Culinary Stars Rock
Chefs Shawn McClain and Graham Elliot.
One of the big trends in Las Vegas dining in 2017 was the proliferation of guest chef dinners. Culinary superstars from around the globe teamed up with some of their favorite Las Vegas chefs to create some of the most memorable meals of the year.
At one point during the early December collaboration dinner at Sage, between Chefs Shawn McClain and Graham Elliot, McClain compared the night to the album cover of The Police’s final record, Synchronicity. He stated, “They all shot the cover separately and they all interpreted how they all brought it together and it all kind of worked together because they had spent so much time together.”
What McClain was saying is that when developing this collaboration dinner, it didn’t matter how much Elliot and he communicated - as long as they did communicate - because they knew each other so well they would be able to riff off each other’s dishes.
McClain had already staked out his turf in Chicago when Elliot broke into the scene just before the turn of the millennium. The latter remembers it as such, “I moved to Chicago when I was 22. You try to immerse yourself with the local food scene and Shawn was one of the big dogs in town. He was running Trio, which was four stars, and then opened his own place, Spring. I did a fest with him. We had a good relationship. When I went to open my own place I leaned on him for advice from everything from who to work with for design to team building stuff.”
But while McClain was already receiving international accolades at his eateries, he had his eye on the young, upcoming bucks, too. He recalls, “Graham and I definitely had parallel paths, although Graham is a few years younger than I am. We were definitely kind of rising up and doing our own thing. He was being progressive very early which I gave him a lot of credit for. He took some risks with his restaurants and got rewarded for that. It was cool to see his rise.”
The two superstar chefs remained friendly through the years and at the Aspen Food and Wine Fest last year, McClain approached Elliot about doing a collaboration dinner at his Las Vegas restaurant at Aria, owned by MGM Resorts.
While neither chef is new to preparing progressive menus with colleagues, McClain learned to keep expectations low from early experiences. He says, “When I was in Chicago, I did these and we just didn’t get turn out and a lot of effort was put in. People came in and you put your effort into doing something really special and you’re like, ‘Where are the sales? Why aren’t people gravitating to this?’ If there are any disappointments along the way, that was it back in the Chicago days.”
Elliot, who is embarking on opening his first MGM branded restaurant, Coast, at MGM Cotai in Macau, mentioned potential pitfalls of this type of meal as such: “The one thing that you see happen is that chefs will want to do a certain type of fish, like maybe I want to do a seafood and I love working with fish, and then you see the other chef has already called dibs on that or it’s summer and I’ve got this amazing recipe for something with tomato and then they’re already using that. And neither person is willing to give up on it. One of my strengths, almost to a point of being a weakness, is I give in and figure I can do something different. That didn’t happen with this dinner, but it is something that you see some time. Chefs have been known to have a kind of ego, I’ve been told. I guess that can get in the way some time.”
To that end, McClain, who had home field advantage, wanted his guest to feel welcome. He states, “I definitely threw it in Graham’s court first. You definitely want the guest chef to go to where they want to go to.”
While it would have been easy for both of these guys to rest on signature dishes, they - to the delight of the diners - pushed themselves and created new plates for the meal.
The night started with an amuse-bouche courtesy of McClain. A Kusshi oyster, grown in British Columbia, was engulfed with roasted potato consomme thickened with agar for body. Creme fraiche, caviar, and dried sauerkraut completed the shucked sucker.
Elliot presented a milk and honey salad as the first course, featuring arugula, stretchy burrata cheese, honeycomb, shaved marcona almonds on top and a marcona almond puree below.
Things got more aggressive with McClain’s next plate. A buckwheat ravioli was filled with duck confit and roasted matsutake mushrooms. Matsutake and shitake mushrooms were also cooked together with herbs and aromatics to create a clean mushroom broth. It was presented on the plate with raw, brined turnips, as a beet puree was painted on the bottom of the bowl and duck skin cracklings circulated around the circumference. Of all of McClain’s courses, this was Elliot’s favorite. He raves, “It was awesome. I posted a picture of them and they got 20 comments because the actual dough is simply buckwheat flour and duck fat to hold them together. I thought that was such a great technique. I was excited about that.”
Next up was Elliot. The 40-year-old chef seems to be everywhere on television these days, mostly as a judge on shows likes MasterChef, Cooks vs. Cons and Top Chef. For his main course, he went with scallops over a green chickpea blend. They were topped with a piperade, a stewed mix of onions, peppers, garlic and shallots. The protein was paint brushed with a chorizo vinaigrette. This was the dish of Elliot’s that most excited McClain. He states, “I love chorizo. I loved the scallops. I think his dishes were nice and simple and not overly fussy. Anything with that chorizo in it is just delicious and if you add scallops - we’ve done meat and scallop dishes for a long, long time - I love it.”
Course four was the course of the night. Here McClain worked his meaty magic on Snake River Farms American Wagyu ribeye cap. This meat, says McClain, is a, “great meat for a tasting menu. It’s super intense in small doses. 3 or 4 ounces, I think, is just a great amount of that meat.” White miso and salsify puree was paired with a cooked salsify that was poached in chicken stock and aromatics, brined and fried. A veal reduction, black truffle, and fermented wasabi, all added complimentary elements to the stunning beef, which was seared hard, giving it a crunchy exterior but a perfectly rare interior. It was a stunner and still has me wondering how McClain figured out how to harmonize all those seemingly at odds components.
Elliot finished the night off with his banana split, a dish he is known for and will be taking with him to Asia. Vanilla gelato, bruleed banana, candied hazelnuts, and espresso-chocolate sauce worked to give the eater both a number of tastes and textures.
On Elliot’s twitter page in October, he posted a picture of this banana split, which at the time had pretzels in it. The salt and the crunch would have been welcome here. Of the experience of presenting the dish before it makes its debut at Coast, he states, “It’s good to see people’s take on that. It’s just a different market being overseas. It’s an interesting opening and a new experience for me to come in and put myself in that culture and area and get inspired by it.”
Elliot, still in the honeymoon phase of his relationship with MGM Resorts, hopes that in the future he has his own Las Vegas restaurant where he might be able to host collaboration dinners. Of the rise of Las Vegas as a culinary destination, Elliot gushes, “There is so much energy and so many, not only great chefs and restaurants, but people that love food… I think that having a relationship with the MGM and doing Coast in Cotai, hopefully that’s a great success that I can use as a springboard to doing something here locally.”
Meanwhile, McClain is already thinking about more of these types of dinners in 2018. He kept the menu available at Sage for the entire week, which he thinks upped the ante on both the quality and experience.
And no matter who McClain teams up with next, he thinks he’s cracked the code to make these dinners a success. He says, “The key to create great dinners is to work with people you know, who have great energy and you have that friendship and fun factor with.”
We can all agree on that.
Ed. Note: To discover what’s going on with these, or any chefs you like, follow them on social media. A Tweet or Instagram photo might just be enough to get your tastebuds going and maybe you’ll stumble upon something secret like these events!