Coming Full Circle
Merrill Shindler - July/August 2008
At Table 10 in Las Vegas Emeril brings diners into the action just as he and his staff got up close and personal at his earliest restaurant in New Orleans.
Back in the day—before Emeril Lagasse was the King of All Culinary Media, before he was a subsidiary of Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia, before he even said "Bam"!—he had one restaurant in the warehouse district of New Orleans. And that restaurant had a table that wasn't such a good table. It was, in the words of Emeril's longtime chef de cuisine Jean Paul Labadie, "a crappy table, the worst table in the house." It was called Table 10. And it was where Emeril and his staff would gather late at night to finish off leftovers, taste new dishes, and talk trash about the night gone by.
Flash forward two decades. Lagasse sits atop an "Emeril Empire" of restaurants, sauces, cookbooks, and T-shirts. And for Lagasse, Las Vegas has turned into the "Emeril City"—home to Emeril's New Orleans Fish House (at the MGM Grand Hotel & Casino), Delmonico Steakhouse (at The Venetian)—and mostly recently, an homage at the ultraluxurious Palazzo to his rough-and-ready roots in the Big Easy. In honor of the table where he'd (literally) chew the fat with his cooks, he calls it Table 10. But it's a far cry from the original Table 10—which was decidedly not designed by New York City's Rockwell Group.
On the other hand, there are points of similarity. At 10 in the morning, the day staff is gathered around the rectangular bar with its polished stone surface, having breakfast. It takes a staff of 49 to make Table 10 work day and night. And a big chunk of them are here already, for much prep is called for when your menu is heavy with lobster potpie (baked with sweet corn, mushrooms, leeks, and spinach in a Sherry cream sauce dappled with truffles); Prince Edward Island mussels steamed with leeks, bacon (smoked in house), fennel, and saffron; and "grilled and chilled" scallops with hearts of palm, scallions, and micro arugula salad moistened with a black truffled vinaigrette with fried portobello mushrooms on the side. (Yes, Virginia, Mr. Lagasse does like his truffles—bam!)
"What Emeril wanted to do," says Labadie, the restaurant's motorcycle-riding shaggy-haired overseer, "was pay tribute to his roots with this restaurant. He wanted to go back full circle. The idea from the beginning was to keep the style of the restaurant very down home—and very connected with the land. We go to small farms and talk to the farmers about what we need. They supply all our restaurants, but especially Table 10. We're in a big Las Vegas casino. But this is a showcase for small producers. We think of this as the New American Table. It's all about what's fresh, local, seasonal."
Or at least, it's all about what's fresh, local, and seasonal in California—for the Nevada desert is good if your menu is heavy with dishes made with lizards and cactus. And dates from the date palms. But micro greens do not grow on the outskirts of Las Vegas. Luckily, California is just a border away—head 40 miles down I-15, and just past Buffalo Bill's, Whiskey Pete's, and the outlet mall at Primm, there's California.
"I wish we had farmers' markets like New Orleans or Los Angeles," says Labadie. "We don't have the cultivated land, though we do have the restaurants. But we have great relationships. We're always traveling to California to see what's fresh. And anyway, everything comes the next day. We can literally handpick the produce by e-mail."
Actually, in some ways, California influences the cooking at Table 10 as much as New Orleans. For it's Californians who make up the majority of the eaters, drinkers, partiers, gamblers, revelers, ramblers, floozies, lotharios, nutballs, and loons who head for Las Vegas to live up to the city's oft-quoted advertising slogan ("What happens in…etc…"). And Californians like to eat, well, California-style—as Emeril and crew quickly realized.
"When we first got here," says Labadie, "we realized we needed to lighten up the menu, especially for people from California. They don't want all the butter and cream that we're used to eating in New Orleans. They're concerned about how they look. They want to look good at the pool. And people here often have to eat in a hurry. They have a show to get to, they want to get back to the tables, they need to go to a club. They don't want to be filled with mashed potatoes. They want to eat light so they can play. In New Orleans, people spend an evening dining. Here, they've got an agenda. Their dance cards are full."
One of the great pleasures of opening in Las Vegas is being able to create a space from the ground up. In New Orleans, Emeril had to squeeze into whatever was available, often cutting corners to fit in amenities like, say, a kitchen. In Las Vegas, no such problems—especially when a resort is being built around you.
"It was totally Emeril's space from day one. We were one of the first restaurants to sign on, so we had a choice of space. And we chose the one right at the top of the escalator. Everyone coming up from the casino gets off right in front of us," says Labadie. "Then, we brought in the Rockwell Group to follow Emeril's vision. He wanted a restaurant that was both hip and comfortable. Inside, there are a dozen seats at a counter that looks into the kitchen, with the grill right in front of you. Sitting outside on the patio, you see all the beautiful people doing their shopping at Bottega Veneta, Canali, Christian Louboutin, Diane von Furstenberg, Jimmy Choo, Piaget, Barneys. It's a great show, maybe the best show in town."
There are 244 seats at Table 10, though many of them are concealed in private rooms off to the side. Which gives the illusion that the 3,600-square-foot kitchen is actually bigger than the restaurant itself. Even if it's not, 3,600 square feet make for a spacious series of work areas. Including what may be the only prep kitchen with a view in town.
"In most prep areas, you work in a dungeon," says Labadie. "Here, there's a view of the Wynn across the street." It's true—and rather amazing. Look up from the tomatillo relish and the lemon/parsley aïoli, and there's the bronze immensity of the Wynn right in front of you. And not just the Wynn, but the shops at the Wynn as well. From the prep area, with its lovely dark green, orange, and yellow wall tiles, you can see signs for Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Dior. From Cartier to calamari, what a notion.
But as lovely a notion as a prep-room-with-a-view may be, it's not Labadie's greatest culinary pride and joy. That belongs to the Wood Stone rotisserie that's inside a glass room with iron work filigree at a cusp where the kitchen, the counter, and the dining room meet (see this issue's cover).
"We had to have a rotisserie," says Labadie, opening the door to the room with what I can only describe as reverence; he's like an Orthodox Jew approaching the Ark of the Covenant. "You enter from the back&rduo;, he says as we step into a room filled with aroma so thick you really could cut it with a knife. "We use it a lot. We use it all the time. We love this equipment. Everything stays moist with a good crust on the outside. We do chicken, rib eye, baby backs, whole fish, leg of lamb, Kurobuta pork loin. And we're blown away by how many steaks we're selling. Steaks are a best seller in Las Vegas. This is a real meat town."
Steaks are also something the restaurant takes total control of—as they take total control of all their proteins. "We butcher our meat, we dry age our meat, we marinate it, and it emerges smokin' good out of the rotisserie. Once the flame gets ahold of the meat, and the herbs caramelize, and there's a crust—it's the best, it's a nice deal. And because we planned for it from the beginning, we had no problems. Everything's up to code, the smoke is well ventilated, we got a green light right away. In Las Vegas, they work with you to make it work."
The smoke from the rotisserie leaves through an overhead Halton vent. The drippings leave through a drain down below, of which Labadie is exceedingly proud. I mean, this is a drain after all. "You see the water in the pan on the bottom. That's the cool part. That makes the cleaning easy. The water funnels all the drippings into the drain. Then, you just get a sanitized towel—and it wipes up just like that."
Within his supersized kitchen, Labadie runs the show from an expediting station, which allows him to oversee enough lines to keep the food coming with alacrity from the cold line, the hot line, the grill line, the dessert line. "We have to crank out top quality food at breakneck speed, though that's the same for every restaurant in Las Vegas. People will come in, tell us they've got 20 minutes before a show, and they want a tasting menu. We tell them, we'll do our best. And I've seen it work, though it would be better if they had a little more time."
Luckily, Labadie (who was raised in Puerto Rico by French and Spanish parents, went to college in New Orleans and Iowa, then returned to New Orleans to cook because "I grew up eating snails and bacalao, and when I got bored with college, I figured I liked staying up late, eating and drinking, so cooking was the life for me") has found a few tricks to keep things moving along.
One of his favorites is the "chill and bag system" used in prep, sealed with a Tipper Tie closure. "All our sauces go from the stove into one or two gallon bags, then we crimp them, seal them, and drop them into chilled water. When we need them, we put them in one of our Cleveland kettles with boiling water. There's no evaporation, no scorching. You get all the flavor you want from kettle to bag to station with no loss of anything."
He's also mad for his Rosito Bisani pasta cooker. "This pasta cooker we love. It looks like a deep fryer. It's an Italian machine with six big baskets that sit in boiling water. You put the pasta in, then bring it up, let it drain, it goes into a bowl or a sauté pan. I love this. You can cook gnocchi, ravioli, anything, just like that. It makes it very easy."
And speaking of sauté pans, there's no lack: stacked over two Jade ranges ("we've got enough to feed any number of people") are 50 or 60 of them. Even though the restaurant has been open just a few weeks, they're already well seasoned and scorched. And it's the grill area that leads us back to the counter.
"We purposely put it right in front of the kitchen, right where the flame is. People get mesmerized watching us cook. They ask a few questions, but mostly they just watch. It makes them feel part of the process, which is really what Table 10 was about originally and what it's about now. Only at this Table 10, it's not late at night. So we have to watch our behavior. And we have to watch our language. That's the hardest part. Language is rough in the kitchen. That's how it always is." Or as Emeril would say, when a red hot sauté pan lands on his foot—"Bam"!