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Chef who opened Picasso still at Bellagio 20 years later

“When you’re there to open a hotel of this magnitude with this much PR behind it, you never think that you’re going to be there in 20 years. Then when you wake up, it’s 20 years (later).”

Julian Serrano has been executive chef of Bellagio’s flagship fine dining restaurant Picasso since the beginning. And unlike some of his globe-trotting colleagues in the hotel’s stellar culinary lineup, who have delegated day-to-day operations of their Las Vegas outposts to talented locally based chefs, he has been in Las Vegas overseeing operations almost the entire time.

“I’ve been, for 20 years, here in this building,” Serrano said. “I created the restaurant. And everything that’s happened in this restaurant was my decision.”

When the Bellagio team first contacted the Spanish-born chef about overseeing the project, they sought a Spanish concept to complement the original Picasso paintings that would decorate the dining room. Despite the presence of New York’s legendary Le Cirque just upstairs, Serrano insisted on Spanish-influenced French cuisine.

When it came to that art collection, the chef says he was originally wary.

“Picasso, at the beginning, was a little bit of a handicap for me. Because I thought the people were going to go to the restaurant because of the Picassos. They’ll want to look at the paintings, and they won’t really care about the food or anything else. I was really worried.”

Two decades later, the art is almost an afterthought in a restaurant that continues to earn five stars from Mobil and five diamonds from AAA and has two prestigious Michelin stars.

“One of the reasons that the restaurant is still very popular today after 20 years is that we are very consistent — consistent in the cooking, consistent in the service and consistent in the product.”

Serrano points to his team, where 70 percent of his front-of-house staff and 90 percent of his bussers have been with him for 20 years. Many are people he persuaded to move to Las Vegas for the opening. And he’s done his best to keep them here, especially in the early days when employees imported from other cities had yet to discover a local social scene.

“You had to induce employees to stay here. I entertained these people, including the cooks. Most of the time we went out (together). I like to go out. But for these people, one of the reasons they came to Las Vegas was to party, and I had to keep the team together. There were no other people to hire. So I had to go out until 4 in the morning drinking just to keep these people happy.”

The result of his efforts is a restaurant that’s as important today as it was on Oct. 15, 1998, when Serrano looked out the window and saw a massive crowd lined up for their first glimpse of the Strip’s new marvel.

“It’s hard to believe that I’ve been here 20 years,” Serrano said. “Today I come into work and it’s like a couple of years (have passed). I never think about it, and it never gets old.”

Contact Al Mancini at amancini@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlManciniVegas on Twitter.

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