July 2016


Herringbone’s Head Chef Geno Bernardo is Back Where He Belongs

By Jason Harris

Photos by Marie Buck


I’m sitting on the patio at Aria, one of the fanciest hotels in Las Vegas. This specific spot is so swank. It’s so close to the pool with the bikini bods. It’s so close to the misters that are cooling me from the sun. It’s so close to the DJ, who is playing just the type of music. I may as well be in Miami or the French Riviera.

And the head chef at the restaurant, one of the most buzz worthy on The Strip and known for its fish-centric menu, just brought me a plate of radishes. They weren’t cooked or cut in a way that showed some knife skill dominance. They weren’t manipulated with molecular gastronomy or transformed into some type of gelée. Just radishes! Plain, complete with their tops on. A little butter, a little salt and a little honey on the side.

This is Herringbone, the newest jewel in Aria’s restaurant row crown. It’s the third location of the eatery from owner Brian Malarkey of Top Chef and The Taste fame. And this one, this specific location is going into a different stratosphere for one reason: head chef Geno Bernardo.

If you’re a foodie and live in Las Vegas, you most likely recognize that name. Bernardo called Las Vegas home for many years before disappearing. When he reappeared with the opening of Herringbone at the start of 2016, the food mafia smiled with excitement, and rightly so.

Bernardo, now 44, is at a place in his career where he not only has mastered many aspects of his craft, he is confident enough to put down a plate of radishes and know they’re worth the price. Which begs the question: Is Geno Bernardo about to lead a mini food revolution on The Strip?

Every Bruce Springsteen fan knows that greatness lives and breathes in Asbury Park, N.J. It’s where The Boss perfected the Jersey Shore bar band rock sound. It’s also where a young Geno Bernardo (who, in case you were wondering, saw Springsteen at The Stone Pony) learned to love cooking. He has fond memories, at age 8, of his great-grandmother in the kitchen and his great-grandfather foraging through the local surroundings. And, of course, like any good Italian kid from Jersey, he remembers Sunday dinners. As he puts it, “Food and Sundays and night time was a big event at my house. It was an experience. It was about the culture. I just really fell in love with it.”

Bernardo grew up when even fast food was prepared food. At 14, he lied about his age so he could work breakfast shifts at McDonald’s, back when that actually involved cooking breakfast. From there, he enhanced his culinary skills at Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island.

With college debts to pay, the Italian-American chef stepped away from the kitchen. “I wanted to learn fundamentals of different aspects” of business, he says. “I wanted to learn front of the house. I wanted to learn how to be a manager. I wanted to learn receiving. It definitely helped me.”

He worked as a manager at Logan Airport in Boston, endured the corporate rigmarole at Houlihan’s (he was a kitchen manager) and did time as a steward at the Met Life Building in New York City. By immersing himself in all the other areas of the restaurant, he was ready toown the kitchen when he returned to it.

He headed west to San Diego, where he prepared food in the fine dining area of The Fish Market. After that he took a job on a boat and later learned all things raw fish while working at sushi restaurants. Herringbone didn’t exist back then, but it was as if Bernardo had been training for his current gig since graduating from culinary school.

Geno Bernardo seems made for Las Vegas. He’s charismatic. He’s a showman. And he embraces the spotlight.

He first landed here more than a decade ago when he opened Nove in The Palms. He likes to say that he helped put the restaurant on the map, and the restaurant helped put him on the map. But cooking regional dishes from Italy was a long way from the spaghetti and red sauce days of the Jersey Shore. “Italian food was always my passion,” he says. “What people don’t understand is that for a long period of time Italian food wasn’t really cool.”

As Nove ascended to a must-try dining destination, and The Palms a must-visit hotel, Bernardo had a specific mindset. “Back then there were so many celebrity chefs,” he recalls. “This place (Las Vegas) was celebrity chef-driven. It was a fight every day. I thought I was fighting for the heavyweight championship of the world. I pushed myself so hard.”

One of the things he did back then was create relationships with local purveyors. He went to neighboring towns, forged friendships with farmers and delved into the farm-to-table game before it became trendy.

It was a dream job. Bernardo wistfully refers to Nove as his “first baby.” But as The Palms fell out of favor with the public and was sold to new owners, Bernardo, too, needed a change.

He returned home to New York to work for iconic chef David Burke. That relationship lasted less than a year. Then he decamped to Cabo San Lucas and cooked for the rich and famous at El Dorado. Private yacht parties, being flown in to cook at George Strait’s ranch, catering Christmas parties for the elite of the 1 percent. It was nice, he says, but at “the end of the day I felt I went out to pasture because you’re still a country club chef.”

He needed Las Vegas – and perhaps it needed him. He moved back in 2015, with a view toward opening his own place. But as that option receded, the Herringbone opening fell into his lap. He and owner Malarkey hit it off, and the two were on their way.

What Herringbone is now (and what it will become) bears Bernardo’s stamp. Malarkey is a hands-off restaurateur, who will allow a star chef to interpret the owner’s vision while adding his own flair.

Herringbone Las Vegas offers some classic Malarkey magic. The freshest oysters are always in house. One day it might be Kusshi, the next Big Rock – both with fresh lemon and a tangy kimchi mignonette. Raw fish is a must. Spanish yellow fin is so clean it almost tastes sweet. Served with ponzu and a pineapple relish, it’s an easy plate to finish. Hamachi is stunning, both in presentation and taste. Buri, or Japanese amberjack, features the loin of the fish on the bottom of the plate, with the chopped up belly sitting on top of it. Sweet mangoes from Hawaii, extra virgin olive oil from Italy and house-made, pickled jalapeños make this a dish that fuses excellent elements from all corners of the globe.

Snapper is a favorite fish of Bernardo, who lets the complementary ingredients speak for themselves. The cheek is prepared with roasted tomatoes and a simple lemon peanut sauce. The tomato is good enough to be the star of its own dish, but here it elevates the fish.

A more intricate layering of flavors is put forth with the grilled octopus. It’s covered with olive oil, rosemary, chiles and lemon and left to confit for three hours. From there it is chilled to room temp, marinated with herbs, charred assertively and finished with 8-year-old balsamic vinegar from Modena. This is the type of dish that little Geno might have seen while helping Great Grandma in the kitchen. But here he takes it to an ultra-modern Mediterranean destination.

And for the Bernardo loyalists from the old days, hints of Nove find their way onto the menu. His egg yolk ravioli oozes when a fork breaks its packet. The other element of the filling, lemon-spiked ricotta, adds cheese and citrus to counterbalance the yolk. Finished with lemon white wine butter sauce and pancetta, it’s a dish that will be on repeat order. Perhaps the only criticism is that the dish doesn’t come with enough charred bread to soak up all that yolky goodness.

The squid ink and lobster tortellini might best represent what was and is for Bernardo. Here it’s served in a rich sofrito butter, with crunchy haricot verts mixed in for texture and color.

And while all of this is exciting, what’s not on the menu yet might be even more intriguing. On a recent brunch visit, Bernardo served what can best be described as the Italian version of the Middle Eastern dish shakshouka. Stewed San Marzano tomatoes commingling with pork, prosciutto and poached eggs make a ragu that should easily become a favorite for patrons.

Bernardo hopes to do with fish what chef David Chang does with pig at Momofuku. “It’s doing a head-to-tail fish dinner,” Bernardo explains. “I want to start out with three or four different species from around the world, anywhere from 5 to 8 pounds. That will feed six people. The head is going to be a soup. The top part is going to be some type of sashimi to crudo. The middle part is going to be roasted. Then we’re going to finish with grilled. Then the tail will be something unique. With that, it’s vegetables from the farm.  A progression where it’s moving from the head to the tail. It’s the evolution of one fish.”

And it’s the evolution of Geno Bernardo that likely will take Herringbone Las Vegas to greater heights. He may be a kid from Jersey, but now he’s back where he belongs: running one of the best restaurants in Las Vegas. Welcome home, chef.

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