“Italians hate that dish. You love it.” - James Trees
It’s 2012. I’m living in Los Angeles with my girlfriend. One summer day she tells me she found a dog online, in a pound an hour and a half away, that she wants to rescue. She brings back the dog later that day. We name it Juno. Within minutes, I am exponentially happier.
What’s strange is I didn’t realize how much I missed owning a dog until I owned a dog again. It’s easy to miss something when it’s gone, but it’s an odd feeling to retroactively miss something once it is back in your life. If there is a word for that feeling, I don’t know it.
But I did experience that retroactive longing in a different way, recently. It’s now New Year’s Eve, December 31, 2017. For almost a year, James Trees, the large, lumbering chef who looks older than he actually is, has been telling me, and every other person in the Las Vegas food scene, about his upcoming restaurant, Esther’s Kitchen. We keep joking with him that he should get a t-shirt that says “Six weeks” on it, because every time we ask him when is it going to open? he tells us he is hoping “in another six weeks.”
Trees has a solid reputation and is a regular at food events, but this preview dinner, right before it’s time to ring in 2018, is the first real taste of his food I’m getting. All the stuff I’ve heard - which celebrity chefs Trees has worked for in the past, which impressive restaurants he’s cooked at in his career, and all the hype about what Esther’s is going to be - either gets obliterated or becomes part of the legend with this meal.
The chef serves me a lasagnette nero. Think torn lasagna noodles made with squid ink to give it a dark color, complimented by luscious hunks of lobster, and rounded out with earthy fennel and acid from lemon.
I’m not kidding when I say this: I take a bite of the noodle and I put my fork down. I need to fully inhabit this moment. This is easily the best pasta noodle I’ve had in Las Vegas, probably ever. Where have I had a noodle this good before? When was that? Was it when I was growing up in a largely Italian neighborhood in New Jersey? Sunday dinners at the Vecchiones’ house? Was it when I was in college and visited the famed North End in Boston? Does it even matter? I sit there, savoring this noodle, realizing that for a long time now, I completely missed eating pasta done the right way. Within one day of opening Esther’s Kitchen, Chef Trees, 37, has elevated the entire pasta game in Las Vegas and has made the fakers no longer tolerable.
“I do what I always do, which is go in and fix sh*t.” - James Trees
Trees has a bit of East Coast swagger to him. He grew up in a rough neighborhood in Las Vegas, reminiscent of many Northeastern communities where the older kids from the streets would beat up the younger kids from the same streets, but if an outsider came and picked a fight with anybody, all the neighborhood kids would beat up the outsider.
He signed up for cooking class in high school because the girl he had a crush on told him to. When class started, she was nowhere to be found, but something clicked for Trees. He recalls, “I loved to cook once I learned what it was. I realized that cooking is my three favorite subjects rolled up into one. It’s history, art, and science all combined. And it’s a craft. I fell in love with cooking because it was the things I loved the most smashed together in this craziness.”
Like a fish to water, Trees took to the kitchen. At age 16, he got an internship at The Mirage Hotel where he was supposed to work in the kitchen for 3 hours a day. He would spend 8 to 10 hours there learning his craft.
When The Bellagio opened, many of the Mirage cooks moved over to the new hotel for a chance to advance their careers. That left Trees in a prime spot at The Mirage. He worked in a shared kitchen with the crews from the newly opened high-end dining establishments from chefs Alex Stratta - the restaurant Renoir - and Luke Palladino - who operated Onda.
From there, the young cook made his way to the Culinary Institute of America and then, after graduation, back to his hometown to become an in-house cook at The Bellagio. Things were going along swimmingly for Trees, who also had stints at Bradley Ogden, Alex, and Alize along the way.
One day, though, while driving home, he crashed his car going 140 miles per hour. He says, “I broke my neck, my back, my shoulder blades, my wrist, my legs, my collar bone, my ribs, dislocated pelvis - you name it, I was f***ed.”
Where better to do physical therapy than in the kitchen of a busy restaurant? Trees took a position at Knob Hill in the MGM where he’d work a 10-hour day then pass out for the next two. He did this until he was in game shape again.
His next step was with The Mina Group, opening outposts for celebrity chef Michael Mina in cities including Detroit, Miami, Scottsdale, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.
Developing a reputation as a fixer of sorts in the kitchen, he got a job helping make the chefs on reality television look more credible. Trees recalls, “I ran the back kitchen on Hell’s Kitchen and Kitchen Nightmares. The people who were on the tv show couldn’t make a Beef Wellington if their lives depended on it. Anyone who goes on a show like that is a clown.” It should be noted that Trees himself will be a contestant on an upcoming episode of a Food Network cooking competition show.
Trendy stops at The Viceroy and Superba Food and Bread in Los Angeles followed. By this time, Trees had built up enough fans that he began looking for his own brick and mortar space in LA. He thought he had $300,000 from investors lined up, all of which fell through. Looking back now, at his packed restaurant near Downtown Las Vegas, Trees says confidently, “I’m really glad none of them invested.”
“Why the heck would I do the exact same restaurant in LA, where there’s massive competition and the rent is three times higher and the labor is so much harder to get and the minimum wage is $15 an hour? That sounds like a recipe for disaster.” - James Trees
What it came down to for Trees is what it often comes down to for people, betting on yourself and somehow convincing your family to double down on you. Trees’ great-aunt Esther, for whom his restaurant is named, always bet on James. She helped put him through culinary school and she wrote him a check early on for his own restaurant. He recalls, “She was investing in me as a human being and honestly, up until 5 years ago, I probably wasn’t worth investing in.”
But Trees needed more than just his aunt’s check and his own savings to open the hip spot on Casino Center Boulevard. He’s borrowed from his parents and his sister to make Esther’s Kitchen a reality. This is his motivation to make sure he puts out the best food he can every day. He says:
You want to talk about a family business? The reason I’m not allowed to fail is because if this restaurant fails my mom loses her house. I believe 100% if you have the ability to fail in life, you will totally fail. I cannot fail. I will work here 25 hours a day, 9 days a week. I do not give any f***s.
The local community has responded with an improbable amount of love. Go to Esther’s on any night and you’ll be surrounded by a lively, energetic crowd that includes socialites, foodies, and business people. It’s quickly become the Downtown dinner spot de jour.
If you make a chair and skip a step, that chair falls apart. I think the same is true for cooking. We make chairs. - James Trees
Stroll past the open kitchen and look to your left as you get towards the back of the building. There sits the pasta room, an entire space in the building dedicated to making noodles and bread. It serves to establish a tone and as a set piece in the restaurant. For Trees, it is necessary to get his food right. He explains:
The pasta room comes from the idea that you need to be able to separate prep from work. It is humidity and temperature controlled. 76 degrees / 80 percent humidity all the time. While we’re making pasta, the pasta doughs don’t change while we’re extruding them. They don’t change when we’re rolling them out. We are about the basics of chemistry and what yeast and flour do at certain temperatures and humidity.
If that’s what it takes to make cacio e pepe or cavatelli as memorable as his, then every Italian restaurant should be required to have one, to be up to code.
The former uses chitarra as the noodle of choice, a thin semolina and egg noodle that looks like spaghetti. Says Trees of the process to make it, “It’s either elusively hard or deceptively simple to make.” The combination of toasted Tellicherry peppercorns, chicken stock, butter and Pecorino, sticks to the noodle perfectly, creating the most comforting Italian version of macaroni and cheese one could ask for.
The latter takes eggless shell noodles and pairs them with a version of broccoli rabe that Trees learned to make from his friend’s father that involves overcooking the green then frying it with garlic and chili. Trees then takes a tomato and gives it the works - blanch, peel, and quarter, then cook with garlic salt, pepper, and thyme. He then smokes the tomato with a smoking gun. When everything is put together it wondrously exemplifies a dish where, even though all the parts on their own are excellent, the sum far outweighs them.
For all his talking though, Trees doesn’t like to give credit to his cooking. He states:
The only reason why we’re successful is because we didn’t go after a bunch of resumes on the Strip. I don’t give a damn where you worked. I want the coolest, nicest people to work here that I can find and that’s how we are successful. I think it’s the human beings in the building that bring people back.
Certainly that is an element, but the word on the street about Esther’s Kitchen isn’t “Did you hear how quickly the server refilled my water?” or “The hostess pulled out my chair like a boss.” The word on the street is, “The food at Esther’s has been so good from the jump that it has already made this funky hole-in-the-wall a must-visit restaurant.”
So let’s gives Trees, a wizard of sh*t-talking, one more chance to sum up Esther’s immediate success. He says:
Restaurants are time and place. Even though Rene Redzipi (chef of the wildly acclaimed Noma—Trees actually calls him something unmentionable)said it, he was right. This restaurant, the reason why we have been successful so far, is because it’s time and place. It’s this food in this time in this place. Every major city has this restaurant except for Las Vegas.
Thankfully, we now have it too.
1130 S. Casino Center Blvd., #110, Las Vegas.
702-570-7864 | estherslv.com