In many ways, Joe Romano’s career has followed the traditional trajectory of a successful chef. After graduating the Culinary Institute of America in 1992, he secured a job with celebrity chef Charlie Palmer. Over the next eight years, Romano rose through the ranks of Palmer’s organization in New York and Florida before relocating to Las Vegas to open Aureole in Mandalay Bay as executive chef. He went on to open his own restaurant, JW’s Tavern, in the Rio, only to sell it shortly thereafter. Then, 10 years ago, he landed a position as corporate executive chef for a major restaurant group for which he now oversees 43 restaurants in Southern Nevada as that company’s vice president of operations. It’s a classic success story.
What makes Romano’s tale a little different, however, is where the former fine-dining chef is currently working: PT’s Entertainment Group, owners of those local video-poker watering holes, as well as Sierra Gold taverns.
Romano says the career shift was motivated by a desire to touch the lives (and palates) of more people than the select few who could afford Aureole’s $167-a-person check average. “You realize you are only touching 10 percent of the population,” he says of his life in fine dining. “It’s way out of the average person’s reach.”
In the midst of fielding various fine-dining offers, he was contacted by Steve Arcana and Blake Sartini of PT’s parent company, Golden Gaming, who offered him the executive chef position. In addition to a wider audience, Romano was attracted by the hours, which were a lot more reasonable than the brutal workweeks required at most high-end restaurants.
“Honestly,” he says now, “I thought, ‘Wow. I’ve got two kids. This would be a great job to get into. How hard could it be?’” He soon learned that even bar staples such as chicken wings would prove a lot more challenging than he expected.
“It took about a year and a half to develop a wing that we, as a company, were happy with,” he says. “Because you think chicken wings are chicken wings. You throw them in a fryer. But that’s not necessarily the case. To get a wing that’s really crispy, that you can coat with a sauce and that still stays crispy, is very difficult.”
He says perfecting the pizza took just as long, because of owner Sartini’s exacting standards. “The expectations that Blake has for food, his passion rivals half the big-time executive chefs who have all these major restaurants all over the country,” he says. “He wants to be the best.”
Romano still gets to create higher-end food at the company’s three Pahrump casinos. And he’s introduced dishes such as sesame-crusted ahi, gourmet sliders and rice bowls to the PT’s and Sierra Gold menus. But he says one fine-dining lesson he learned transcends price point and cuisine.
“We treat our patrons like guests,” he says. “There are tons of choices for people to go to. Why are they gonna choose us over somebody else? It’s how we take care of them.”