Placid, calm, the barest hint of a smile playing on his lips, Guy Savoy watched as a waiter placed a small plate that held a simply sauteed Santa Barbara spot prawn on the table before him. He looked around, checking to see whether the rest of us at the table were enjoying ourselves, had everything we needed. Then he picked up his knife and fork and cut into the prawn, looking closely, paying particular attention to the texture. He tasted it. A slight nod of the head told the two chefs standing tableside that it was good.
Savoy, one of the most critically acclaimed Michelin three-star chefs in Paris, was conducting a training lunch at Restaurant Guy Savoy (pronounced Ghee Sah-vwah) Las Vegas, which opens tonight at Caesars Palace. It was the tail end of the lunch session, at which waiters rehearsed, at tables filled with Caesars Palace employees -- some in sleek corporate attire, some wearing name badges -- the proper way to serve Savoy’s signature oyster in ice gelee, how to present the artichoke and black truffle soup, where to place the purse stool, how to explain the menu.
Savoy wasn’t having lunch; he was sitting with me and my husband as we sampled dish after dish after dish. The meal wasn’t planned: My husband and I had just driven up from L.A. so I could spend the afternoon cooking with Savoy.
Instead, Savoy insisted we have lunch. He sat and watched us, and we ate and talked. A busboy poured the chef a glass of Badoit sparkling water. “It’s easier if you pour like this,” he said to the busboy, who had his hand awkwardly under the bottle. The busboy didn’t understand what he meant. Savoy stood and showed him how to grasp the bottle and pour more naturally. “See?” he said. “Easy.” And he smiled.
How was it possible for the 52-year-old chef to be so cool? Here he was, with his squinty, laughing eyes and his short, gray almost-beard, about to open in Las Vegas seven months after French chef Joel Robuchon made his high-profile debut here at the MGM Grand. Robuchon was an international superstar chef making a splashy comeback after closing his Michelin three-star Paris restaurant 10 years earlier and retiring; now he had earned four stars from the Los Angeles Times’ S. Irene Virbila. But Savoy is much less known in the U.S., though he’s regularly cited as one of the top 10 chefs in the world.
Savoy has four restaurants besides the Michelin three-star Restaurant Guy Savoy Paris, but they’re all in Paris as well. He’s really a chef’s chef, enormously well-regarded in the food world internationally for his focused, inventive, often playful cooking. Clearly it would have been better for Savoy to open in the fall, as originally planned, at the same time as Robuchon and capitalizing on the excitement, instead of seven months later.
Two waiters came to present a dish called “colors of caviar”: a layered appetizer served in a rounded shot glass -- a gelee made with pressed caviar on the bottom, caviar cream atop that, then a brilliant green stripe of puree of haricots verts, a layer of sevruga and osetra caviar, and sabayon on top.
I sent a mother-of-pearl spoon to the bottom of the shot glass, pulling up a bit of each layer, and tasted. Waves of flavor and texture followed -- briny gelee, the creamy flavor of the sea, smooth green bean, and then the roe, with that marvelous pop. But most striking was the temperature: The dish wasn’t cold, as one would expect, but what the French call tiede -- just barely warm, or almost warm. And as a result, the flavors melded and merged and came alive.
“The basis of taste is texture, above all,” said Savoy in French. (The chef hasn’t spent much time yet in the U.S., and he’s more comfortable speaking his native language.) But temperature is quite important to him too. “The magic is intellectual,” he said, “the sensation of hot chocolate. Or the pleasure that ice cream brings you when it’s hot outside.”
Vvvvrrrrroooom, went something on the table -- it was Savoy’s cellphone, a bright red one shaped like a race car, with a Ferrari logo. He pushed a button to silence it. Why a Ferrari phone? Jean Todt, manager of Ferrari’s Formula 1 team, chief executive of Ferrari and Savoy’s close friend, gave it to him.
But unlike Todt, who’s famous for a nervous habit of biting his nails, Savoy was cool as can be.
Instant dream team
Amazingly, the staff had only been at Caesars training for two weeks, yet everything seemed to be in place. Or almost everything -- the 950-bottle showcase wine rack in the entry wasn’t quite right: The holes to hold the bottles’ necks were too small to fit the bottles. The paintings and sculptures hadn’t arrived yet -- they were expected the day before opening. But at Restaurant Guy Savoy Las Vegas, which was designed to be the twin of Restaurant Guy Savoy Paris, the foundations had been laid, and apparently laid well.
Laurent Soliveres, executive chef at Guy Savoy Paris who plans to commute between Vegas and Paris, had been here training the kitchen staff. Executive chef Damien Dulas, Savoy’s chef de cuisine from the Paris flagship, and chef de cuisine Adam Sobel, a young American who has worked most recently at Bradley Ogden at Caesars Palace, seemed in good command of the kitchen.
Savoy’s son Franck and Franck’s wife, Laura, head the front of the house, Franck as general manager and Laura as manager of the private dining rooms.
Despite the location at Caesars Palace, where a coterie of centurions and a Roman senator stroll regally around the pool with Cleopatra, Savoy’s restaurant feels a world apart from the Strip.
After the training lunch, Savoy took in the view through the picture window next to the table. “In every form of perfection, there’s a bit of surrealism,” he mused. “Look,” he said, “there’s the Eiffel Tower!” That’s, of course, the kitschy replica of the Parisian landmark across the Strip at the Paris Hotel and Casino.
For Savoy, the surreal is part of the fun. Among the art still to arrive was a bust of a polar bear constructed of matchsticks, by the Scottish artist David Mach. He planned to hang that over the fireplace in the Champagne lounge.
And the fun appears on the table too. The Laguiole knives have bright, almost fluorescent red handles. Dishes have hidden chambers; there’s always something to lift up to find a surprise. Finish the Hawaiian monchong with shaved green and violet asparagus and sabayon zinged with sherry vinegar and waiters appear. With perfect choreography, they remove the false bottom of the plate, revealing asparagus soup garnished with a morsel of roasted monchong.
Though Guy Savoy Las Vegas is designed as the Paris restaurant’s twin, there’s a twist here: Savoy and his chefs will use as many American products as possible as they replicate dishes from the original. The monchong -- a Hawaiian pomfret -- replaces bar, a Mediterranean sea bass. The Santa Barbara spot prawns, which the chefs had only discovered on Thursday, would stand in for langoustines. For the oysters in ice gelee -- a layer of oyster cream, a single oyster, and an oyster gelee served in the oyster’s shell -- Savoy sought an oyster with an assertive flavor; Mecox Bay oysters from Long Island did the trick.
The strawberries for pastry chef Hughes Pouget’s “textures and flavors of strawberries” aren’t Marat des bois -- the intensely flavorful cross between wild and domestic strawberries you find all over France -- but Seascapes from Harry’s Berries, the favorite of L.A. pastry chefs.
But clearly there’s still a lot for Savoy and his staff to discover. Savoy says that one of the caviars used in the “colors of caviar” is American (the sevruga and osetra are from the Baltic). Turns out it’s paddlefish roe; Savoy and his staff aren’t familiar with the terrific Transmontanus “American sevruga” sturgeon roe coming out of Sacramento. Nor have they discovered American beluga lentils; so far, only the A.O.C. French lentils from Puy en Velay will do.
Savoy hasn’t found lamb that he’s happy with, so it’s not on the menu. On the other hand, in Paris he doesn’t serve beef because the French beef doesn’t do it for him, but he loves American beef. Here in Vegas he serves prime beef tenderloin from Four Story Hill Farm in Pennsylvania, garnished with seared cubes of marrow and accompanied by paleron a la francaise -- batons of flat iron steak cooked for 10 hours alternating with batons of carrot simmered in beef stock, all striped with three types of mustard.
All of this comes at a price, of course. That beef dish will be priced at $70 when the restaurant opens tonight; the caviar appetizer will be $90. A 10-course “menu prestige” will be $290 per person. The steep prices are just one of the reasons that these days, for chefs such as Savoy or Robuchon who offer elaborate cooking with recherche ingredients and highly formal, choreographed service, Las Vegas is the place to open. It’s where the bucks are.
This is the place
But of all the places in the world to open his only place outside of Paris, where he has five restaurants, including the Restaurant Guy Savoy, is the middle of the Nevada desert really where he wants to be?
“Every year 40 million people visit Las Vegas,” Savoy explains. “If just one out of every thousand of them is interested in gastronomy, that’s 40,000 people a year.”
And, he says, Caesars Palace made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: Anything he needed to replicate his Paris flagship. A huge, sparkling brand-new kitchen, much larger than what he has in Paris. A room for his own boulanger in the hotel’s bread bakery. An elegant high-ceilinged dining room designed by Jean-Michel Wilmotte, the same architect who designed Restaurant Guy Savoy Paris. A world-class wine cellar, with 90% French bottles. Sixty kitchen and dining room employees to serve 75 diners for dinner five nights a week. (In the Paris restaurant 50 employees serve 60 diners, working double-shifts to serve both dinner and lunch.) Plus he gets a chef’s table off the kitchen -- no room for that in Paris. Need more storage? You got it.
And the greatest surprise? That they had no problem with the limited number of diners he would serve. “If I wanted to make money in the U.S.,” Savoy says, “I would have opened a brasserie with 600 covers. Of course, we’re doing a business here, but the notion of profitability was completely forgotten.”
For a chef, that can be irresistible. “Who else today on the planet,” Savoy asks, “can give me any means possible to do my job?” Add to that American enthusiasm and a work ethic that couldn’t be more different than what he finds at home.
“In France,” Savoy explains, “the idea is that working is stupid. You’re taken for an idiot if you work.... I’m not an intellectual. I just have my CAP [a basic trade school diploma for cooking, certificat d’aptitude professionnele], a cuistot [a cook]. It’s because of work that I know so much.”
On Sunday afternoon, the staff was set to perform another training lunch, this time in costume.
Down in the bowels of the hotel, the boulanger Virginie Bulliner, an American who spent three years working for Thomas Keller (at Per Se, Bouchon and French Laundry) was putting the finishing touches on a brioche layered with olive paste, destined to be a snack at the Champagne bar. Savoy came in and picked up a pain epi. “It looks a little too done, no?” he said.
“You like it crispy, chef,” Bulliner reminded him. He gave it a squeeze. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, it’s good.” He squeezed two or three other loaves -- a spiky chestnut bread, a nine-grain -- and seemed more than satisfied.
Franck had been impressed with her work at Per Se, Savoy explained.
“When she first came,” said Soliveres, “I told her it’s very, very good, your bread. Tears came to her eyes.”
That was only 15 days ago.
Meanwhile, the scene in the kitchen was remarkably calm for three days before opening. Savoy walked through, picking up a fried turnip slice from a sheet pan. “It needs to be more brown,” he said to the cook, picking up one that was more cooked. “Like this one.” He tasted a consomme. “You’ll have to pass it,” he told that cook, meaning to strain it through a chinois.
At the front of the kitchen Williams Caussimon, executive chef at Savoy’s restaurant Le Chiberta in Paris, was working on another snack for the Champagne bar -- two tiny disks of raw beet, sliced so thin as to be almost transparent, sandwiched between them a minutely chopped salad of celery root and celery branches. Savoy picked up the tiny silver spoon on which it was presented, and tasted. The spoon stayed in his mouth an instant too long.
The bottom beet slice stuck to the spoon, he explained to Caussimon. No problem: A drop of olive oil on the spoon would fix it.
The dining room staff assembled for the pre-service meeting. Franck went over some service issues. Adam Sobel explained one or two new dishes. One of the three sommeliers explained the wines they’d be pouring that day.
Franck then wrapped it up. “Enjoy, have fun, dance, smile, be part of the ballet,” he said to the assembled. “Remember, you’re all on stage.”
“Why don’t we start the cheese service today?” Savoy asked his son after the meeting.” Laura was smoothing the silk blouse of one of the hostesses.
“Because we’re not ready,” said Franck. “Tomorrow.” (There would be one more training meal before the real deal.) Fortunately, the opening will be a soft one -- with no splashy press dinner or party to promote it.
And Savoy? He’s stressed out, but not about the opening -- he’s anxious about “the months and months to come.” For now, he says, “Everyone’s capable of doing the plates. But like at home, not like at the restaurant.”
“When Robuchon came, it was like God was here,” said Michael Shearin, a sommelier. “And here this team is really more passionate.”
But can Savoy really pull this off?
“I really have the impression of being a prisoner,” he says. “I have a little voice that says everything is going great in Paris. What are you doing here? But in five years Las Vegas has really become something interesting. There’s something going on here.”