_ Credit: Todd Coleman_
When I first met Elaine Wynn, I was a 21-year-old fresh off the plane from Baltimore, one of the youngest servers at Osteria del Circo at the Bellagio. The restaurant was the first foray of the Maccioni family (of the legendary Manhattan restaurant Le Cirque) into Las Vegas and definitely my first experience in the world of serious dining. This was 1998. Sometimes I'd wait on Elaine and her husband, Steve Wynn, who'd just opened the Bellagio that year. They loved good food, and in bringing a dream team of celebrity chefs to the Bellagio, from Todd English to Jean-Georges Vongerichten, they were banking on the notion that upscale dining could become an attraction in itself in Las Vegas. Elaine noticed everyone.
By 2004, I was part of her team for the opening of Wynn Las Vegas, where she was involved in virtually every detail, from the overall design concept to the housekeeping uniforms. Unlike previous Wynn properties, where erupting volcanoes or dancing fountains hailed passersby on the Strip, here the promise of dining as unforgettable as what you might experience in Paris, New York, or Hong Kong was the draw. When Wynn Las Vegas opened in 2005, it was with its own impressive roster of chefs, including Alex Stratta, Paul Bartolotta, and Takashi Yagihashi. The Wynns insisted that the chefs establish themselves as part of the community, not just parachute in a few times a year. They weren't building merely restaurants now, but a whole culture of fine dining. As for me, as young as I was when I was turned loose in Sin City, who knows what would have happened had I not fallen under Elaine's watchful eye? She has high expectations, and many of us who live and breathe restaurants in Vegas work hard to meet them.
Pictured above, clockwise from top right: Beef tenderloin with caramelized onions; Seared sea bass with tomato-fennel stew; Crab two ways: roasted Alaskan crab in a scampi sauce and Dungeness crab salad; Porterhouse steak with roasted tomatoes, asparagus, and truffled mashed potatoes; A seafood tower, including Alaskan king crab legs, scallop ceviche, oysters, and lobster