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With celebrity flair, International Smoke to open at MGM Grand

Updated December 31, 2019 - 10:14 am

There’s a big difference between cooking on television and preparing meals in a restaurant, according to celebrity cook, author and TV host Ayesha Curry.

“It’s real and it’s raw, and you see things being done the way they should be,” she explains of the latter, seated in her new MGM Grand restaurant International Smoke, which opens to the public on Monday.

Curry has a great partner to help her make the transition. International Smoke is a collaboration with celebrity chef Michael Mina, who runs more than 40 restaurants nationwide, including three others in Las Vegas. It’s a partnership that grew out of their shared love of football, and a promise Mina made to her after she visited one of his restaurants.

“He’s a huge football fan,” Curry, who is married to NBA star Stephen Curry, says of Mina, who operates restaurants in Santa Clara’s Levi’s Stadium. “He throws tailgates at the 49ers stadium, and he always brings in a chef to cook with him, depending on which team it is. And (during the 2015 season), the Panthers had a really good chance of going to the Super Bowl. They’re my husband’s favorite team, so I said ‘Hey, if the Panthers make it to the Super Bowl, can I cook with you?’ And I thought he was going to laugh it off. But he was like ‘Yeah, absolutely!’ ”

When the Panthers made it to Super Bowl 50, Mina kept his word. The pair collaborated on an interpretation of a pork biscuit made with porchetta and Crystal hot sauce.

“That day, we started cooking and we haven’t stopped,” Curry recalls.

Following the Super Bowl, Curry spent some time in various Mina Group restaurants learning the ropes, before the two decided to develop a concept for Mina’s San Francisco Test Kitchen.

“Working with Ayesha was great,” Mina says. “Because Ayesha is very humble. So she was, and still is, very focused on learning.”

What they brought to The Test Kitchen, and eventually adapted for International Smoke’s permanent locations, is a wood-fired concept inspired by their shared love of international travel.

“As chefs, we travel all the time,” Mina explains. “And every country you go to, one of the things that always ends up happening is you end up going to this little hole-in-the-wall place where it’s live-fire cooking. Whether it’s wood-fired cooking or live-fire cooking or smoking, everybody seems to have their own takes on it. That’s where it all started. And that’s what we wanted to create — hence the name International Smoke.”

The menu at International Smoke offers global influences — sashimi and “Tokyo fried” chicken, jerk duck spring rolls, smoked pork belly bao buns. Curry’s Jamaican heritage is represented in dishes such as braised oxtail, while Mina offers up his mother’s falafel recipe. The steak section allows each guest to choose an American, Japanese or Argentinian preparation for his or her selected cut of beef. The traditional chilled shellfish platter has been re-imagined as oysters, shrimp, crab and lobster are roasted in the wood-fired oven and brushed with sweet miso butter.

The wood-fired theme even carries over to the bar program, with creations such as a cold smoked Old-Fashioned, and the signature Smoke Signals cocktail, which is smoked in a glass box before your eyes.

Of course, no restaurant with smoke in its name would be complete without barbecue. The kitchen’s smoker will be used to create dishes such as whole pulled pork shank served al pastor style with tortillas, Korean bone-in short rib, and three different types of St. Louis pork ribs: American barbecue, Vietnamese chili-lemongrass and Korean sesame-gochujang.

The menu, which was still being finalized on Friday, will remain a work in progress after the restaurant opens.

“I’d say that, this menu, probably 70 percent will be set, and 30 percent will always be for experiments,” Mina says.

For Curry, the experience of opening a restaurant hasn’t gotten old, despite successful International Smoke locations in San Francisco, Del Mar and Miami.

“I love the hustle and bustle. I love the energy. I love the angst of making sure that everything is right, and getting it out to everybody on time. I feel like we’re all in the industry of making people happy. And that’s what I love about bringing out a dish to somebody, seeing them take their first bite. All of that stuff is so special.”

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

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