The Plate as the Palette

A next-generation French chef dissects his progressive dishes.

After meeting Wilfried Bergerhausen, prodigy is the word that comes to mind. The 30-year-old is transforming Le Cirque at Bellagio—one of Las Vegas’ temples of fine dining whose DNA is plucked straight from New York City’s culinary pantheon—turning the classic French establishment on its ear by adding new dishes and attracting a fresh generation of diners.

“It was step by step,” Bergerhausen says. “More and more, I am able to do what I want on a plate and not just follow the classics.”

Having been given free rein to leave his mark, Bergerhausen, who was born in Cannes, France, keeps 12-hour days at the restaurant, where he has worked for more than two years.

Wilfried Bergerhausen.  Photography by Anthony Mair

In those precious hours, he pays careful attention to the overall dining experience, creating something guests will come back for again and again—using the plate as his palette. “In Michelin-starred restaurants, you sit down and you have a dinner for three or four hours,” Bergerhausen says. “You spend so much money. Then you say, ‘What did I eat?’ I think fine dining has to evolve and be more about the show, about the service, about the cuisine, about the experience as a whole.”

At Le Cirque, the average guest normally stays for at least two hours. “It’s not a restaurant where you are going to be in and out. You have this beautiful view. I want people to forget about everything and enjoy their time.” As a result, the emphasis is on tasting menus, as well as a 12-course prestige menu that Bergerhausen calls “the best way to experience a fine dining restaurant—through the quality of the service and the kitchen and going through every step.”

In Bergerhausen’s work, the olfactory sense gets its due first. “You can smell something that you smelled when you were a kid and you are going to remember. … That’s the strongest. It’s connected straight to the brain.” His dish the Secret Spring Garden—shown below and on this week’s cover—gives off the scent of wild, fresh strawberries. Bergerhausen waxes poetic about how it evokes spring in the south of France. “It looks like a pot of flowers, but no. The idea behind it is [the experience one has] walking around [one’s] garden and trying all the things. It is layered: asparagus, then chickpeas, fava beans and white strawberries. After [that], the herbs. We finish with mist of white strawberry vinaigrette. It [smells] like you are walking through the morning dew.” As he elaborates, every dish begins to recall a memory.

The Secret Spring Garden.  Photography by Anthony Mair

The senses of sight, touch and taste follow. In one expertly crafted crab dish, he uses fog, and the symbolism is extensive. “The smoke represents the sea in the morning. Sometimes we like to say the Fountains of Bellagio,” Bergerhausen says, in reference to the hotel’s famed water show. “We are recapturing the experience of what it is like to be on the beach and see the crab walking.”

Perhaps the sixth sense here is social media. It is a tool the chef doesn’t shy away from. “I don’t like people to take an ugly picture of food,” Bergerhausen says. “People get ideas from me. I get ideas from them.” He references @chef_wil.b frequently to see what his plates look like as guests tag and check in. “It’s important to get feedback. I’m not always in the dining room, so to [see] the other side [is] very important.”

This year, he will spend a few weeks in the summer with his family in France—fishing, going to the market and enjoying that bucolic existence that he gave up a decade ago for the bright lights.

Bergerhausen left France at 21 for a new life in Las Vegas, and as lucky as that number is in blackjack, it was also fortuitous for the young chef, who walked into the kitchen at Joël Robuchon in MGM Grand and was pretty much given a job on the spot. After five years, he arrived at Michael Mina in Bellagio as a sous chef—after two months he was promoted to executive sous chef. Later, he was offered the position at Le Cirque.

“A lot of people, when they leave Robuchon, they think they are going to be a chef right away. That’s not how it works. I decided to take a sous chef position because my strength was in high fine dining, and now I’m stepping into something different. I’m not going to come in and say ‘I know everything, everybody out of the way.’ That’s not how it works,” Bergerhausen says.

“I grew up in the garden, foraging and hunting. [We would] bring [what we found] to my grandma and she would make [it] for lunch. Go and forage in the morning, [then] go home and start cooking.”

From an early age, his path was a smooth ascension in which he was groomed for greatness, versus laboring through difficult jobs for decades.

“I was always in the kitchen,” Bergerhausen says. “My dad was a hard worker. He started working at 15 years old, so he [encouraged me] to find [my own] direction. I was never very big on school. I have so much family inside the business—front of the house, back of the house. Everything was already set up for me for success.”

His earliest memories of food are tied to his grandparents, who grew vegetables for a well-known chef in France. “I grew up in the garden, foraging and hunting. [We would] bring [what we found] to my grandma and she would make [it] for lunch,” he says. “Go and forage in the morning, [then] go home and start cooking.”

The opportunity arose to visit his godfather’s son—who worked for Paul Bocuse for many years—when Bergerhausen was just 12 years old. That mentor showed him around the kitchen of a restaurant called Le Sud and the experience changed his life forever.

“My dad sent me to all [these] restaurants—we ate together at great places [Bernard Loiseau Restaurant, La Terrace by Alain Ducasse, Roger Vergé]. I liked the philosophy of respecting the quality of the product and doing something amazing [with] it. I also like the structure of the kitchen.”

The passion continued to progress and Bergerhausen attended school in Nice, France, where he developed a love of pastry and worked in restaurants and a catering business. He advanced rapidly, earning degrees in hospitality. During this time, he also had the opportunity to see the world. He traveled to Ireland, Austria, Germany and Spain, spending time and sharing various experiences with families. 

“Out of 50 ideas, maybe one is good. You have to scratch a lot of things. We are always doing tastings.”

After graduating school in 2006, it was while Bergerhausen was working at a two-Michelin-star restaurant close to Cannes that he decided to take some time off with friends and travel the United States. “In France, chefs typically work 15- to 17-hour days, six to seven days a week,” he says.

“We spent three months [in early 2008] just going here and there in California. I had just turned 21, so I [said], let’s stop by Las Vegas. I was in contact already with some chefs. They told me to come visit them. They said that [I] should go check out Robuchon [because] they usually do visas for French people, but I never thought anything of it. I went to the restaurant and I met the pastry chef and talked to him for a little bit. I met [then-chef Claude Le Tohic] and he gave me a food tour. He showed me the bakery downstairs, [and] all the food. It is pretty amazing, a hotel like this. There is nothing like it in Europe.”

Bergerhausen had barely unpacked his bags back home when he got the call in July 2008. He was being offered a job at Robuchon. Three weeks later, his visa was ready, and off to the States he went. An even bigger challenge: He didn’t speak English but would later pick it up between working in the kitchen and watching television.

Today, communication with his small team at Le Cirque is one facet of his job that Bergerhausen most prides himself on. “Out of 50 ideas, maybe one is good,” he says. “You have to scratch a lot of things. We are always doing tastings—every day we are doing something different to work on the next menu.”

Read below on how Bergerhausen breaks down two of his tasty dishes.

Black Cod

Thyme, Potatoes, Onion, Salt, Whole Garlic, Black Cod, Gold, Butter, Olive Oil, White Wine (Chardonnay), Squid Ink

 Photography by Anthony Mair

Chef Bergerhausen refers to this as Anthony’s dish, in reference to photographer Anthony Mair— with the kitchen taking a cue from artistic direction. This creation is a product of Bergerhausen’s special creative relationship with the photographer, who collaboratively worked with the chef to conceptualize what it would look like if each dish was broken down into its individual ingredients.

“I wanted to do something that resembled an explosion of a dish.”

Here, although the fish appears to have black skin, it does not, as that is a reflection from the plate. There is also gold dust. “You have a perfect white filet and we just glazed it,” Bergerhausen says. The plate is also special. “It is called the galaxy plate. The idea was to do something [seamless with the plate].”

Scallop and Daikon

Scallop, Peanuts, Coriander, Cumin, Peppercorn, Thai Chili, Lime, Daikon, Young Ginger, Galangal Ginger, Shallot, Garlic, Lemongrass, Turmeric, Celery, Kaffir, Bell Pepper, Basil, Flower, Cilantro Flower, Mint Flower, Mustard Flower, Bachelor Button

 Photography by Anthony Mair

“I wanted to do something with scallop and daikon for quite some time because I like the differences in texture—the crunchy and the soft. It goes perfectly together.

I did maybe 100 different recipes.

One day, I made a pasta out of the scallop. I was eating some Thai food, and the noodle was tender like a scallop. Then, we have daikon that is poached in ginger to elevate everything. We put it in a curry sauce. It has 35 ingredients. I had a co-worker who was from Thailand when I was in France. He [made the curry sauce] one time at the restaurant and gave me the recipe. It is like a version of pad Thai— [with] some French technique and Thai flavor.”