Carnevino's Star Executive Chef
BY JOHN CURTAS
PHOTOGRAPHS BY JARED MCMILLEN
Carnevino executive chef Nicole Brisson in the steakhouse’s 2,000-square-foot, climate-controlled meat locker
When you ask to see the chef in most steakhouses, a big, brawny guy appears looking like he knows his way around a side of beef. Not so at Mario Batali’s Carnevino. Instead, a pint-size female walks out looking no bigger than a filet mignon. Nicole Brisson is 5-foot-2 and has talents and responsibilities that make her unique in the world of porterhouses and prime. As executive chef, she supervises the cooking and the (almost all male) staff of 120 employees at what may be the best steakhouse in America—serving what are certainly the oldest aged steaks anywhere, along with authentic eats given the weighty Batali/Bastianich seal of approval. It doesn’t get more exalted than that in the steak or Italian food world.
Brisson, 30, started her career as a prep cook in upstate New York when she was a mere 14 years old. After high school, she went on to Johnson & Wales University, the renowned cooking school, before Italian food maven Faith Willinger arranged for her to stage at some of the best kitchens in Italy—including Dario Cecchini in Chianti, the same butcher who trained Batali’s father, the man behind the Salumi line of artisan-cured meats.
“Talent and crafty strategy will always win out over mere brute strength,” says the younger Batali. “That said, she is a tough cookie and never takes any heat from anyone on her path to perfect steak and divinity in dining.”
Proving Herself In a Man's World
Acclaimed Italian chef Stephen Kalt brought Brisson to Vegas when he opened Corsa Cucina in the Wynn in 2005, and from there she worked with Paul Bartolotta before jumping into the universe of Batali and winemaker Joe Bastianich in 2007 and rising through the ranks to take over the Carnevino kitchen in June of 2010. “The hardest part [about being a female chef] is every time I walk into a new kitchen, they always direct me to the pastries,” she sighs. So how does Brisson prove herself in this male-dominated universe? “By not acting like a girl, and busting my ass,” she says. “Fabio Picchi [of Cibrèo in Florence] told me I was the hardest-working American who had ever been in his kitchen. It was the greatest compliment I’ve ever gotten.”
Indeed, you can’t be either lazy or stupid in this world of high-stakes steaks. “My life is dominated by meat,” Brisson says. “You have to be tough, you have to be strong. I still get on the line and show the cooks that I can turn out more covers than they can.”
Steaks to Die For
Carnevino’s sirloins, porterhouses and rib eyes have caught the attention of Black Angus aficionados the world over, and meat lovers now flock here to get them. There may be a certain civic pride behind my calling Carnevino the greatest steakhouse in America, but I’ll stack the following arguments up against any emporium of prime anywhere. First, there’s the meat: All natural, hormone-free, hand-selected by Adam Perry Lang, a professional “meat forager,” a man of whom Rachael Ray (along with many others) has said “has raised the industry standard” for the beef we eat. All steaks are dry-aged in Las Vegas by the restaurant itself—not by some middleman—in a climate-controlled, 2,000-square-foot meat locker off of Dean Martin Drive (a process we’re sure Dino would have approved of). This protein achieves otherworldly tenderness and taste from two to eight months (the prime amount of time for these beauties and “riserva” cuts to reach their peak, according to Brisson). No other steakhouse in America has such a hands-on, intensive-care selection and aging process.
We go behind the scenes with our cover star.