fond memories of its greengrocers—is a proud advocate of these food producers, but admits that we still have a ways to go.
“It’s a transient town, so it’s difficult to build a stable group of supporters, but I don’t think it will be long before we do more here in Vegas,” he says. “It’s ironic, but everything seems to grow here. We never had avocadoes or citrus in New York. That’s why the market is important—it helps us understand seasons, cycles and our immediate environment.”
Of course altruism isn’t the only driving force behind these dinners. A chef known for his house-made Hot Pockets and Doritos-crusted mac and cheese, DeMarco (a protégé of Gray Kunz and David Burke) is grateful for the opportunity to revisit his fine-dining roots and show off a more sophisticated side of himself.
“I think eating local is a good cause because it’s important for people to partner up with their communities and look toward their future,” he says. “But I also like the challenge. First is seen as a casual and fun destination. This project allows me to be creative and do something different for the guests.”
But don’t let that fool you into thinking that you can’t try this at home. Attend a dinner for yourself, and then head to one of your nearby markets to create your own inspired meal.
“People shouldn’t be intimidated by this—it’s easy. This is the same stuff I’d serve if you came to my house on the weekend,” DeMarco says. “When chefs cook on their days off, they want quick dishes, too. All that matters is that you start with great ingredients.”
What’s in your market basket?
Chef Sammy D on three local ingredients you should work with this season:
Striped baby eggplants. “These are sweet and easy to work with. Bigger eggplants have to be treated for bitterness, but these are more of a sure thing.” Available at Bet on the Farm! and the Downtown 3rd Farmers Market.
Blue Oasis shrimp. “These are raised here in Vegas, and they’re great. I plunge them in a salt-and-sugar-water brine for 20 minutes before cooking, then eat the whole thing—skin on and head on.” Available at Albertsons locations.
Fresh corn. “Why do we even cook it? Eat it raw! It’s as sweet as fruit.” Available at Whole Foods locations.