Las Vegas is considered by many to be one of the top food cities in the U.S. It seems every chef worth his or her salt has at least one restaurant here—including several European masters who don’t operate anywhere else in the country. But take a look at the James Beard Foundation’s annual awards, among the most prestigious in the restaurant world, and there’s little indication of our culinary dominance.
Since the awards’ inception in 1991, only one Las Vegas chef has received the national award for Outstanding Chef in association with his Las Vegas restaurant: Jean-Louis Palladin in 1993 for Napa in the Rio. No local has ever received the Outstanding Restaurateur Award, established in 2005. No Las Vegas restaurant has ever received the national Outstanding Restaurant award. And since the category was added in 1995, only one Las Vegas restaurant has been named Best New Restaurant: Bradley Ogden in 2004. A quick glance at the past winners in those categories will note an overwhelming preference for restaurants in New York City, coincidentally where the James Beard Foundation is headquartered.
Las Vegas once fared significantly better in the regional Beard awards. From 2002 through 2011, five Las Vegans took the award for Best Chef: Southwest, a region that also included Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas and Utah. Then last year, the Foundation restructured its regions, putting Nevada chefs in the West, alongside those from California and Hawaii. Since then, each of the five finalists in that category has hailed from California: six from San Francisco, three from L.A. and one from St. Helena.
At the same time, there’s no question the James Beard Foundation’s hierarchy likes Las Vegas. They throw events here, including the upcoming second annual Taste of Las Vegas festival in September at The Mirage. They invite our chefs to cook at their New York headquarters; most recently Light Group’s Brian Massie did the honors. In 2012, they even came here to announce the finalists for the awards at the Venetian/Palazzo (completely snubbing our chefs and restaurants). We can only guess that the more than 550 voting members don’t spend enough time in our town to properly explore our dining scene. (At press time, a representative from the James Beard Foundation had not replied to a request for comment. )
So while we wait for the Foundation to catch up to with what’s going on here, we offer you Vegas Seven’s 2014 Jimmy ’Stache Awards, featuring locals who’ve been nominated as James Beard finalists or semifinalists over the years, but never quite made the cut.
Restaurant Guy Savoy
Fine, we know Caesars Palace’s Restaurant Guy Savoy can’t be nominated for Best New Restaurant again, but we’re surprised we haven’t seen it pop up on any list since it opened in 2006. Chef Savoy himself is in town way more than many of his counterparts, and both his kitchen and front-of-house teams are stellar, providing innovative French cuisine and excellent service. Executive chef Mathieu Chartron is still relatively young, but has grown since arriving to his post in 2010, and continues to execute Savoy’s style and cuisine on point. Hopefully, his is a name we’ll see make the James Beard list before long.
Rick Moonen made the short list in 2010 not only for his culinary vision, but also for a PBS show he hosted, Chefs A’Field: King of Alaska. When he made the finals for Best Chef: Southwest, he was still best known for his work as a champion of sustainable seafood. That was also the year the semis were stacked with other Las Vegas talent: Claude Le Tohic (who won the award) and Saipin Chutima. At Mandalay Bay, Moonen has continually evolved his image and menu beyond seafood, last year closing his fine dining RM upstairs to make way for the mixology and gastropunk monster, Rx Boiler Room. Maybe this departure from a classic restaurant concept is enough to make Beard members sit up and take notice of Moonen again.
Joël Robuchon in the MGM Grand is one of the finest restaurants in the country, with three Michelin stars under its belt. And to its credit, the Beard Foundation honored local executive chef Claude Le Tohic as Best Chef: Southwest in 2010. But there have been inexplicable oversights: For eight years, the savory cuisine was capped off with the mind-blowing desserts of Kamel Guechida. And while he was nominated for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2009 and 2010, he was beaten out by chefs from New York and California. Wolfgang Puck stole Guechida from Robuchon last year to oversee the bread and dessert programs at Puck restaurants around the world, including his Las Vegas kitchens. Hopefully, having a broader audience will soon earn Guechida the acclaim he’s long deserved.
When Mitsuo Endo opened Raku in 2008, the robata-style grill became an overnight favorite with chefs from top Strip restaurants getting off work late. Word soon spread throughout the local food community. And today, whenever we meet a member of the national food media or a restaurant critic from a major city and ask them where they eat when they’re in town, Raku inevitably makes their short list. Yet, while Endo has been a regional semifinalist and even a finalist in the past (this year he made it to the semifinals), he’s never won. That’s a crime that would never happen if Raku were in a larger city.
Picasso Wine Program
Executive chef Julian Serrano took home the title of Best Chef: Southwest in 2002, and was a semifinalist last year for Outstanding Chef, but Bellagio’s Picasso itself seems to have a case of “always the bridesmaid, never the bride,” having been nominated several times for both Outstanding Wine Program (2012, 2013) and Outstanding Wine Service (2008, 2009, 2011) under master sommelier Robert Smith. And if anyone in this city knows wine, it’s Smith, so his pure joy and vast knowledge for his craft deserves some sort of recognition.