Guy Walks up to a Slot Machine...
Merrill Shindler - November 2006
After stony resistance, a little Las Vegas fling with Lady Luck teaches a legendary French chef/restaurateur that he can do exactly what he does in Paris but in a dream of a desert kitchen.
The points of difference between Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris and Restaurant Guy Savoy in Las Vegas are legion, even multitudinous. But one variant stands out from all the others; indeed, it literally dwarfs them. As Franck Savoy, son of Guy and general manager of this elegant Gallic oasis in the desert, puts it, "Here we have a view of the Eiffel Tower. There we don't."
Feeling a tad guilty, I point out that the Eiffel Tower that's visible from Restaurant Guy Savoy, well, it actually isn't the real Eiffel Tower. It's a half-scale 540-foot replica at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino across the street. (Trivia alert: when the hotel was being built, the intention was to construct a full-sized 1,058-foot-tall model of the Eiffel Tower. For obvious reasons, that idea was nixed by nearby McCarran International Airport.)
Franck shrugs, one of those wonderful Parisian shrugs that says, "Yes…but so?" And he says, "I know. But it's cleaner than the real Eiffel Tower—there are no pigeons here."
Actually, pigeons may be one of the few French icons not found in Las Vegas these days. The town is awash with megakilowatt French names—Guy Savoy joins fellow countrymen Alain Ducasse and Joël Robuchon…along with La Femme ("straight from the Crazy Horse in Paris") at the MGM and so many high-end Parisian shops that Guy (who was reticent in the extreme) began to think that truffles amidst the cactus and neon might not be such an absurd idea after all.
"There is," says Franck, "a story. There always is. For four years, we were courted by the MGM. My father was absolutely not tempted. He was in Paris. He is very Parisian. He did not believe his food would go over well in Las Vegas. He said, ‘It's too hard to take care of the original as is. How can I be in two places?' I told him I would go. But he said no, he needed me in Paris. It was out of the question."
But the temptations of Las Vegas—of both the spirit and the flesh—are legion too. What Vegas wants, Vegas gets. And Vegas wanted Guy Savoy.
"Finally, the president of Caesars Palace, Mark Juliano, came to Paris. He dined at Guy Savoy once, twice, three times in a row. He told my father his dream was to be able to eat his artichoke soup in his office in Las Vegas every day."
"My father was firm. He said ‘If you want the artichoke soup, you can have it in Paris anytime you want. But I am not going to Las Vegas—no way will I ever open a restaurant in Las Vegas. I will never even go there, it's not for me, everything is fake. I love art, what's real, what's natural. Las Vegas has none of this.'"
Apparently, the word "no" had no meaning for Juliano. His response to Guy's flat-out rejection was to ask what the chef was doing that weekend. Guy responded that he was spending the weekend with his family. "So," said Juliano, "you will spend it in Las Vegas as my guest. You will fly there on my jet. You will have whatever you want."
It was an offer worthy of Don Corleone, an offer that couldn't be refused. And so, as Franck puts it, "He went, for three days. And Guy fell in love with Las Vegas."
The seduction was (in the Las Vegas style) quick and to the point. "My father walked through the Forum Shops. And he saw all the famous stores—Hermès, Prada, Yves St. Laurent, Zegna—all the luxurious brands. And he began to think, ‘If there is a clientele for these kinds of shops, they need to eat. Why not?' The same day, he went to see Celine Dion. He met Celine afterward. He asked her what the average ticket price is. She told him it's about $250. So, now my father is thinking, ‘They have beautiful shops. They have beautiful shows at $250 a ticket. These people, they really need someone to feed them!'"
After exploring Caesars Palace, Guy went across the street to the Doge's Palace at the Venetian. And he saw many of the same glamorous shops. The idea was growing that perhaps a Restaurant Guy Savoy in Las Vegas wasn't such a foolish adventure. But it wasn't until he discovered the wonders of gambling (or gaming, as the local tourist board is so fond of euphemizing), that the deal went down.
"The Monday of this famous weekend, my father had a meeting with all the executives at Caesars. He was a bit early, so he walked around, looking at the casino. He had $10 in his pocket. Now, you must know, my father never gambles. But he was curious. He looked at the many slot machines. He said to himself, ‘OK, I'll try. If I win, I sign. If I lose, I don't.' He put the $10 in a slot machine. He won so much he had to present his passport. He won $1,500 on the first pull. So, he signed."
What he signed on to build was the restaurant he's always wanted to have in Paris but couldn't—because, simply, there was no space like this in Paris. "What we did here," says Franck, "is what we could never have done in Paris. We have a Champagne Bar here—we have no bar in Paris. We have a lounge on a patio here—we have no patio in Paris. Our restaurant in Paris has one window—here we have walls of windows. In Paris we are on the worst street, an alleyway really. If you didn't know there was a Restaurant Guy Savoy there, you would never find it. Here we are at the best hotel. Here we have a vaulted ceiling. In Paris our ceiling is low. And we have a much, much bigger kitchen here, more than double the size of the kitchen in Paris. Here, we can do so much."
Though there was, of course, concern about what they were going to do with so much space. There are no farms in Las Vegas. There is no ocean. There are no vineyards. There were also, as it turned out, no problems.
"Absolutely no problems," says Franck. "Because we were the last one to open here. There is Ducasse, Robuchon, Daniel Boulud, Jean-Georges—all the others who are so great. They all told us if we need anything, just ask. So we asked Robuchon, ‘Where do you buy your sea bass?' We asked Ducasse about his vegetables, Jean-Georges about his beef. We are like a big family. Everyone helped us."
And, as Guy, Franck, and their staff discovered, there was much help to be found from the bounty and abundance of the western United States. "We are getting 90 percent of the products we use from the U.S. We do it out of respect. But also because your products are great. And they keep getting better and better—excellent chicken, wonderful Hudson Valley foie gras, the artichokes from California. I found there is a whole town of artichokes, Castroville. They have a festival. I must go. And near there is the garlic town, Gilroy. We're next to the garden of the U.S., California.
"We are very impressed. We are able to use fish here we never see in Paris, very impressive fish from the Pacific. In France we have a beautiful terroir. But we are not the sort of French people who believe we have the very best products. We are open to what we find. And what we have found is very good, excellent. We have to stop thinking that Americans have no taste, that all they eat is burgers. It's not true. Americans are foodies. They know what is great food. If we b.s. them, they will know. We do not offer fake service or cook fake food. Americans know the difference."
But still, Restaurant Guy Savoy is French. And as a French restaurant, there is one point where no accommodations will be made. "When you come to our restaurant, we know you want to drink French wine. Though the wines of California are superb, we are true to our own in this case. We worked on our wine list for three years. We are shipping over very rare Bordeaux and Burgundies. We already had 1,500 labels for an opening that was very big, and it's going to grow. We want a wine list that's like none other. We want to have the best wine list in Las Vegas."
There may be parity between the wines served at Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris and at Restaurant Guy Savoy in Las Vegas. But there's also one point of difference on the menu—and a very surprising point at that. It's an answer to the old cliché, "Where's the beef?"
Franck says, "You will never find beef on the menu of Guy Savoy in Paris. Sometimes the beef is very good. But it is not consistent in France; sometimes it can be tough and chewy. American beef is excellent. And we have made a point of serving American beef. When I did the first draft of the menu, I faxed it to Paris, to my father, for him to double-check it. And I put on the menu ‘authentic Japanese Kobe beef'. Five minutes after I sent it, he called. He's yelling at me, ‘Franck, why are you using Japanese beef in the country of the beef?' So we removed the Japanese beef and replaced it with American prime tenderloin and with flatiron steak français (see Recipes & Techniques). We use Midwestern beef—the best, so consistent. Americans love their beef."
Though the beef may be a variant, the food found in the desert is the same as that found in the 17th arrondissement. "We use the same recipes as we do in Paris. Sometimes there are small changes. In Paris they use rouget; here we cannot find rouget or they are bigger, so we use mackerel. But we have to have permission from Paris. But otherwise, things are the same. We use avocado here, we use avocado in Paris. We have the Champagne cart here, we have it in Paris. We have the dessert cart here, we have it in Paris. The cheeses are almost identical. We fax pictures of the dishes back and forth when we need to know how to make something. It's as if my father were in the kitchen and not thousands of miles away."
The beef, the sea bass, the mackerel, the foie gras, the truffles are all cooked in a spacious kitchen built around a custom-built Molteni suite with eight burners, four gradiated flattops, two planchas, and one induction burner. The arrangement of the line is traditional, with no real surprises—this is a high functioning kitchen in which any accomplished chef would feel at home. (There are even several microwave ovens: "They're for warm milk. That's why we use the microwave—never for cooking.") What sets the kitchen apart from its older sibling in Paris is the spacious, well appointed prep area, a short elevator ride down, in which every element of the cuisine has its own realm.
As chef de cuisine Adam Sobol walks me through it, he proudly points out the butcher shop, where they do more than cut meat. "We cure all our own meats, our own bacon, our own charcuterie." There's the vegetable prep kitchen and the fish prep kitchen, each with its own Amatek walk-in refrigerators. There's the bakery and the pastry prep area—so sweet smelling you put on weight just breathing in. There's also a "cheese cave" of sorts. "It's a wine refrigerator," explains Sobol. "I found it online. It works perfectly for cheese."
But mostly, what the Las Vegas branch of Restaurant Guy Savoy has is a variation on Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises; in this case, The Son Also Rises.
"The question," says Franck rhetorically, "is how can you manage a restaurant when you're far away. My father agreed because he had me. This is a town of sons—Bradley Ogden's son is here, Sirio Maccioni's sons are here. It's an exciting place for us. I'm 27, I'm very young for what I'm doing. This is a remarkable chance for me. In France, I could work in the family restaurants; here I can make the restaurant something that I built."
And, in at least one very significant way, something very different. For the Las Vegas edition of Restaurant Guy Savoy overlooks an arena; those seated in the lounge on the patio look right down into the arena three stories below. In Paris there is no arena; as Franck has said, there's nothing but an alley.
"We have had boxing matches, a Melissa Etheridge concert—there's a busy schedule. People can sit on the patio and listen to the concerts, see the fight—it's the best seat in the house. For the first time, I watched a boxing match. What a way to see it. The problem is all our staff kept going to the patio to watch. I had to keep telling them: "Back to the tables, back to the tables. There's dinner to be served."