Elizabeth Blau

Elizabeth Blau

Alan Liddle

Making fine dining a sure bet at Las Vegas’ Mirage Resorts

The 31-year-old Blau is vice president of restaurant development for trend-setting Mirage Resorts Inc., the Las Vegas-based lodging, entertainment and gaming empire headed by Stephen Wynn.

At an age when many people have yet to splurge for their first four-star meal, Elizabeth Anne Blau is using lessons learned from years of culinary exploration to help change the face of fine dining in Las Vegas.

Blau says the discerning taste and worldly palate that serve her well at work are gifts from her globe-trotting parents, whom she affectionately describes as “hard-core foodies” who “took us [children] to charming little inns and Michelin-rated restaurants.”

Recently, Blau finished working with vice president of foodservice planning Kevin Stuessi and senior food & beverage vice president Gamal Aziz to recruit and install seven award-winning chef-partners and salaried culinarians at Bellagio, Wynn’s new 3,005-room luxury resort in Las Vegas. Bellagio is expected to generate annual foodservice revenues of “nearly $200 million,” Aziz reports.

A graduate of Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and a world traveler who has held a variety of jobs from line cook to candymaker, Blau is credited by Wynn with “helping to make this company culinarily sensitive.” She has known Wynn for much of her life through his friendship with her parents and her friendship with his daughter.

Blau was just two years out of Cornell and on her way to Las Vegas to help New York restaurateur Sirio Maccioni and his family open Bellagio branches of their famed Le Cirque and newer Osteria del Circo concepts when Wynn approached her in late 1997 with a job offer. While at Cornell, she had submitted as her thesis a marketing plan for the first Osteria del Circo.

“We always had great food for Las Vegas, but with Bellagio we began to understand that great food by the highest of standards would be a powerfully important asset,” Wynn recalls. “When we understood that, I asked Elizabeth if she would help us.”

Adds Wynn, who a decade ago sparked Las Vegas’ hypertheme-resort boom with the 1988 opening of The Mirage, “She and Gamal and Kevin Stuessi have helped transform this company in a very short time.”

Mirage Resorts reported 1997 food-and-beverage revenues of $154.4 million, down about 2.3 percent from the prior-year figure. Despite declining F&B revenues in 1997 and the first half of 1998, it is believed the company could see those moneys double in the near future as contributions are made by Bellagio as well as new and revamped restaurants at sister Las Vegas resorts The Mirage and Treasure Island. Other restaurant-intensive projects on which Blau is working include Beau Rivage, a 1,780-room casino and resort expected to open within weeks in Biloxi, Miss. And under development, with a tentative 2001 opening date, is a large casino-resort project in Atlantic City, NJ.

Stuessi, 25, previously worked with famed chef-restaurateurs Jeremiah Tower and Wolfgang Puck. Blau says he provides “kitchen and operations” perspective and West Coast connections that complement her “business and public-relations” experience and East Coast base of contacts.

Despite the enormity of the Bellagio project, Blau and Stuessi had little time to rest following its October opening, as they have been needed to help guide the development of 10 new restaurants at Beau Rivage, oversee creation or conversion of five restaurants at the Mirage and two at Treasure Island and begin preliminary concept work for the Atlantic City project.

Blau, in many respects, is representative of a new kind of foodservice executive in Las Vegas, where hyper-theme mega-resorts are scrambling for a competitive edge and, in the process, thrusting the once-provincial desert city into the gastronomic spotlight. Her counterparts at three major Las Vegas resorts scheduled to open in 1999 also are betting large amounts of development capital that their city – until recently still known primarily for low-cost buffets and “surf-and-turf” d g rooms – will embrace two dozen name-brand restaurant branches by some of Americas leading independent and chain operators.

Soon to open in Las Vegas are Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino, by Circus Circus; Paris – Las Vegas, by Hilton Corp.; and The Venetian Resort, Hotel and Casino, by Las Vegas Sands Inc.

Tom Kaplan, co-owner of Spago Las Vegas, whose 1992 debut in the Forum Shops at Caesars Palace marked the beginning of the ongoing invasion by big-city restaurateurs and chefs, describes the latest wave of the restaurant revolution as nothing short of “incredible.” Putting things into perspective he observes: “Overnight the Bellagio has doubled the amount of fine-dining restaurants in this city.”

Operating restaurants at Bellagio under management contracts alongside the Maccionis are such renowned chefs and restaurateurs as New York’s Jean-Georges Vongerichten of Vong, among other eateries; Todd and Olivia English of Olives in Boston; and Michael Mina and Charles Condy of Aqua in San Francisco. New York chef Sam DeMarco was hired directly by Bellagio to oversee Sam’s American restaurant. Julian Serrano, longtime chef of San Francisco’s award-winning Masa’s restaurant, was brought on board to preside over Bellagio’s masterpiece-studded Picasso.

“It was her convincing ways that got me on the plane to come out and see what Las Vegas was about,” Todd English says of Blau, who had been a customer of Olives in Boston. Blau “is an amazing recruiter.”

Of her role in Mirage Resorts’ negotiations with independent restaurateurs, English adds, “She is very diplomatic, working equally well with both sides.”

Blau and the Mirage Resorts development team cannot rest on their Bellagio laurels for long, however, as its impressive stable of restaurant concepts represents just a fraction of the new eateries expected to debut in the city by the end of this year.

Mandalay Bay is touting a lineup that includes a new Wolfgang Puck-Barbara Lazaroff “authentic trattoria” concept; New York chef-owner Charlie Palmer’s spin-off of his acclaimed Aureole; and cable TV chefs Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken’s first branch of their Santa Monica Calif., restaurant, Border Grill, which in Las Vegas will be a two-story, indoor-outdoor poolside operation.

Also on tap at Mandalay Bay, which will feature 3,724 rooms and suites and is slated to open in March, are three different concepts by the creators of the China Grill chain of upscale pan-Asian restaurants as well as a House of Blues and companion Foundation Room restaurant.

The Venetian, which will feature 3,036 luxury suites and is set to open in April, has secured Las Vegas outposts by Los Angeles-based chef Joachim Splichal, whose Patina Group will debut Pinot Brasserie there. And Postrio, Puck’s eclectic and popular San Francisco restaurant, will be among the Venetian’s dining attractions. So will the Delmonico Steakhouse, by New Orleans-based chef and TV personality Emeril Lagasse, who already operates Emeril’s at Forum Shops in Las Vegas.

A spokesman for The Venetian says the hotel recently has been in lease negotiations with Eberhard Mueller, who since 1995 has operated New York’s landmark Lutece; Piero Selvaggio, whose 26-year-old Valentino in Santa Monica is regarded as one of America’s finest Northern Italian restaurants; and Dallas chef Stephan Pyles and his partners, who run growing Star Canyon dinner-house group.

Other restaurants to be incorporated into The Venetian include Canaletto, a new Italian concept from San Francisco-based II Fornaio; Grand Lux Cafe, a 24-hour casual concept from the Cheesecake Factory chain; and Royal Star, a new California-Chinese offering from the creators of Ocean Star in Los Angeles.

While Hilton plans to create and operate six of the eight restaurants at Paris – Las Vegas under the watchful eye of executive chef Eric Scuiller, Chicago restaurateur Rich Melman’s Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises will develop the other two, LEYE president Steve Ottman confirms. In Chicago LEYE operates Scoozi and Shaw’s Crab house, among many other popular restaurant concepts.

Paris – Las Vegas, with 2,914 rooms and suites, is scheduled to open in September.

“If, after the millennium, someone touched down here from Mars and wanted to know about America, Las Vegas would be as good a place as any – at least when it comes to understanding lunch and dinner,” quips Mandalay Bay restaurant consultant Clark Wolf of New York.

Wolf, a longtime consultant to Loew’s hotels, among others, says he is serving as a “combination adviser and facilitator on the mix and positioning” of restaurants within Mandalay Bay, where Dennis Khanh is vice president of food and beverage and David Kellaway is the executive chef.

As typified by the kind of recruiting Blau and her peers have done and are doing, the new imported-restaurant paradigm in Las Vegas is simple to understand, Wolf says. “So far,” he explains, “Las Vegas visitors have been reluctant to give the house much money for food and beverage, but they will give it to Wolfgang Puck. if he then gives back a percentage as rent to the house, everyone wins.”

Blau, trying to put into words how she seeks out potential employees and partners, says, “You go with your gut a lot, and a lot of it deals with the personalities of the people and whether they give you confidence that they understand the ultimate goal in these projects.”

For Beau Rivage, she says, “we’ve been spending a lot of time in the markets that will feed that property – Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Texas and Mississippi – trying to understand where the people are coming from, food-wise.” The desired information, Blau says, ranges from the general, such as “what they order from room service,” to the specific, including “what they eat at the corner barbecue restaurant.”

To speed up such cultural education and reduce the learning curve for trendy regional, ethnic and international concepts, she says Mirage Resorts sometimes turns to consultants. At the same time, she says, she and Stuessi “read every trade, food and wine magazine or journal we can get our hands on and interact a lot with organizations, such as the James Beard Foundation and Women Chefs & Restaurateurs.”

One of Blau’s strengths, Wynn indicates, is that “she not only knows who can deliver the food, but who can successfully open a second restaurant” by virtue of strong organizational skills and corporate culture.

Tom Kelly, associate professor of restaurant management at Cornell and a past president of the American Institute of Food & Wine, recalls that “Elizabeth was always the first one in my office with questions or who came to see me after lectures.” Impressed by her “focus” and problem-solving skills, he says he made her his graduate assistant and soon found that “if you wanted a task done, give it to Elizabeth.”

While too many management-school students believe “they are managers” upon graduation, “Elizabeth knew she wanted to learn [on the job], and that’s important,” says Maccioni family patriarch Sirio Maccioni. Blau had helped his son, Mario, open Osteria del Circo and worked as its general manager before aiding the senior Maccioni in the planning and opening of Le Cirque 2000 in New York, successor to his renowned Le Cirque.

Successful restaurateurs lead by example and view as equally important all duties within the restaurant, including such seemingly menial tasks as fetching drinking water, Sirio Maccioni maintains. He says of his former employee, in a tone that suggests he is proud of her progress, “I think Elizabeth learned that.”

Name: Elizabeth Anne Blau

Title: vice president of restaurant development

Concepts Location: Mirage Resorts Inc., Las Vegas

Education: bachelors degree in government Georgetown University, Washington, D.C; master degree in restaurant marketing, Cornell University School of Hotel Administration, Ithaca, N.Y.

Career highlights: director of development, Le Cirque, New York; chief confectioner and senior manager, Hand-Crafted Hilliards Candies, West Hartford, Conn.; developer, scholarship program, James Beard Foundation, New York; co-owner, The Butler Did It catering Washington. D.C.; assistant catering director, Blantyre Hotel, Lenox, Mass.

Profound career inspiration; “the quintessential restaurateur,” Sirio Maccioni of Le Cirque; professor Tom Kelly, Cornell University

Biggest unrealized aspiration: “My career has been going at a whirlwind, non-stop pace, so it’s impossible to name any at this point.”

Personal favorite feel-good meal or much: “Osteria del Circo’s bombolocini [raspberry jelly-filed, fried-pastry balls] – I escaped them for about a year, but I can’t anymore.”

Date and place of birth: Aug 31, 1967, New York current residence: Las Vegas

Family status: single

Favorite leisure activity: hiking and climbing, horseback riding, skiing

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COPYRIGHT 2008 Gale, Cengage Learning