Time flies when you’re having fun smoking some of the city’s greatest barbecue and serving truffle fried chicken in a hidden fine-dining room in Las Vegas. That’s what Cleveland-based celebrity chef and TV personality Michael Symon has been doing in his first year at the Palms, where he operates Mabel’s BBQ and the speakeasy-style Sara’s restaurants. He’s a veteran restaurateur but Vegas was the first time he opened two eateries at once: “If someone is trying to maintain maximum sanity, I don’t think I’d recommend it,” he says.
How big of a challenge was this two-restaurant endeavor?
At this point we have a pretty big team, not only here but overall. Our corporate chef has been with us 18 years and our culinary director has been with us 16 years, so we were able to bring an entire army here and it was still really hard. Opening restaurants is always a challenge, but to do two that are the complete opposite of each other was a special challenge.
How has the Vegas experience been for you?
I think we forgot we’re a little older than we used to be. We quickly realized we’re in Vegas this time to work and not just have fun like we used to do, and you can’t really mix the two. You can’t be working 18-hour days and then go, “Let’s go do Vegas!” But we learned from it and really enjoyed the whole experience. One reason I really enjoy spending time here now is how you get to know the customers a little bit. There’s a lot of repeat business and that’s been a really pleasant surprise to us, that there’s a really nice dining community here.
Sara’s is very original, but it has a lot of vintage Vegas vibes. How has that experience changed in the first year?
My original vision was to have only eight things on the menu, but people want to try different stuff. But the two things that were most important to me on the original menu are our biggest sellers. I wanted to do the best fried chicken in the city and I wanted to make insanely good prime rib. We are one of if not the only place in Vegas actually using prime (beef) for our prime rib, and certainly we’re the only ones that smoke it.
You just released a new cookbook in December.
It’s called Fix It With Food. Unfortunately I have RA (rheumatoid arthritis) and external lupus so I have a lot of inflammation issues, and this book is all about teaching how to combat inflammation with diet. My triggers are sugar and dairy. Everyone’s triggers are different, but it’s about how you find them and then you pray they’re not beef and bourbon. (Laughs.)
So is there a dessert that’s worth dealing with that?
Ice cream. My son owns a gourmet doughnut and coffee shop and he’s starting to make his own ice creams. He’s trying to kill me. (Laughs.) I thought I was good to him growing up but apparently not. Every day this week, he brought over a pint of ice cream for me to try. It’s been rough.