After three years as Executive Chef of Le Cirque at Bellagio and garnering it a Michelin star, Chef David Werly left Las Vegas to take over The Setai South Beach. In this interview he looks back at Vegas — its palate and surprises — and forward to South Beach. Bolognese, burgers, and foie gras torchon, read on for these and the classically-trained chef's dream of creating an amazing club sandwich.
What was your favorite meal in Las Vegas?
When I was in Vegas we had a small restaurant called Raku off the strip. Its concept was Robotayaki. I think we’re going to see more and more of this coming from Japan, the grill with special charcoal. There, it’s usually the fisherman who do this. And basically Raku is this small place where everyone would go after work. Where chefs would meet up after their service was over. And I think the chef, Mitsuo Endo, was so true to his food, and respecting his own culture. It was really just a blessing to have a restaurant off the strip like that.
What is the thing you were most surprised by about the Las Vegas food scene?
The level of the food first of all. I was expecting a good level, but not that level. When the Michelin guide arrived we had some well-respected restaurants, but then soon we had Robuchon, a three-star Michelin restaurant just like you could find in France with the level and quality of service in France. The challenge was the range of customers. You have the very, very foodie people from L.A., San Francisco, and New York, to who maybe comes more from the countryside. You’re tyring to perform high-dining, but also to be able to please everyone at the same time. But that was also part of the excitement I would say.
What will you most miss about the food scene in Vegas?
Well I think I’m going to miss Le Cirque and Maccioni family. I worked for them for eight years and they’re really one of the greatest families in the country. I really became who I am under Sirio. And after I worked for him in New York and Mexico City, he brought me back to Las Vegas, and that’s where I achieved my star Michelin, and received the The AAA Five Diamond Award, and Four Mobil stars. What I’m going to miss with Vegas is the Maccioni family. The greatest part about him is that he really understands chefs and restaurants, and he gives you the resources. His understanding for food is just outstanding.
What is the thing you’re most looking forward to in Miami?
Well, I don’t want to change. My objective is the same, to be the best that I can be. What I really noticed straight away about The Setai is the dedication to quality. When I look around me I see the full potential that we have here. Chef Jonathan did such an amazing job here, and now what I’m looking for here is to bring my touch. I’m fairly new, so I’m trying to get the feeling for what the customers want. But one of the things that I really like is that we have the beach, and I want to be attentive to the product and to pleasing the types of clients that we have here.
I think we have a huge opportunity with the pool here. And to showcase the kitchen. I think one of the best things about kitchen at The Setai is that we have a little bit of a Western and Eastern mix. I want to keep the authenticity of the Asian food that we’re doing right now. All of our cooks are coming from their country and they know their cuisine. Just the same as me. When I cook French I want to be authentic. But I also want to listen to the customer and to bring a dedication to our customers.
What are the biggest palate differences between Vegas and Miami?
Well, I think it’s fairly early for me to be able to answer that. I can only think about it right now, I’m not really sure. I can only talk to Vegas. You have a different type of customer depending on the season. People from New York have a tendency to be more experimental. The same with people from San Francisco. But then overall - something that I saw when I worked in Mexico, London, and France - there’s two types of food: there’s the good and the bad. And trying to explain that is a difficult alchemy. People want the best product. For example, they want to know you sourced the best salmon. I’m getting older…I’m still young, but this is what I’m learning as I’m getting older: simplicity. I’m trying to get back to simplicity. What would I like to eat. Recently I’m really trying to take things from the perspective of the customer. I go out to the pool, and I eat there and in that way I experience the dishes that I come up with as a chef in the kitchen as a customer.
What’s the biggest lesson from Le Cirque that you’re taking to Setai?
That we don’t take no as an answer. Let me tell you at Le Cirque… and The Setai is a great place to put this in practice - we had customers who would come…the President of the United States would come in with his wife twice a week, everyone in the world, the best chefs - but you cannot have that kind of meal every day. Sometimes you just want a roasted chicken with French fries. And what’s wrong with that. I want to be this kind of chef. I want to be able to be truly understanding that you can be in a palace in an exceptional hotel, and you might just want a superb burger. This is what I learned at Le Cirque.
You are widely accepted as being responsible for getting a Michelin star in Las Vegas for Le Cirque. Why move on? Why not go for two?
Because I have been a chef in a restaurant for my entire career, and I worked in all those Michelin-starred restaurants from the Hotel Ritz, and under Alain Ducasse in London…I worked at all those places, I wanted to prove to myself I could cook at this level. I got a star Michelin and it was one of the most exciting days in my life. As a French chef…we really respect Michelin because you can’t cheat. And it’s something where you really have to perform every day. It’s like with a movie—do you expect to see the actor cry every day? So it was very exciting. I worked very hard there. And yes I could have stayed another two or three years, and maybe I could get another star, or more, but I really wanted to work in a larger spectrum of outlets, places where I could put my input. I wanted to make an amazing sandwich. And you know, I’ve never worked only for awards, and I got the award and I was very happy, but I was thinking, “Yes, I am happy, but I don’t work just for getting awards.” I work just as I did before, to bring the best food possible, and I think with The Setai I have the right setup. There is a dedication to amazing service, and performing at a different level, and getting the best product, and they are giving me the best opportunity to do this.