Peter D’Andrea, the new executive chef at IP Casino Resort Spa in Biloxi, checked out the other Mississippi Coast casinos since he arrived late last year and is looking to sharpen his competitive edge.
D’Andrea, who’s been in the food and beverage business for 40 years, found his way to Biloxi when he was looking to leave the restaurant consulting business and get back into the casino market. He said he liked the progressive attitude of IP’s parent company, Boyd Gaming, and what he saw in IP’s kitchens and restaurants. “Combine all the together and the IP Biloxi was a perfect fit,” he said.
D’Andrea’s credentials include working as executive chef at The Fairmont San Francisco Hotel and Gaylord Opryland Resort and Convention Center, and as the corporate chef for Marriott International.
At the IP he runs all eight restaurants as well as the employee dining and catering operations. It’s a 24/7 process to keep customers and employees fed and happy at the right price point.
D’Andrea is creating new menus for all of the food operations, from the pool bar to the signature fine dining restaurant Thirty-Two on the 32nd floor.
“We are going to make sure our menus have the industry trends nationwide as well as the local trends,” he said. Healthy items and gluten-free dishes are trending now but the chef knows that some diners will always want fried seafood. “We’re here to please our guests, not ourselves,” he said.
D’Andrea keeps the bottom line in mind. “The challenge (is) to give guests high-quality food at prices they’re looking for. We do a lot of market studies in the area and try to give them the highest value for the dollar. That’s important.”
The casino buffet is a magnet for gamblers but serving such a high volume of food creates challenges such as keeping food fresh and costs down. IP’s buffet has several “action stations” where staffers constantly batch cook and refresh the food. “It keeps it fresher and our customers notice that,” he said.
IP also tries to give customers items they won’t find at other casinos. “And of course we need to price it accordingly where the guests get great value and we don’t lose a ton of money.”
Promotions like Friday night crab and seafood specials help to bring customers in. “Once they’re in the casino they gamble,” he said. “It’s a win for everybody.”
D’Andrea, who cooked for Julia Child’s 80th birthday celebration and was guest chef three times at the James Beard Foundation’s Town House in New York, said he spends “a good 50 percent of my day” in the IP kitchens. He also handles a lot of paperwork in supervising chef’s schedules and kitchen staffing arrangements.
Other back of the house duties include tasting new products such as olive oils to find the right taste at the right price. Lately, he’s looking for a new filet for one of the restaurants. “I’ll request samples from all over the United States. It has to have the right price point, the right texture, the right size. I’ll have to cook and taste them and compare price, so there’s an awful lot of work in that.”
When he creates a menu the chef has to write the recipes, spec out the products, cost every item and train the kitchen staff to prepare the dishes. “There is an awful lot more involved than what those cooking shows show on TV,” he said.
For the record D’Andrea is no fan of cooking shows. “None of that is real. I don’t watch it and don’t encourage my cooks and chefs to watch them. That’s just TV.”
D’Andrea isn’t much on over-the-top food trends like molecular gastronomy either. “We need to stay true to the basics and to have food tasting like it’s supposed to taste like,” he said. “I’m not looking for 15 hands on a plate to make it look good architecturally, I want some height and some color but I don’t want to overwork it. When you sit down and eat our food, you can close your eyes and know what you’re eating.”
He said he has an American/Italian/Southern palate and “that’s the kind of food I like to cook and the kind of food I like to eat.”
One of the chef’s goals this year is to start hands-on culinary training with his line cooks and supervisors. “In order to keep retention, you have to ‘home grow’ them and you have to train them,” he said.
He knows that a fine tuned staff will be necessary as the South Mississippi casino market grows more competitive over the next couple of years. ”With new casinos being built, it’s even more important to stay competitive and that we’re delivering a great product at a great price at all times,” he said.