After eight years as West Coast corporate chef for Tao Group, Marc Marrone is no stranger to celebrity moments. When asked to share some star stories, he recalls one evening at Beauty & Essex at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, following the 2016 Billboard Music Awards.
“Ariana Grande was in the private dining room. And (celebrity chef) Chris Santos and I were bringing out food. So I brought food to her and turned around and literally bumped into Madonna. Then I went around the corner and Kourtney and Khloe Kardashian were sitting there going ‘Hey, Chef.’ I just remember going into the kitchen and thinking ‘What the hell business am I in? What am I doing?’ ”
In addition to overseeing Santos’ local Beauty & Essex, Marrone’s position put him directly in charge of dining at 13 other restaurants and dayclubs in Tao Group’s international portfolio of more than 30 venues. The largest, Tao Las Vegas, consistently tops Business Insider’s list of the top-grossing independent restaurants in the world, with sales of $43 million last year. This month, at age 33, he left Tao Group in an amicable split to pursue other ventures.
“The job that I had at Tao is really one that, for most people, you’d work your career up to, and that’s the job at the end. I kind of did it backward. And being 33, I just said ‘Do I stay here and keep a great job? What is the end goal?’ ”
Marrone, who began his career with the Tao Group a dozen years ago as a sous chef at Tao New York, came to Las Vegas in 2009 to work at Lavo at Palazzo, which was transforming from a Mediterranean menu to more classic Italian cuisine. The plan was for him to stay for three months to learn the restaurant, then return to New York to open a Lavo there. He never went back, however, and Las Vegas has been his base of operation ever since.
He’s seen Lavo shutter its nightclub operation, while Tao’s has evolved. He was here for the opening of Marquee nightclub and dayclub at the Cosmopolitan. He spent six weeks in Singapore opening that Lavo location. And in Los Angeles, he oversaw the openings of Tao L.A., Luchini Pizzeria, and The Highlight Room and room service kitchen at the Dream Hollywood hotel.
“The role kind of grew into what I do now,” he said of the corporate chef position during his final week at the job. It’s a position that often kept him occupied from 8 a.m. through well past midnight, and saw him log 127,000 travel miles last year.
While he oversaw a massive international operation, Marrone credits the 60-seat Highlight Room with inspiring his next moves.
“The rooftop at the Dream Hotel really didn’t have a concept,” he explains. “There was no restriction on what it was going to be. It wasn’t a pre-existing brand. So I just got to have fun: go to the market, check out food, bring in great products and just make kick-ass food. And I was like ‘This is what it would be like to get to do my own (thing).’ ”
He’s also convinced that Las Vegas is coming into its own as a culinary city and wants to be part of it.
“I think the time is right. Before they keep importing restaurant concepts from other cities, I want to contribute the best I can to show that Vegas chefs and the Vegas scene are just as qualified and just as talented, and we have our own little niche and scene.”
Marrone has a pair of projects in the works. The first is a “hand-crafted Italian” spot called Italian Graffiti with an attached pizza window at the The Bend, the retail center expected to open next year near the 215 Beltway and Durango Drive. The second is a still-unnamed rooftop collaboration with Fukuburger’s Colin Fukunaga at Las Vegas Boulevard and Carson Avenue downtown.
It’s too soon to predict an opening date for either, but Marrone expects Italian Graffiti to debut in 2020. If that proceeds on schedule, he expects the second restaurant to open three to four months later.
In the meantime, Marrone will work on various projects, such as pop-up meals and special events, with other local chefs. He also hopes to spend a lot of time with his wife and 2½-year-old son, Ace, another major inspiration for his move.
“The traveling and all of the stuff I was doing was a lot of time away from him,” he says. “He’s getting older, and (that’s) a big part of it.”
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‘I love this city’
Marc Marrone says he will draw on his past — and Las Vegas’ future — as he plans his next two ventures.
For Italian Graffiti at The Bend shopping center, he’ll look to his Italian-American roots.
“It’s going to be an Italian restaurant with a lot of hand-crafted pastas, focused around classic Italian dishes, but putting my twist on it.”
The chef’s story goes back to his grandfather, a mason who laid bricks at the Empire State Building, and his grandmother, who taught him cooking and gardening. He’s planning to merge those influences with his own style in the building’s design.
“I’m going to do a lot of herb walls over concrete and brick. But then to make it a little more modern, since I’m into tattoos and street art and graffiti and things like that, I have a couple of my friends who are artists around town and are going to do some distressed etchings and graffiti on the brick.”
For the downtown rooftop collaboration with Colin Fukunaga, he’s looking to his own future, and the future of Las Vegas.
“This is my home now. I’ve lived here for (over 10) years, and I love this city so much. And I was like ‘How can I do a restaurant that’s going to make an impact, with a nod to Vegas? Once I went up on that roof and looked around, I was like ‘This is it!’ You’ve got downtown in one direction. You’ve got the cool old-school neon signs on Fremont. You’ve got the beautiful mountains to one side. You’ve got a view of everything.”
He promises a more refined, seasonal menu featuring charcuterie, dry-aged meat, fresh pasta and fresh baked goods.
“That one is where I really want to go and really be able to blow it out. At that one I want to do more of a culinary show.”