Talk to the Downtown Grand’s executive chef, Charles Wilson, or his assistant executive chef, Todd Harrington, today about the resort’s restaurants, and their pride is obvious. During a recent weekend I spent at the hotel, Harrington excitedly ushered me from one to another, showing off the kitchens, introducing me to staff and bringing me more delicious menu samples than I could handle. But the pair weren’t always so excited about the food offered at the Grand and the attached Downtown 3rd dining corridor. In fact, they were brought in to turn around its troubled restaurant program. And Wilson, who joined the team December 1 after leaving Caesars Entertainment, admits the process has been “a little painful.”
“I had lunch with [CEO Seth Schorr],” Wilson recalls of his first meal at the Downtown Grand, “and I couldn’t even bear to eat the chicken soup that I was having. And I had a Dr Pepper pot roast—I don’t want to say it was inedible, but it was just not the quality that I was used to eating or producing.” Moreover, he frankly describes the talent pool in the kitchens at that time as “terrible.”
Yet his new bosses had some pretty lofty expectations: They wanted to turn the complex into “the best [dining] Downtown.”
To aid him in turning around the food program, Wilson turned to Harrington, who was at the time working as executive chef at Central by Michel Richard in Caesars Palace. Harrington was similarly unimpressed with the Downtown Grand’s food after his first tour. “The one and only restaurant I was very impressed with,” he recalls today, “was [Downtown 3rd’s] Pizza Rock.”
Yet Harrington decided to leave the award-winning Richard and take on the new job. “There was so much to be done, and I wanted to be part of the solution.” To be part of that solution, Harrington moved out of his house and into the hotel, where he lived for nearly a month.
Harrington’s first challenge was assessing the kitchen staffs. While his old restaurant would evaluate a chef for up to a month before hiring him, nearly everyone here, from line cooks to sous chefs, had been hired in a hurry. Many were brought on simply because they had friends at the hotel. The level of culinary skill was alarmingly low.
“The thing that scared me the most,” Harrington recalls, “is that the first week I asked a cook how he would go about making risotto, and he asked me what risotto was.”
On the Strip, an answer like that would get most cooks fired. But Wilson and Harrington weren’t looking to completely re-staff the resort’s five kitchens.
“It was more of a coddling, and trying to understand where they’re coming from,” Harrington says. “It’s not that we had to lower our expectations to deal with the staff, but we had to make what they needed to bring to the table more obvious to them.”
To do that, the pair began an intensive series of training courses and culinary quizzes. It was a very “back to basics” approach that taught everything from cutting chives to making stock. Much of the staff, including all of the resort’s sous chefs, chose to leave the resort rather than re-train. But those who stayed embraced the training, and their bosses seem impressed with the progress they’ve made over just a few months.
To supplement their re-educated talent pool, the pair also brought in some top chefs from the Strip. From Beijing Noodle No. 9 at Caesars Palace they recruited Li Yu, who hand-pulls noodles and makes fresh dim sum at the Chinese restaurant Red Mansion. And the hotel’s new pastry chef, Vivian Chang, was poached from the Michelin-starred Restaurant Guy Savoy.
Despite the progress they’ve made, neither Wilson nor Harrington believes his job is done. “We still have a lot of work to do,” Harrington says. “And that work will continue until the day that I’m not here.”