Chef Julian Serrano Talks Vegas and More

By Kathleen Squires  |  October 7, 2013

Well before a Spaniard named Jose Andres had ever thought about stepping foot in the US, Madrid-born Julian Serrano impressed stateside palates at Masa’s in San Francisco in the mid 80s. After more than a dozen years in San Francisco, Serrano went on to pioneer the fine dining movement in Las Vegas as the executive chef at Picasso Restaurant in the Bellagio. A little over a decade later, he opened restaurant Julian Serrano at the Aria hotel in 2009, representing his home country by serving tapas and touching on the molecular movement. The two-time James Beard Award winner sat down with us to talk Vegas, food fests and food fatigue. 

Zagat: How has the dining scene changed in Las Vegas since you first came to Picasso in 1998?

JS: Well, it has changed 100%. Before Picasso opened, Vegas was not known for food. Now, there are a lot of good restaurants here. It’s incredible. And they stand out not only for the food, but for the service and the money we put into the restaurants. All of the restaurateurs here want people to think that Vegas is a place to go where people are really professional in this business. For me, Vegas has one of the best service of cities in the world. The people here are happy to have a career of service in Vegas. You go to other cities, and people are working in service to do something else later. They are not happy to be waiters.

Zagat: What challenges has being in the middle of the desert brought you as a chef? Especially coming from San Francisco, where you had everything so close by.

JS: It is very interesting because I have a better fish here, in the desert, than in San Francisco! Do you believe that? Why, because I can buy directly from the fish people and the fish is so good because even if it is coming from somewhere else, the weather is so good that there is never any delay and everything comes in on time. In San Francisco, it’s crazy. Every day there is ten delays, and you never know what you are going to get. Same with vegetables. If tonight I order vegetables at 10 PM, I will have vegetables tomorrow by 10 in the morning. One of the challenges when I first came here was with the diners. People didn’t understand tasting menus. So they would get their first course, and I would get complaints that the portions were too small. And I would tell them, “That is just the first course. You will have the first course, and a second course, and a third course, and a main course, and dessert. And I promise when you leave you are going to say, ‘I ate too much.’

Zagat: When you first came to Vegas, did you ever think you were going to stay so long?

JS: No. But I stayed because of the restaurants, and the business. In terms of my profession, and economics, it is not a bad city to live. I came here to continue my culinary art. And I was successful and stayed because I wanted to continue with a good company. They gave me all the tools to be successful. And they allowed me to do everything I want to.

Zagat: All of the high-profile chefs of the world are here in Las Vegas. Do you feel that it is saturated or is there room for more?

JS: There is always room for more, because here, they are always building, building, building hotels. And when you are building hotels, you have to have the restaurants. We started that formula with the Bellagio. When the Bellagio opened, we opened 12-14 restaurants. We were successful and then everybody did it. The people who are building new hotels right now, they are going through the same thing. So when the people come, they now expect a certain quality of restaurants in hotels. Because if you don’t have the good restaurants, they will go somewhere else.

Zagat: You’re participating this weekend in the Food & Wine All-Star weekend. How do you feel that these sort of festivals impact the dining scene in the US in general?

JS: It important for people to participate in the festivals. It raises the awareness of the food scene and helps people learn. The festivals are great because they offer another reason you can spend a couple of days here in Vegas, too. You can go to cooking class, go to a speech, enjoy food and drink and wine.

Zagat: When you travel, what are some of your favorite places to eat in the US?

JS: I like to eat in New York, but in no particular place, because I feel it is always changing so much. But you know, today, myself, I want to give myself a break from food, you know? When I have a free opportunity to eat, I eat salad. I’ve eaten so much, for so many years, but… give me a break. I used to make a list when I travel of restaurants to go to and I would stop in every one—every single one. Today, I cannot do that. After one or two restaurants, my body cannot do it anymore.