Vegas Voices is a weekly series highlighting notable Las Vegans.
Raised in Alsace, France, Hubert Keller trained in the kitchens of legendary chefs such as Paul Haeberlin, Gaston Lenotre, Paul Bocuse and Roger Vergé in France and South America before Vergé sent him to San Francisco to open Sutter 500 in 1982. Four years later, he became a partner in San Francisco’s Fleur de Lys, where casino executive William Richardson became a frequent guest.
In 2004, Richardson asked Keller to bring Fleur de Lys to Mandalay Bay, and tapped the chef to helm a hamburger concept in Mandalay Place that became known as Burger Bar. And about a dozen years ago, Keller and his wife, Chantal, made Las Vegas their primary residence. Fleur de Lys has evolved into the more casual Fleur by Hubert Keller, which the Kellers operate along with Burger Bar.
In addition to numerous TV appearances on ABC, Travel Channel, Food Network and elsewhere, Keller is the star of his own PBS series, “Hubert Keller: Secrets of a Chef.” What began as a kitchen-based cooking show has evolved into a travel program in which the chef tours his native Alsace and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The sixth season, which premieres on Vegas PBS at 12:30 p.m. Saturday, has been dubbed #LovinLasVegas, and was shot exclusively in the Las Vegas Valley. Over nine episodes, Keller and a series of guests (including this author) explore 20 restaurants, kitchens and lounges on and off the Strip.
We spoke with Keller recently about the show, his time in Las Vegas and his thoughts on the local culinary scene.
Review-Journal: How did you view Las Vegas when you were opening Fleur de Lys and Burger Bar, 16 years ago? Did you ever think you would make this your home?
Hubert Keller: I never knew that one day it would be my permanent home. That I didn’t know.
But it’s kind of funny, because a few years before (opening my restaurants here), I had created a little club among chefs from San Francisco called LV7. We were seven chefs and we used to go to Vegas. So we had our little club and we used to go every four months or so, and we loved it. And at the same time, I did notice that Vegas was really becoming something. It reminded me, in a different scale, of when I moved to San Francisco in 1982. I could feel something was going to happen.
How many nights a week do you eat out, versus the number you cook at home?
I guess it depends on how many days of the week I’m at (my) restaurant. But even between eating at home and eating at my restaurant, I think I eat out just as much.
For me and Chantal, we’ve always done it. When we had Fleur de Lys in San Francisco, we never, ever ate at home — probably two times a year. And that has never left us. That’s another amazing reason we love to be in Vegas, because there’s constantly something new. It’s like a playground that never stops.
Dining is what I do for a living, but it’s also a hobby. Sometimes it disturbs me when you hear some chefs saying “Oh, I’m around that kind of food — lobster and caviar and all that stuff — the whole week. So when I have my day off I’m going to eat a greasy burger somewhere.” I could never say that. Because how can you get bored when you do something good?
Do you prefer to explore neighborhood restaurants or the Strip?
For a while I think I was mostly exploring the Strip. But lately, for the last two or three years, we are going off the Strip more.
If you were to take the hotels out of the equation, how do you think Las Vegas compares as a food city to others?
Well if you were to take the hotels and casinos completely out of the equation, you’re taking away a big part of the experience of coming and dining in Las Vegas. I see it more as a combination of both. For many years it was only casinos. And that’s exciting, because you don’t have that experience in many other cities. Not every city has these expensive restaurants — and when I say expensive, I don’t mean to dine there, but the expense of building these restaurants, and putting beautiful concepts together. And that makes Las Vegas really exciting.
But what was missing was going off the Strip and having an experience as well. Maybe $8 million or $10 million wasn’t spent on the dining room. But somebody is the personality behind the restaurant, and you can feel it from the moment you walk in.
Having only that, maybe it wouldn’t be enough to compete with other cities. I think for Las Vegas to compete with other great restaurant cities, you need both.
Did you discover anything new about Las Vegas while filming this season of your show?
Once was one restaurant, which I think you introduced me to. That to me was amazing cuisine with which I wasn’t that familiar, so that was an amazing addition.
The other, which I knew about and had seen before, is what (The Venetian) is doing for banquets. The viewer would not usually have the chance to see that. I think that was interesting to show what the volume can be, and how in Las Vegas you can feed such a large group of people, and the level of quality at which it’s executed. I wanted to show that (contrast) from the small neighborhood restaurants, up to feeding 5,000 or 15,000 (at banquets). Because it’s not just mass feeding, the way things are prepared. And I don’t know if people ever get the chance to see the back of the house where they (do) the banquets. So when we filmed it, I saw it and I thought it’s going to look great. … It’s pretty breathtaking.
The Review-Journal is owned by the family of Las Vegas Sands Chairman and CEO Sheldon Adelson. Las Vegas Sands operates The Venetian.