Confessions of a Las Vegas Chef
I’ve been to Las Vegas several times over the past 10 years. It’s close enough to the Bay Area that we get out there quite often. We’re not gamblers, but my husband Lulu and I definitely enjoy the food. Whether it’s the Bellagio Buffet or one of the many fine dining restaurants on the strip, finding great food is one of the safest bets in the city. I thought it would be fun to speak to a Vegas chef to learn about what goes on behind the scenes. To that end, I recently interviewed Chef Pawan Pinisetti, who is a chef at a fine dining restaurant in Las Vegas. We can’t mention the name of the establishment he works for, but I can tell you it’s a very popular and high-end restaurant. Anyway, isn’t it fitting for a website called “Pham Fatale” (femme fatale) to engage in a little clandestine activity from time to time? I hope you enjoy the "intel" I was able to gather!
Tell us about yourself. What got you interested in cooking?
I would simply say I’m an aspiring culinarian. My mom's international and sometimes not-so-traditional cooking approach had a big influence on my vision into food. Moreover, she was very efficient with her kitchen management. Be it organizing family get-togethers or just my after school snack. I attended the Institute of Hotel Management, Pusa, New Delhi. I started realizing that kitchens and food made me happy and brought out the best in me.
What is your culinary background?
I graduated as an Associate in Occupational Studies (A.O.S.) in Culinary Arts, 2007 from the Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY.
How long have you lived in Las Vegas? Why did you decide to settle in Vegas?
I have been in Las Vegas for the past three years. Vegas is perpetually growing and the food scene here is huge. Many culinary giants have their restaurants here. Therefore, there's a constant opportunity for growth with so many places to work at and gain experience from. Besides, it’s a fun place.
How different is the clientèle in Vegas from the city you grew up in and/or the city you attended school at?
People come here to Vegas with every intention of spending so half the job is already done. There's a clientele for every genre of food. What better place to display your passion while learning alongside?
What is your daily routine? How many covers do you serve daily?
Be it at work or outside, my daily routine involves food, whether I’m shopping, cooking, reading or talking. At the moment, we do about 350 covers for dinner; it can go up to 550 to 700 on weekends.
So how long does it take you to prepare everything?
We have a morning crew that receives all our produce because everything is fresh every day and the ingredients are pre-prepped. Then, we have an afternoon crew that comes in, which actually works until end of service (3pm til 11pm). They come in to do whatever they're assigned (semi-cooked products and sauces) and once we open at 5.30, there we go.
How are the food and ingredients different in Las Vegas?
In Las Vegas, everything is all about showing off. So being in the food business, you have to be very competitive; it's not laid back. Everyone out here is trying to showcase their best. People come to Vegas to try out different things.
When you're done with your shift, where do chefs go to eat in Las Vegas?
Everyone has their own local bars. We definitely stop by for a couple of drinks before we go home and unwind. Mostly again, it is with your colleagues and people who work with you, just to discuss how the day went and tackle another day tomorrow. You know with chefs, the one thing is you want to talk about food all the time. Everyone does; well, that's how I am. It's a lifestyle.
How is Las Vegas different from other foodie towns, such as San Francisco or New York?
We're not as known for the food scene. But I think now we're growing with so many big celebrity chefs opening up their places here, especially with television and media playing a big part. People are more and more invested in food nowadays. Despite the recession, Las Vegas opened quite a few restaurants this year. We had quite big names coming from Europe such as Pierre Gagnaire, who opened Twist. He's a critically-acclaimed chef and this was his first entry to the US and he decided to choose Vegas. It's a good sign for us.
What made you want to become a chef? What would be your advice to people who want to get into the food industry?
Nothing in particular made me want to be a chef. I just know whenever I’m in a kitchen or around food that I feel comfortable and that I am where I belong. The food industry requires the utmost passion and dedication. It can be physically exerting and might interfere in one’s social or family life. Would I do something else for a living? I’m thinking, absolutely NOT!
How would you describe your style of cooking?
I'm still trying to figure out what my style is. The more people you work with, the more experience you get, especially working with chefs with a lot more experience than chefs my age. You wouldn't say you tend to pick up on their style. But you see so many styles, you see what you like, what approach you want.
What is your favorite ingredient?
There is no way I could pick a favorite ingredient. There are just too many. It would be like asking a mother to pick her favorite child; even that would be easier actually.
Do you make any Indian-American fusion dishes?
Yes, I do make Indo-American food. I am constantly cooking at home trying to mix and match flavor profiles and cooking techniques.
What is your favorite dish?
Honestly, I wouldn't be able to answer that. I don't really have a favorite dish. Some of my favorite things in the world are very simple. There are very few things that pleases me more than fresh pasta. So if I have this pasta, I'll take the time to make it fresh and roll it out. I'll wait an hour; I'll make the dough, let it rest and eat pasta. I wouldn't make a box of dried pasta. All you need is to break an egg, a little flour, Parmigiano-Reggiano, salt and cracked pepper. You have to take the time to make it nice and fresh. It's all about a few ingredients and turning them into something magical.
That concludes the interview. I hope you enjoyed it! Chef Pinisetti was kind enough to share his recipe for harissa [click on the link to view the recipe] with all of us. It's a recipe that he learned while at the CIA (Culinary Institute of America, New York). I absolutely love North African food, and have posted my own harissa recipe in the past. I’m really looking forward to giving his version a try.