by catherine de orio | April 9, 2012 | Food & Drink
The Educators: Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken
At Border Grill, diners use pocket guides to choose healthful seafood meals.
A conference at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 2005 changed the way chefs Susan Feniger (left) and Mary Sue Milliken, the dynamic duo behind the successful Border Grill restaurants, thought about seafood. There, a gathering of top scientists spoke passionately of the oceanic repercussions of continually serving perennial favorites like Chilean sea bass and tuna. “It was eye-opening,” Feniger says. “Here were all these people who cared about the ocean, and we as chefs were just naïve about it.” Once home, the women decided that their restaurants would serve only sustainable seafood, according to the Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program guidelines, and they committed themselves to educating others.
“As chefs, we felt like we needed to step up and take a leadership role,” Milliken says. Since restaurants are responsible for 70 percent of seafood consumption, that’s a huge responsibility. “We have a voice out there, and we give back by educating and standing up for the things we believe are important,” Feniger says. “We educate so that people can make their own choices.” To make the information easier for diners to digest, they pass out Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch pocket guides.
Enlightening diners on the pleasures of lesser-known, but flavorful, sustainable fish such as black cod and arctic char is just part of their mission. While learning about sustainability, they became conscious of mercury levels in fish. This led to the removal of high mercury-content tuna and swordfish from the menu. “Once you have the information, it is hard to keep feeding people things you know are bad for their bodies,” Milliken says, adding that such awareness made them more careful about other buying decisions. A quarter of their menu now offers “good for the planet, good for you” choices; at least 80 percent of those choices are plant-based with animal protein used as a flavoring or garnish, if at all.
“We can’t do everything, but we do our little part,” Feniger says. Milliken adds, “We run the restaurant the way we do our homes—we want to serve what we would serve our families, our friends.” What more can one ask?
The Farmer: Geno Bernardo
Nove’s Italian food maestro gets fresh ingredients from local farms.
Many Las Vegas chefs follow the farm-totable philosophy, but chef Geno Bernardo of Nove in the Palms Casino Resort takes this one step further by working closely with local farmers to fulfill his produce needs for the restaurant. His passion for farmfresh ingredients began as a young chef shopping at the renowned Chino Farms in San Diego. After Bernardo moved to Vegas, chef Rick Moonen introduced him to Claudia and Steven Andracki, who run an organic farm an hour away in Pahrump. Bernardo has been passionate about local farming ever since.
Growing bountiful crops of lush produce in a desert climate can be daunting. “We grow what we can in the desert,” he says. “The cold evenings and harsh winds create a challenge, but squash, eggplant, and tomatoes love the heat.” He talks enthusiastically about foods grown on the land of local farms, including the Andracki’s, which produces his basil, turnips, squash flowers, and radishes. And when the Andrackis introduced him to Patrick Tipton, whom he calls “the cat’s meow of farming,” it helped Bernardo develop an even closer relationship with the land.
Tipton grows produce specially for Bernardo, who worked with Tipton on the farm, developing a culinary telepathy of sorts. “We understand what the other is thinking,” Bernardo says. “He thinks like I do about a restaurant, but through his land.” A purist, Tipton employs cover cropping and does not use greenhouses or chemicals. He even gauges the stress levels of the produce to guarantee the purest flavor. Each year the men review what crops turned out well, and discuss what they should plant the following year.
Bernardo receives cage-free eggs from local farmers Michael and Michela Griffin, and he will work with them this summer to raise red wattle pigs—arguably some of the tastiest pork available. Great food does not just magically appear, as Bernardo is eager to tell diners. “We strive to teach guests what it is all about so that it is an experience,” he says. “This is the Nove way of life. We tell a story so people know where the food comes from.”
The Innovator: Vincent Pouessel
Aureole’s French menu includes shrimp grown in the desert
Now in Vegas 10 years, French chef Vincent Pouessel of Aureole at Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino misses the fresh seafood of his homeland, Brittany, France. He acknowledges, however, that he is lucky to be near the West Coast, where he procures such desirable morsels as prawns from Santa Barbara. But now, with the new Blue Oasis Pure Shrimp farm just 30 minutes from the Strip, he can offer his customers locally procured, fresh “pond-to-plate” shrimp.
Yes, you read that right. Shrimp. Grown in the desert. When first approached by the company, Pouessel says he thought they were “scientists, not food people” and was thus a bit hesitant. “But the way they applied science to the food is amazing,” he says of Blue Oasis’s state-ofthe- art, proprietary, bioreactor system where saltwater shrimp are raised in a self-contained, indoor pond for optimum quality and growth.
Such ideal conditions enable shrimp to grow in a pollution-free setting, and with zero impact on the environment. The shrimp are free of chemical growth hormones and antibiotics, as well as the contaminants and mercury that can be found in wild-caught shrimp. “The product is not good because it sounds good or is trendy,” he says, “but because our guests are enjoying it so they, as well as the environment, are benefiting.”
“The timing of this is perfect right now,” Pouessel continues, “as everyone is interested in eating organically and sustainably.” And with a cuisine that focuses on progressive regional American cuisine prepared with French technique, sustainable seafood falls right in line with his philosophy. This spring, he envisions using shrimp in one of his famous parallel tastings at Aureole, like a fricassee of morels and peas paired alongside a pea soup with shrimp garnish. “There is a comfort,” he says, “in knowing exactly where this shrimp comes from and how it is harvested.”
The Animal Lover: Eric Klein
Animals are treated with care in Wolfgang Puck’s well program.
H aving been raised on a farm in France, Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group’s Eric Klein has the utmost respect for animals and their care; he gives just as much consideration to the animals he serves. Wolfgang Puck started a first-of-its-kind animal-welfare program in conjunction with the Humane Society to try to stop inhumane practices in factory farming. “If you treat an animal how you would like to be treated and give it the best life possible, it will in return give you something great to eat,” says Klein, the executive chef at Spago at The Forum Shops at Caesars. “Nature works with us if we work with it.”
Klein sources his ingredients from local purveyors such as Olson Farms, which grows microgreens, serving a dual benefit of reducing the carbon footprint while supporting the local economy. He aims to serve only produce that is in season and, if questioned, he explains to diners why certain items are not on the menu. He speaks passionately about his dedication to quality products, and is always mindful of the difference in flavor between something in-season and out of season. “I want diners to taste the vibrancy of the food,” he says. “Simplicity is a form of beauty; let the food do the talking.” This season at Spago, look for dishes with ramps, spring peas, morels, and white asparagus.
The Wolfgang Puck companies have formalized their commitment to serving organic, seasonal produce, as well as sustainable seafood and humanely treated animals, with Wolfgang’s Eat, Love, Live (WELL). Klein promotes this philosophy with zeal and takes his mission seriously. “As a large company,” he says, “we have a responsibility to be educators—our diners have to trust in us and if we let them down, we let ourselves down.”
The Farm-to-Table King and the Forager: Shawn McClain & Kerry Clasby
Weekly drives to Berkeley ensure the freshest produce at Sage.
A San Diego native and longtime Midwesterner, award-winning chef Shawn McClain of Sage at Aria Resort & Casino knows his way around a farmer’s market. His commitment to the highest-quality, seasonal produce and artisanal meats runs so deep that he works with Kerry Clasby, “The Intuitive Forager,” who drives from Las Vegas to the Berkeley, California, markets every week. McClain and Clasby met through Mario Batali’s group and bonded over their love of foods grown on the finest small farms.
McClain’s menu changes constantly to ensure that dishes reflect the purest flavors from the markets Clasby frequents. “We adapt the menu so that we are not forced to buy something that might not be at its peak,” he says. For spring, he intends to create dishes that incorporate rhubarb, nettles, artichokes, and asparagus.
After earning four stars at Trio, his acclaimed eatery near Chicago, McClain created restaurants that allowed him to focus on specific ingredients—seafood at Spring, produce at Green Zebra, and meats at Custom House— while picking up awards and accolades as if grabbing berries from the market. Sage, the culmination of these experiences, brings his dedication to organic, seasonal, artisanal ingredients to Las Vegas.
When McClain moved here, he had doubts about the quality of produce he could get, picturing “some big truck that just dumped off the ingredients,” he says. Instead, he found that coming to Vegas offered many options for expanding on his commitment to a market-driven cooking philosophy. “I have found great communities here, and I have access to ingredients that don’t even make it past the West Coast,” he says. He adds jokingly, “It also helps that the farms aren’t covered with snow for six months!”
When it comes to quality, McClain does not skimp, shunning the type of corporate volume discounts that might entice others. And his commitment doesn’t end with food: His mixologists infuse drinks with seasonal fruits from his favorite farms. Having used Afghan mulberries and caviar limes in the past, they are currently featuring papaya chipotle tequila in a cocktail.
photography by catherine de orio