Luciano Pellegrini first came to the United States at age 19, to work for Piero Selvaggio at his vaunted Los Angeles restuarant, Valentino. A native of Bergamo, Italy, the chef possesses a keen intellect, which enabled him to master English as well, or better, than most of his peers. Soon Selvaggio elevated Pellegrini to the position of Executive Chef, when he opened a restaurant called Posto, in Sherman Oaks, California. And when Selvaggio was approached by the Venetian to open one of his Valentino restaurants here, he said yes, but only because he had Pellegrini to spearhead the project. The chef has been a fixture in Las Vegas ever since, and in 2003, was honored with the James Beard Best Chef Southwest Award. He is married with two daughters, and on the whole, wishes he were playing golf.
MJ: You are one of the few local chefs to win the James Beard Award. What has that meant for your career? What did it mean for you personally?
Chef: I think I need to explain that me being nominated in 2003 just came out of the blue. The first year I wasn’t expected to win (Chris Bianco won). The nicest thing was the congratulations from all of my peers.
M: You have been doing a lot of networking in the last decade.
Chef: With Valentino I have been networking with Meals on Wheels (in LA) and the Napa wine auction. I did the Naples thing and went to Wyoming. I have always been involved with fund raising.
MJ: Who are some of your friends among these chefs?
I’ve known Wolfgang Puck for a number of years. He’s Piero’s friend, so I suppose he is mine by default. He is one of those that I look up to because I think that he singlehandedly changed the image of our profession. Being Spago. Chef to the Stars… becoming a public figure. Then of course there is the Food Channel…
H: How long have you been in Vegas?
Chef: Eleven years. I started with Piero in 1985.
H: What made you come over to the states?
Chef: Adventure. I was 20 years old and I wasn’t liking my career very much. A chef didn’t have the status that a chef has today. The one positive thing about the job was that you could travel if you wanted to. So when the opportunity came I jumped on it like white on rice.
Vegas was an evolution. I had been working for Piero for 14 years when the opportunity came to open in Las Vegas. He offered me a partnership and I said I will go pack my bags.
H: How have you seen things change since you started in Vegas?
Chef: We didn’t start a movement by any means. We just came on board. I used to come to Vegas and saw the evolution from 1985. We had seen the potential for serious restaurants with Spago.
M: Were you received with a lot of enthusiasm?
Chef: With the Venetian , yes. We were perceived as a feather in their cap. Since then they have had a lot more feathers. I think that is why I won the James Beard award after five years. I’ve always been self-made and fairly in touch with what I can or cannot do. But to win something like that was definitely a validation. If nothing else it made me feel more secure.
H: Did you attempt different things after the award?
Chef: Not really. I won the award by doing everything I was doing.
H: So if it’s not broken don’t fix it. You say the bottom line is king- but everything you were doing must have been pretty good.
Chef: This restaurant has been performing since the first day we opened.
MJ: What are your biggest sellers here?
Chef: We have a good response to our tasting menus. We have a four course meal to a seven course meal. People are still interested in the total experience. Pasta still sells and our special of the day sells.
MJ: and wine? You still do a really good wine trade. You have a grand award from Wine Spectator- one of three in the city.
MJ: Alice Waters was recently on Bill Maher. What do you think of this locavore concept and how does it relate to Italian cooking? Is it applicable?
Chef: Number one question should be is it applicable to Las Vegas? I don’t think it is. There is no farming community here in the desert. Locavore is a great thing- if you happen to have local farmers- I think that as a restaurant you should have an obligation to support them. As long as the symbiosis works both ways. If you can manage to put something on a plate that is better for you and local then let’s go for it.
H: What changes have you seen due to the economy? There seems to be a lot more competition. Not all of it is of your caliber- a lot of it seems to be marketing.
Chef: Our business fell off a bit. Our backroom doesn’t see as much volume as it used to. We had to lower our pricing, which is fine. The Venetian is now running discount offers for many of their restaurants. We are planning to do more aggressive marketing as well. No matter what, the one way that the hotels can get more customers in is by putting together aggressive packages.
The bottom line you still have to make sense of what you do operationally and financially. You can’t just have a restaurant where you just express yourself- this is who I am and this is what I do. If you don’t like it then the hell with you… That is kind of utopian. There are certain places in town where they present an excellent experience but does it translate financially? I don’t know. How successful would be a 3-star Michelin where you go and pay $150 a person? The bottom line is that what they do and it is part of what is, I guess, an overall image thing. So be it.
Here within the Venetian we are all individually owned. The bottom line is king. So whatever we do has to make sense.
H: Did you see an effect when Batali opened?
Chef: We saw a decrease when Palazzo opened. When Batali opened we had a record year. Palazzo added another 12 restaurants but it didn’t double up the volume. Now the field is even again so everyone is back on their own. But for the first year the Palazzo was promoted heavily.
H: When do you feel things will get better? Do you have any projections?
Chef: After the summer things should be looking up. Last year was our worst. This year was a transitional year.
MJ: What are the challenges of cooking a serious ethnic cuisine for a mainstream American clientele. How much do you have to cutback on your own technique and creativity? Do you still feel the frustration of the spaghetti and meatball customer?
Chef: We have a fairly comprehensive menu so we are able to offer… so if that is what is called for that is what is called for.
H: Speaking of knives… what is your favorite knife? What do you find yourself using?
Chef: Those fancy Japanese knives are not part of my trade. I use a generic knife. The most important thing is that you keep it sharpened. Some knives stay sharp better than others.
MJ:Would it be fair to say that in cuisines like Chinese, French and Japanese the chefs rely more on their knives than the Italians?
Chef: I would have to say that perhaps the Japanese because of all they do with sushi requires precision cutting and a very sharp knife with a clean cut.
H: I’m seeing this foodie thing as a trend. I view you as a relatively conservative businessman. You are looking for long term goals and have long term expectations rather than jumping on the next bandwagon- call it white truffle oil or whatever.
MJ: I think Chef Pellegrino is more evolved than these younger kids. He’s mature, he’s been around.
H: I see no difference in that. If you are going to be around for a while you already have learned what you need to do.
Chef: I have no use for fads. I always try to look at the big picture. We do what we do. We need to have an ingredient of freshness and inventiveness in order to keep up there. Otherwise you get buried and forgotten. I know there is value in coming up in new things that might be somewhat shocking to some people but I do not forget and I do not lose sight of the fact that the bulk of our business is given to us by the people that would rather order a plate of spaghetti and meatballs versus chichi food.
H: And how is your spaghetti and meatballs?
Chef: Very good actually. We call meatballs ‘polpete.’ To us polpete was meat. My mom would make polpete. She would make it in the middle of the day with bread. At the uncorked event at Caesars we’re going to have spaghetti and meatballs. They’re going to be rabbit meatballs…
H: Your restaurant has been here 11 years. The average life expectancy of a restaurant in Vegas before they have to change something drastically is very small. Here you have a different business model. I think that is very noteworthy. What would you tell a 19 year old from Bergamo?
Chef: Go work for Apple.
M: Do you have any regrets? What else would you have done?
Chef: I went to school when I was thirteen years old. That is all I have done for 32 years.
M: Unlike most of the chefs I know, you didn’t go because you were flunking out of middle school.
H: What keeps you going? When you get up in the morning do you think about food?
Chef: Not necessarily. Professionally instead of changing careers I think I actually developed different skills within my industry. Back at Sherman Oaks within 3 years I was managing. When we opened here I was still too green. You take an AAA baseball team and this is the major leagues. For me just being in a kitchen just wasn’t enough. I had some problems occasionally with the front of the house. So I figured if you don’t like being told what to do then you should get in a position where no one can tell you what to do. That is why I became what I became.
H: Why are you still doing this?
Chef: I look at other chefs who are coast to coast. I think, ‘How do I something like that?’ This is a whole different mindset of doing business.
MJ: You are currently doing a project in Texas?
Chef: We opened Piero Valentino’s in Houston, Texas. It was a project almost 3 years in the making. This is the first time we opened a significant distance away. It is in Derek, by the Galleria.
Chef: There is one thing I would love to be a part of…creating more awareness with children’s nutrition. I think there is a little more awareness. More so than the locavores, sustainables and the organics- I think overall this would be better for a kid. Instead of health care why don’t we educate people to eat better so they don’t get obese and diabetic and so on?
H: Do you have specific things on your menu that you would consider health-conscious?
Chef: I am lucky enough to have the universal cuisine where no matter what your preferences- vegetarian, Kosher… whatever it is you will find it on the menu. If you don’t find it on the menu all you have to do is state what you want and you will be eating whatever it is you want to eat.
Chef: We’re now making artisanal gelato… Do you want some?
MJ: No..no..no.. we have to go…
H: Are you kidding me? I think we would like some gelato. I’m a mini-Max. We need gelato.
Chef: At uncorked- we’ll have gelato AND spaghetti and meatballs.
H: That sounds good. We’ll be there.
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