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Arnold M. Knightly


Nevadan at work: Certified chef serves as tastemaker for Station Casinos' culinary future

17 Sep 2007

By Arnold M. Knightly

Quick quiz: Which gaming company employs the only certified master chef in Las Vegas?

The answer may surprise you.

Give up? The company is Station Casinos and the chef is David Kellaway.

Kellaway, one of only 57 certified master chefs in the United States, was plucked from Mandalay Bay in 2005 to work for Station Casinos. The locals gaming company, once better known for its buffets and middle-class cuisine, is working to bring more fine dining options to its repeat clientele.

Kellaway is in charge of all the culinary cuisine that passes through Station Casinos, from the buffet at Boulder Station to the fine-dining restaurants that populate Red Rock Resort.

"If you can eat it or drink it I've probably had a lot to do with it," said Kellaway, who oversees 67 restaurants with more in development for Aliante Station.

Kellaway is certified by the American Culinary Federation, a subsidiary of the World Association of Cooks Society. The designation is recognized around the world as the most prestigious title a chef can obtain. He said the 10-day certification process in the United States is widely recognized as the world's most grueling culinary certification.

Before Station Casinos, Kellaway spent three years at The Mirage and seven years at Mandalay Bay. He also helped design the kitchen for Bellagio.

Despite his efforts in cooking, Kellaway hasn't always had his eye on the culinary arts.

Kellaway withdrew from the University of Texas in the mid-1970s and headed to Colorado to find himself and to ski.

Question: What was your first job in the restaurant business?

Answer: When I moved to Aspen, Colo., the thing you obviously want to do is ski during the day. Pretty much a mindless job at night defaults to pot washing. That is where I started when I was 19. Then I got my very first promotion to washing dishes.

Question: How does washing dishes transfer over to cooking, something you had not done professionally?

Answer: One night there wasn't a lot of dishes to do. I'm in the cooler down on my knees cleaning the muck in the corner. The owner walks in and asks, "Who told you to do that?" I told him, "nobody," and he walked out. The next morning he told me he liked my work ethic and asked me if I want to do prep. I was cooking the base sauces within six months. So what had started out as a mindless job to make the money I needed to ski during the day, the importance started to shift to building a career.

Question: How did you end up going to New York City?

Answer: I was at a Robin Williams concert and someone off-handedly said that people who want to learn the business need to spend at least two years in New York. So I went and got in at the Plaza Hotel. The next seven years was the real foundation of understanding of how professional kitchens work. It was great university.

Question: Do you have any formal culinary training?

Answer: I don't have any formal culinary training nor have I been through a formal culinary apprenticeship. My career path has always been on the job, trying to find the best chefs to work with. It was harder to find those resources in the decade I was coming up.

Question: How did you end up in Las Vegas?

Answer: In 1994, I was introduced to Bobby Baldwin (then at The Mirage) by chef Gustav Mahler. What I thought was going to be a five-minute, "Hi, what's your name and can you cook?" kind of thing, it blossomed into 45 minutes of talking about everything except cooking.

From that meeting I met with a few other decision makers at The Mirage and was brought in as culinary director. I never met with Steve Wynn during the process.

Question: Were Station Casinos' Frank Fertitta III, (chairman and chief executive officer), and Lorenzo Fertitta, (director and president), in on bringing you over from the Strip?

Answer: Absolutely. There is a passion for good food and good dining that starts at the top with Frank and Lorenzo. What's enjoyable about this situation is that they know exactly what they're talking about. I have not seen a palate like Frank's, and Lorenzo's is close. Frank's palate is so damn discerning it keeps me jumping through hoops every single day. They taste every menu item. It makes the process a little tedious, but it also keeps the personality consistent.

Question: How were you convinced to go from the high profile of the Strip to Station Casinos?

Answer: There is a feeling, as misplaced as it is, that it is either the Strip or you're nobody. In retrospect, that is truly a sign of ignorance of understanding of what makes a success.

Question: What is your role at Station Casinos?

Answer: I coordinate the culinary operations of all the properties. The biggest part of my task is to standardize recipes, institute systems that provide better accountability in food costs, develop additional resources for staffing and recruit talent.

Question: Do you still cook?

Answer: I don't cook anymore as part of my job duties. I'll cook during a special dinner, if I'm developing a recipe, if Frank and Lorenzo have a particular dietary need they'd like to address.

Question: Are you requested by the Fertittas for some special events?

Answer: In the past two years I've led the cooking piece and cooked personally for private and personal functions, holiday functions, which is a lot of fun.

Question: How does someone become certified as a master chef?

Answer: You take an intimidating test, a 10-day practical exam. Basically, 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. or 11 p.m. for 10 days straight. You need to be able to walk in at 7 o'clock and see what ingredients you have to work with, present the menu and start cooking by 7:30. By 11 o'clock, present five courses for eight people. You repeat the process in the afternoon. In the evening you could perform, most nights, in a suit and tie. It's desk work, verbal exams and written exams. It has about a 30 percent success rate.

Question: What is the difference between being a certified master chef and a chef who is called a master chef?

Answer: Master chef is a media term that's all over. It could be quantified in different ways. But a certified master chef by the American Culinary Federation is a specific designation. It's like any other profession.

There are some really, really great professionals in that field. There are those who do the façade piece better than they do the culinary piece. There are probably some notable celebrity chefs that would do a very fine job of getting certified by this program. It's a matter of what it does for you.

Question: How much reality is in reality television shows built around the personality of a chef?

Answer: The ways chefs act on those shows aren't typical. The pressure of producing those types of shows is to keep viewers' attention. All the action is very condensed and all the points of passion are all highlighted for appeal and grabbing your attention. A show like "Hell's Kitchen" is not typical of how a restaurant is run.

To be overly harsh or a lot of yelling has been found to be counterproductive to morale building.

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