Christian Dolias’ career has had its share of ups and downs recently. The self-taught chef and founder/leader of the underground cooking collective CutThroat Culinary recently spent three weeks in Prague opening a Mexican restaurant for American restaurateur Glenn Spicker. It was an effort that landed him coverage in the Czech edition of Forbes. He returned to Las Vegas, however, to find his local restaurant Desnudo Tacos closed, and himself out of work. Nonetheless, when we got together just a day after his plane landed, he was 100 percent positive.
“Prague was amazing!” he exclaimed. We spoke of the city’s architecture and history before, inevitably, discussing the food.
“The food is full of history,” he says. “The food is full of a lot of years of repression, a lot of takeovers and communist regime kind of stuff. … The Czech Republic is ready for a [culinary] breakthrough. You’re talking about a culture that has eaten out of necessity rather than pleasure for a lot of years.”
While Dolias’ task was to teach his staff about Mexican cuisine, he began by introducing them to an American staple: peanut butter and jelly. “Grape jelly doesn’t really exist in the Czech Republic,” he says. “So we had to whip up grape jelly. And I got the container back [from restaurant staff] and it said ‘Wine Jelly.’ So I banged out peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and it blew their minds.”
As rewarding as that experience might have been, Dolias found even more satisfaction after the restaurant opened, and he was able to give some Mexican expatriates a taste of their homeland. “I met a family that was from Oaxaca, and they had been in the Czech Republic for a couple of years,” he recounts. “I got a call to the kitchen that the table wanted to speak to me. It was a husband and wife, their young son and the mother of the wife, who was probably in her late 60s. And they were so excited about the food. The woman was almost in tears. That’s the greatest compliment you can get.”
As all this was happening, however, things in Las Vegas weren’t going as well. Local foodies learned from a Facebook post that Dolias’ business partner Chris Palmeri had closed their restaurant Desnudo Tacos on October 20 and was planning to operate it as a food truck until he could find a new location. A few days later, Dolias told Vegas Seven that he would not be participating in any future Desnudo ventures. “The food truck idea has never been something for me,” he said.
But what went wrong that, despite numerous awards and almost universal critical acclaim, Desnudo lasted less than a year? “We had an amazing amount of support from our fans and Las Vegas locals,” Dolias says. “But if you’re in a position where you’re unable to draw a fair amount of tourism business, there are going to be some fiscal challenges.”
Such a carefully worded reply is uncharacteristic of a guy who frequently drops F-bombs. For the first time since we’ve met, the brutally honest chef seemed guarded. I asked repeatedly whether Desnudo was losing money, and he ducked the question. He did the same with repeated inquiries as to when and how Palmeri told him the place would be closing, ultimately offering a terse, “No comment.”
Dolias’ goal is clearly to remain positive, and to put any negative experiences behind him. “Chris Palmeri is, by far, one of my best friends,” he insists. So what’s next? There’s at least one more trip to Prague in the near future. He also expects to work with Palmeri on pop-ups and other events. And he’s hoping to bring some new energy to CutThroat Culinary, which hasn’t staged many dinners over the past year, yet has amassed a throng of high-end chefs anxious to join in on the guerilla-style food events. “I think the best is yet to come,” he says.
I don’t doubt it.