For more than a decade, restaurant consultant Elizabeth Blau helped Steve Wynn line up elite chefs for two of his biggest hotel projects, Bellagio and Wynn Las Vegas.
Wynn has returned the favor by recommending Blau for one of the most prestigious jobs in the culinary world.
She’s been hired to help restore New York City’s legendary Rainbow Room at 30 Rockefeller Plaza.
“It’s really an honor to work on such an extraordinary project,” said Blau, in this week’s Q-and-A interview.
“We’re working with the developer, Tishman Speyer, on all aspects of bringing it back to its former glory. One of the exciting things we’re doing is this international search for an executive chef.
“It’s kind of on the magnitude of a Wynn or a Bellagio,” she said. “It’s going to be one of the most extraordinary career opportunities for someone.”
Blau shares details of her first job in the restaurant business, as a taco-serving 16-year-old, her courtship with chef Kim Canteenwalla, the five people she’d love to have dinner with and a 19-year-old singing phenom.
Go into your early history and how you got involved in the restaurant industry.
“I grew up in West Hartford, Conn. My first job in the restaurant business came when I was 16. I was a taco girl at a happy hour at an Irish-Mexican cantina called Pancho McGee’s. You can’t make this stuff up. I learned that I just loved the business.”
The big break in your career?
“I went to Cornell to get my masters at the hotel school and that’s where I first met the Maccioni family. Mario and Marco also attended the hotel school. I ended up writing my thesis with a strategic marketing plan for the restaurant that ended up being Circo in New York and the Circo that will be closing after 15 years here in Las Vegas. Then I made the re-introduction of Sirio (Maccioni) and Steve Wynn, (which) kind of got the ball rolling. (Next came) the deals for Le Cirque and Circo at Bellagio. That’s when, at some point, when Mr. Wynn offered me a job to come work for him to do restaurant development for his whole company. That would have been in 1997. At that time, I was the director of development for Le Cirque.”
She was in her 20s and working for one of New York City’s legendary celebrity hotspots.
Among the big names were “Woody Allen, Henry Kissinger, every New York mayor, presidents, the Reagans, European royalty. Bill Cosby would come in and shake the hand of every cook and dishwasher. It was the who’s who of New York’s cognoscenti.”
Describe how the job offer happened.
“I was in Sun Valley for (Wynn’s) daughter’s wedding. Actually, he had talked to me about a job several years before when I was still at Cornell. He had come up to be a speaker at Cornell. I’m doing my graduate work and I’m all excited to go to New York. Las Vegas wasn’t on my radar screen at that point. But by the time he offered me the job, I had been working with his team for almost a year, negotiating the deals with LeCirque and Circo and working with Adam Tihany on the design of the restaurant. It wasn’t like I was new to the whole process.”
How did you and Kim meet? Did he woo you with his cooking during the courtship?
“Kim was the executive chef of the Beau Rivage in Biloxi, Miss., Steve’s property down there. We were just friends and colleagues. But when you get to know somebody after you have been working with them for a while …
“It was years before he wooed me with his food. There were no gourmet feasts in his tiny little apartment in Biloxi. (On) our actual first date, we were in New York City and we went ice skating at Central Park. Dinner at Le Bernardin. Our first date in Biloxi after that was in a place called Aunt Jenny’s Catfish Shack. Very romantic. We’ve been together 14 years. We were married June 14, 2003.”
How many consultant jobs have you done over the years? The first and the most recent?
“Fifty or 60. The first big project I had was working for the real estate developer Vornado in New York on the Bloomberg building, on the space that eventually became Le Cirque. We’re still working on the Rainbow Room in New York. … The Rainbow Room is one of the most iconic spots in New York City. It’s now got landmark status. It’s on the 65th floor of 30 Rock in Rockefeller Center, one of the most visited attractions in New York City. It has a storied legacy of operators from catering, to dining to dancing. It’s part of the fabric of New York City as is Rockefeller Center. It’s really an honor to work on such an extraordinary project. We’re working with the developer, Tishman Speyer, on all aspects of bringing it back to its former glory. One of the exciting things we’re doing is this international search for an executive chef. It’s kind of on the magnitude of a Wynn or a Bellagio. It’s going to be one of the most extraordinary career opportunities for someone.”
How many collaborations as husband and wife have you and Kim done?
“Buddy V’s and Honey Salt are the first collaborations of our own,” she said, referring to “Cake Boss” Buddy Valastro’s new restaurant at The Palazzo.
“My first collaboration was with my great friend Kerry Simon (Simon at Palms Place). But in all our consulting deals, we work really well because I have a strategic vision and I have a marketing background and Kim has a very strong operational background. Obviously, most people know him as a chef but he really has a great vision for operations, both front and back of the house. He gravitates to the operations and the details, and I gravitate more to strategic and business planning and marketing.
“We both have a passion for the culinary, and we come at it from a completely different angle. His palate is definitely a chef and foodie palate. I think my palate is definitely more of the people, a more commercial palate. It’s a good balance of yin and yang. When we go to restaurants, some times I don’t even want to taste what Kim is ordering. I mean he loves all the offal –the kidneys and chicken’s feet and stuff like that – whereas the fried chicken sandwich is on the Honey Salt menu. It’s the most popular item at lunch and that’s what I like to eat. Or the healthy, the really light, all the salads, whereas the braised short ribs and carmelized sea scallops with truffled cauliflower, those are more Kim’s hardier side.
This question comes from my wife. If Kim is in the doghouse, what meal can he put together to make amends?
“(Laughter). I like that question. Anything with truffles or caviar.”
What is your guilty pleasure?
“Peanut butter cups, donuts, Twizzlers, M&M’s … anything with sugar.”
I’ve seen you and your son, Cole, at UNLV basketball games. Last weekend, I understand you had a family outing to Dallas for the Cowboys-Vikings game.
“That was an early holiday present for Cole (who is 9). Cole and Kim are mega-football fans. If you want to connect with your husband and son, you’ve got to join them. Cole has a hat collection on the back of his door of his room. He must have 100 caps back there. Everything: football, baseball, hockey, soccer. He’s like a little encyclopedia. He’s got a real passion, which he gets from his dad. When Kim and I were first dating, I surprised him with Super Bowl tickets. Kim may have cooked for me, but I figured that was a good way to woo a boyfriend.”
What would rank as your greatest professional achievement?
“I would have to say opening the Bellagio and Wynn. Opening Honey Salt would be right up there.”
From your perspective, how did the Life Is Beautiful festival turn out? Talk about your involvement.
“Life Is Beautiful was just amazing for everybody. It was just a great tribute to the city, and I thought the organizers did a spectacular job. They really set the stage with all the cool food, the music and the arts, the things for kids.”
Blau and chef Hubert Keller were asked by Rehan Choudhry, CEO and co-founder of Life Is Beautiful, to host a $5,000-a-plate kickoff benefit dinner for Three Square and Communities in Schools at Tony Hsieh’s residence.
“They had this outrageous lineup of chefs and it was a magical evening,” said Blau. “A 19-year-old girl performed – she performed at the festival too – she was just phenomenal, like a young Norah Jones.”
Blau was referring to on-the-rise Las Vegan Sabriel Hobart, who sings every other Sunday at Eat, 707 Carson St.
If you could have dinner with any five living people in the world, outside of your family, who would it be?
“Itzhak Perlman, Bono, Nobu Matsuhisa, Francis Ford Coppola and Jerry Seinfeld.”
Where is the Las Vegas restaurant scene compared to 10 years ago? What trends do you see coming in the next decade?
“Las Vegas just continues to evolve as a city, both from a cultural perspective and certainly from a food perspective. It just keeps growing and improving. I think you will reach a point of saturation on the Strip. But what you’re going to continue see is a burgeoning restaurant subculture go off of the Strip. Look at what’s been happening in Summerlin and what’s starting to happen downtown. We’re going to see the next wave like you see in other cities — a lot of young talent opening smaller places without so much interior design and fanfare, but really cooking great food.”
Norm Clarke’s column appears Sunday, Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Reach him at 702-383-0244 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Find more normclarke.com. Follow @Norm_Clarke on Twitter. “Norm Clarke’s Vegas” airs Thursdays on the “Morning Blend” on KTNV-TV, Channel 13.