Brian Howard is standing in the massive, empty kitchen of Sparrow + Wolf, his soon-to-open restaurant on the corner of Spring Mountain Road and Arville Street. Today there are no tickets waiting to be filled, no cooks working the line and no customers clamoring for tables.
But on this day in mid-March, approximately one month from the restaurant’s intended opening, the place is still jam-packed, every inch of space occupied by dreams, hopes, desires and passions—all soon to be realized.
This is the real story of how a guy from Detroit came to open his own restaurant by his own rules, in a city where that isn’t always possible. [Editor’s note: Howard’s responses have been edited for narrative flow and clarity.]
This whole process [of opening Sparrow + Wolf] has been a come-to-life moment for me—who I am, what my voice is, what I want to talk about. We talk about food, we talk about this hot new restaurant, the chefs, but there are so many other elements we miss, like what it took to get there. We live in this city full of lights and $10 million restaurants. But you don’t see the darkness behind the lights, right? Why am I doing this? That’s the big question I’ve been trying to answer.
My grandmother invested in me. She was my biggest food influence growing up. She was an entertainer. She threw parties. She always had the record player going. She’d select the music and the decor, and she just went all out. That’s what I like doing.
Before coming to Las Vegas in 1999 or 2000, I had worked in a couple restaurants in Detroit, peeling potatoes. Other than that, it was fast food.
I don’t even want to admit [my first job in Vegas was] Buffalo Wild Wings, for like a week. I’d moved here with a girlfriend at the time, and it was the first thing I could get. I knew I wanted to cook. Somebody told me to go down to the Culinary Union. I went down there and they said, “You got to wait in line and we’ll call you back if you get this spot.” I’m not waiting for nobody. I want to work.
I had the biggest chip on my shoulder. I was rough around the edges, and I think I came to my first interview with my Detroit jersey on and my hat tipped, and the guy said, “Why don’t you get dressed and come back?”
Howard soon found himself at Nick’s on the Strip (currently the Hawaiian marketplace), followed by a stint at Club Seven, where he learned to make stock in their nouvelle French restaurant–sushi bar. From there, it was off to Tsunami in The Venetian, where he met his wife, Wendy.
I became a sous chef by the time I was 21. The chef at the time was very intense. He said, “You don’t belong here …” I would come into work four hours earlier than everybody else just to set up for service because I couldn’t keep up with these guys.
Then I saw Thomas Keller was opening Bouchon. I had read The French Laundry Cookbook and was super-interested. I said I would do whatever it took to get a job there—even clean ashtrays. They hired me and that changed my life. I remember we would blindfold each other in the kitchen and burn toast in the salamander or drop water in oil, just to know what was going on around you without having to look. You knew who was walking into the room before they even walked in. [Bouchon’s] Mark Hopper has probably had the biggest impact on my career. He took me down and said, “You can either be a joker for the rest of your life, or you can make a decision right now.” From there on, I said, “This is what I want to do and I’m going to be good at it. I’m going to be better than the guy next to me.”
After Bouchon, I moved back home. My grandmother died and I was offered an executive chef job at a country club. I was 23, and I thought I was hot shit. I had just left a Thomas Keller restaurant. I fired the whole staff the first night. I changed the menu immediately. I pissed off all the members. I failed miserably. I cooked good food, and some people liked me. But the cooks I hired after I had let everyone go … they wanted to work for me.
At the end of
the day, I’m a
slave to my trade.
I just happen to love what I do.
From these experiences, I learned I could teach people things. Growing teams is what I was good at, giving an opportunity to kids who never had it, finding kids from broken homes who had never cooked in their life and saying, “I’m not only going to teach you in the kitchen, but I’m going to teach you how to structure your life outside of here,” because I needed that.
That’s why I do this. It’s really about the team and the guest experience. Knowing I can make people happy on a day-to-day basis, or really piss them off.
This brought me where I am today. I want to bring something to town that we don’t have yet. I don’t want to be handcuffed anymore to these big-budget numbers. Where I’m at today is about being a cook and not over-glorifying what I do. We’ve come to this age where chefs are gods. It’s such bullshit. We’re cooks. At the end of the day, I’m a slave to my trade. I just happen to love what I do.
After returning to Las Vegas from Detroit, Howard had a decadelong streak of working in kitchens such as Alize in Palms, Kerry Simon’s CatHouse at Luxor, Nu Sanctuary in Town Square and Comme Ça in The Cosmopolitan. He left all that behind two years ago to embark on opening his own restaurant Downtown. After raising sufficient capital, he was faced with a litany of issues, which led to him passing over not one but two locations—and modifying the concept and partner structure—before deciding to seek out a place in Chinatown.
There were many days, after the second restaurant that I didn’t open, that I wanted to quit. I [said], “I’m not doing this.” I told my wife, “I can’t do it anymore.”
But I don’t know anything else. I am a cook. Now the pressure is creating a good menu that people will like and a space that we can create for people off the Strip where they want to be a couple of times a week.
Las Vegas is home. I want to give something to the neighborhoods. We’re a young city. We’re on a come-up. I can cook the way I want to cook here. The good thing about Chinatown is that you can have ramen here, you can have one of the best sushi meals in America over there, go get drinks right there. These little pockets of greatness, right? Now I’m going to be the white guy cooking American food in Chinatown.
I think this is the only time in my career where I actually feel the pressure. Now I’m vulnerable with the food I’m picking because it’s a new style of me. It’s much more restrained. I’m learning to cook honest.
The team is great. I couldn’t be more thrilled. Justin Hall—he’s been along for the whole ride. Justin came to this city and he worked at Comme Ça for his first job. John Anthony—we worked at CatHouse, Nu Sanctuary and Comme Ça. He gets my style and also, there’s nobody who works a room better than John—charisma and attitude. Martha Araiza, who’s currently at Bardot, is going to be our baker.
Along with serving shared dishes and large-format plates, we will have a small retail aspect. We’re applying for our package beer and wine license so we can put together a little picnic basket—charcuterie, bread, wine, beer—that you can take with you.
For our cocktail program, we are getting away from the 20-minute cocktail, and away from the word “mixologist,” and getting back to the bartender. We’ll use fresh ingredients that start in the kitchen.
I’m on the culinary advisory board for [local urban farming project] Urban Seed Inc. The food has to travel less than three miles. Everything that we are doing is sustainable. We can grow more food than most because we are growing vertically and we have patented technology. We’ll have food [from Urban Seed] by June. We’re cutting produce daily. You’re getting the freshest product in Las Vegas.
We live in the desert, and you’re following different seasons. The menu will change consistently. It’s really about my team and how well they can utilize what’s available at the farm at the time.
Knowing how good our team is, we want to make sure everybody is learning and mastering what they have on their plate. We’re not going to create this 30-item menu that’s unachievable. I want 15-, 18-item menus. Those 15 menu items are going to be great.
I haven’t been in my element—the kitchen—in two years, and the biggest challenge will be having the restraint to know when enough is enough.
There are no egos with this project. It’s not about me; it’s about the guys surrounding me. It’s about our legacy and where we move forward to, how we can make an impact on this town.
For an exclusive guided tour of Sparrow + Wolf, visit vegasseven.com/sparrow.