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By John Curtas | October 8, 2015 | People
A movement is afoot, changing the cultural landscape of Las Vegas. And it’s being driven in the most delightful way—right to your stomach—by enterprising local chefs like Howard Choi, David Clawson, Daniel Ontiveros, Daniel Krohmer, and Bradley Manchester.
There is a revolution going on in Las Vegas. As revolutions go, it’s a quiet one. But unlike most social upheavals, there is nary a bitter pill to swallow. This revolution is chef-driven, but not by celebrity chefs. Its pioneers are fercely independent souls who have cut the cord and abandoned the safety net of the Strip to boldly go where precious few chefs have gone before: straight into the heart of the suburbs and Downtown Las Vegas. In the process, they’re redrawing neighborhoods around the Las Vegas Valley.
Chef-owner, Fish N Bowl (7225 S. Durango Dr., 702-739- 3474)
Former gig: Sushi chef at RM Seafood Specialty: Mighty fine fi sh— Japanese-American style
Fun fact: Gets excited when you clean your plate.
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When you ask these trailblazers why they made the bold, almost unprecedented move of opening a small, personal, chef-driven restaurant in the neighborhoods, their reasons are remarkably similar.
Howard Choi: I learned a lot from working seven years on the Strip, most notably with Rick Moonen at RM Seafood, and wanted people to enjoy good, Strip-quality dining and ingredients without having to drive down there for it. Until I worked [on the Strip], I had never really had the chance to work with really good chefs, but once I did, it really sparked my interest and gave me inspiration to open my own place.
Daniel Ontiveros: I wanted to show people they didn’t have to go to the hotels to experience good quality product. There was a huge change I saw coming when Glutton, Carson Kitchen, and Le Thai all opened Downtown. I just wanted to be part of the boom and become part of the food community and help change the way Las Vegas eats.
Bradley Manchester: My whole background was running multiple concepts in huge, busy hotel operations with large staffs [most recently as executive chef at Green Valley Ranch and Red Rock Resort], so I was ready for a change. I have lived in larger cities like Chicago and Houston and fell in love with the whole dining concept where you could just walk down the street and get really good things to eat. I knew Vegas was on the cusp of that sort of revolution, and I really wanted to be a part of it. On the Strip, every day you have tourists who come in and out, and you never see the same people again. Here we have people who come in three, four times a week and shake my hand and ask, “How’s it going?” I wanted to create that feel of what other cities have in Las Vegas and wanted to bring that to my restaurant.
Executive chef, Therapy (518 E. Fremont St., 702-912- 1622)
Former gig: Top toque at Comme Ça in Cosmopolitan
Specialty: Updated American bistro fare
Fun fact: Enjoys seducing guests with raw beef and pig ears.
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Even the two chefs who hadn’t worked for one of Vegas’s mega-hotel-casinos knew that change was in the wind and wanted to be part of it.
David Clawson: I had been cooking in Vail, Colorado, for seven years at my own restaurant and was semiretired. We would go out to eat in Henderson two to three times a week and generally be very unhappy with the choices and how we were spending our money. This went on for about a year before I decided to open my own place. From my time in Colorado, I could definitely see that people were looking for quality products they weren’t getting here.
Daniel Krohmer: I had never worked on the Strip and never really had any interest in working on the Strip and serving tourists—not that I have anything against tourists, but I wanted to get to know my customers, learn their faces, and teach them about new products, fsh, and seafood, and get them to try something new, and get them to know me. That’s one of the reasons we have an open kitchen.
It sounds like all of you were ready for a career change, but how did you know there were customers out there ready to make the move away from brand-name restaurants to something smaller and more personal?
Krohmer: I serve a lot of people who work on the Strip—people who know good food and want it in a nonpretentious environment. They want to be able to relax, kick back, and enjoy themselves. Folks who work for Robuchon and other Michelin-starred restaurants, who know all the details of great dining, come to my restaurant but don’t need all the rhetoric in order to have a good time.
Clawson: I knew [from my Colorado restaurant] they didn’t want to pay $60 for composed plates, and that really drove my small-plate concept. With that, I could still use quality products and charge under $20 per plate for my food. By reducing the portion, I could afford to sell the plates for less. My recipes and plates were ones that had been signature dishes in other places I had worked, and I quickly found that people loved them here as well.
Manchester: From the outset, we decided to cook good raw materials and put our spin and creativity on them, and so far it’s been well-received. Downtown is starting a new revolution in dining out in Las Vegas, and for us it’s all about doing the food we want to do.
Manchester Chef-owner, Glutton (616 E. Carson Ave., 702-366- 0623)
Former gig: Ran Red Rock Resorts’ and Cosmopolitan’s many food venues
Specialty: Wood-fred proteins, a better burger
Fun fact: Can make sweetbreads taste like Bufalo wings.
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Are customers more sophisticated now than they were fve years ago?
Choi: Yes. Everyone’s using a smartphone, which makes it easier to locate new restaurants and good food. Seventy-fve percent of my customers are under 40 years old; they’re younger families with one or two children. With so many other sushi restaurants, you don’t taste any rice, you don’t taste any fish. We want to bring out the favor of the main ingredient. People right now are getting used to it, and I’m hoping to teach them.
Krohmer: I think we’re blessed here. Unlike Salt Lake City or some other midsize city, we can totally piggyback on the stuff that’s coming in to the Strip. All the great lobsters and oysters and caviar that are brought in by these quality boutique companies that are on their way to the Strip—I can call them and say, “Hey, on your way there, can I get 10 pounds of your matsutake mushroom?” People still look at my [oyster] bar and say, “Oysters in the desert? That just sounds weird,” and I say to them, “It’s 2015—this stuff isn’t coming here by horse and carriage.”
Ontiveros: It was nerve-racking to leave the Strip and come downtown. When we looked there, we saw lots of pizza and burgers, and the fact that we’ve added things like steak tartare, pig ears, and braised oxtail to the menu shows we’re trying to educate diners. I just had a group of girls come in and try the pig ears, and now they come back to the restaurant every week just for the pig ears, something they never thought they’d love.
Clawson: A lot of my customers are professionals on the Strip—hotel executives and people associated with the hospitality industry. From salt to pepper to soda, I try to bring the top-of-the-line products to my customers to impress them, and in a lot of cases they haven’t had them before, so their expectations have been exceeded—from their usual Diet Pepsi, or better sea salt than they’re used to.
Chef-owner, Other Mama (3655 S. Durango Dr., 702-463-8382)
Former gig: Spent fve years as sous/sushi chef at Morimoto in Philadelphia
Specialty: Raw seafood, incredible cocktails
Fun fact: Trained in sushi and kaiseki in Japan.
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What stops Vegas from having more chef-driven restaurants like yours?
Choi: I’ve been here 13 years, and the sad fact is many people in Vegas are still looking for a lot of food for a very little amount of money. The other side of that is that people think that if your ingredients are off the Strip, they must be cheap or not any good. It’s up to us to show the customers that the food can be just as good and the experience of eating in a chef-owned restaurant even better.
Krohmer: Right now I have slices on my hands, I’m starting to get arthritis, I have back pains, I have all kinds of issues at 35 years old, but I know I have an expiration date. I’m not trying to get rich from this restaurant. I want to make a salary hopefully comparable to what I might be making with a Strip job. I want to provide jobs for my friends. I want to listen to the music I want to listen to when I work. I want to close if it’s my girlfriend’s birthday, and if my mom’s in town, I want to be able to leave early.
Chef-owner, David Clawson Restaurant (2840 Bicentennial Pkwy., Henderson, 702-466-2190)
Former gig: Retired to Las Vegas after decades in top kitchens from coast to coast
Specialty: Impeccable products, small plates, always at the stoves
Fun fact: Couldn’t fi nd an eatery he loved in Henderson, so he opened his own.
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What needs to happen for Vegas to continue to evolve as a food town?
Ontiveros: In many ways, it’s already happening. We’re coming together as a community of chefs, supporting each other and making Las Vegas a much better place to go out to eat.
Clawson: Now people can go to a smaller restaurant where they can look and see the chef standing there at the stove and giving that personal touch to the plates… and really experience a chef-driven restaurant.
Choi: I just want to show my food to the people and see how they enjoy my food. When I see them finish their plates, then I see that they’re happy and I am happy.
photography by shane mccauley. GROOMER: Andi Miller. Shot on location at Glutton