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Casino dining options capitalize on celebrity chefs, hot trends

Dining and casinos go hand in hand, but that no longer means the standard buffet fare. Visitors to most casinos now have many dining options, including upscale restaurants in elegant settings where star chefs reign and trendy restaurants bearing the name of well-known celebrity chefs.

Asked about the importance of having a celebrity chef’s name attached to a restaurant, George Goldhoff, vice president of food and beverage at the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino in Biloxi, answered, “The most important factor to a successful restaurant is the food quality, atmosphere and service. However, having a well known or celebrity chef provides additional marketability, brand name and extra mystery or excitement to the concept.”

Additionally, celebrity chefs are known entities, in that they have established themselves as successes and innovators, he said. “This portion of the equation removes a portion of risk from operations,” he added.

Chris Poplin, executive chef at Biloxi’s IP Casino Resort, believes celebrity chefs carry that designation for a reason. “They have a following, but the celebrity’s restaurant comes down to the chef and team running the restaurant day to day,” he said. “If a celebrity chef can have a team to run it as he wants, it’s good. The key is the team there doing the work.”

Speaking for the Grand, Horseshoe and Sheraton casino resorts in Tunica, all properties of Harrah’s Entertainment, Guy Campbell says there is importance attached to the name recognition of celebrity chefs.

“John Besh’s success with Restaurant August combined with his undeniable talent and skill is obvious to those in the culinary world as well as to the average diner,” he said. “Besh has a passion for the restaurant, which carries over into every aspect of the operation. Signature dishes include BBQ shrimp, grilled tournedos of beef with crabmeat béarnaise, roasted oysters and buttermilk fried rabbit.”

Campbell points out that Besh has earned his status by winning the James Beard Award for chefs, and Restaurant August was recently ranked one of 22 best restaurants in the country by Gourmet magazine.

“N’awlins (a restaurant at the Horseshoe Casino in Tunica) stands out in a crowd of casino restaurants mainly because Chef Kelly English has a passion for authentic Creole cuisine and the dining experience,” Campbell said. “It makes a difference.”

Goldhoff says celebrity chef restaurants are a growing trend in the gaming industry. “To my knowledge this idea began at Caesars, Las Vegas, in the early 1990s when Wolfgang Puck opened Spago in the Forum Shops,” he said. “This trend was fully identified and implemented in 1998 when Steve Wynn, Bobby Baldwin, Gamal Aziz and Elizabeth Blau recruited Todd English, Michael Mina, Jean George Vongerichten, Julian Serrano, Jean Philippe Maurey, Sirio Maccioni and other super star brands to open Bellagio.”

He notes that this strategy of branding with well known chefs, as well as iconic restaurants and restaurateurs, is now accepted as necessary to remain competitive.

“The competition to recruit and retain these types of partnerships is fierce and appears to be unrelenting,” he added.

The IP’s Poplin will accept the prestigious award for Maitre du’ Gout (Master of Taste) next month in Las Vegas from the Chefs in America Awards Foundation. “It is a great honor to win this award,” he said. “There are a lot of great chefs and to receive it is exciting.”

He grew up in San Diego and always loved cooking, often making special dishes for his mom and dad. “It’s why I do what I do,” he said. “There’s nothing better than cooking a fantastic meal for people. We all have meals we can remember for years.”

Poplin, 33, has worked full time in restaurants since he was 18 years old. That experience includes resorts in California, Las Vegas and Louisiana. “I worked for the right people; those who have passion for food and will share their knowledge,” he said.

Three new restaurants are scheduled to open in December at the Beau Rivage. “BR Prime, Beau Rivage’s signature steakhouse; Olives, celebrity chef Todd English’s concept; and Jia, our Asian crossover concept, are all scheduled to open on December 15,” Goldhoff said. “We wanted to provide each restaurant with its own unique and highly personalized design signature, so we utilized three separate and renowned design firms for each.”

Without giving too much away, he said BR Prime’s focus will be to provide the finest dining experience in the Southeast in an elegant and masculine setting. Olives will bring Todd English’s original passion of genuinely honest cooking and menu offerings served in a warm and inviting atmosphere.

“And Jia is a contemporary and sexy design serving only the freshest items whether you are dining at the sushi bar, ala carte wok cooking or in teppan yaki,” Goldhoff added. “We have definitely raised the bar.”

Poplin describes the IP’s Brazilian Steak House as the hottest new concept in dining in the country. “All sorts of meats on skewers are roasted on a rotisserie and the diner controls the speed of dining,” he said. “If the diner’s poker chip is on green, servers keep bringing dishes out, but if the chip is on red, they stop. There are 15 different offerings every night.”

The IP is also going along with the popular Asian concept in dining. Still in the planning stage, a new restaurant will be added that is part sushi and taste of Asia, including Chinese, Thai and Vietnamese dishes.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

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