EATING THE DESERT
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George Jacquez never saw himself as the kind of chef to lead a movement.
In fact, he’s spent most of his career back-of-house with Cheesecake Factory (18 years), then at Mandalay Bay, The Venetian and Red Rock Resorts, following the direction that his own parents took as chefs at the Los Angeles Convention Center and Hotel Roosevelt.
It’s not the kind of path that will get you on Iron Chef, but you’ll never be out of work, and you might actually get to enjoy watching your kids grow up.
Something changed, though, when Jacquez was tapped as the executive chef for Aliante Casino and Hotel. After leaving Red Rock, Jacquez was contractually bound to take a one-year sabbatical from working in the valley. He chose to call on a connection with Texas’ Salt Lick BBQ (remember when they briefly had an outpost at Red Rock?), thinking he’d learn some secrets of the pit. As it turned out, he learned a lot more.
“Farm to fork is everywhere in Austin,” Jacquez tells me, sitting at a table in Aliante’s diner-like Farm 24-7 café. And as it turns out, Jacquez spent as much, if not more time in the fields during his year in Hill Country as he did in the pit. So when he came back to Vegas to run the now-independent Aliante’s restaurants, and executives asked him to come up with concepts that might draw in more neighboring folks, Jacquez—who had rarely visited North Las Vegas in all his years with the casinos - noticed only one thing: farms.
Three working farms, to be specific, all within two miles of Aliante’s doorstep.
Jacquez walked the fields of the Las Vegas Farm, Cowboy Trail Farm and Gilcrease Orchard and came back with a proposition: to have a food and beverage program that was as close to 100 percent locally sourced as possible.
In Las Vegas.
In the Mohave Desert.
Aliante, surprisingly, said “yes.” And so, this week, Jacquez and his team are celebrating the grand opening of Farm 24-7.
“This came out of the ground a day ago, and a mile and a half away from here,” Jacquez says, holding up a gorgeous purple baby bell pepper, as his server drops off a farm skillet breakfast filled with fresh diced potatoes, onions, asparagus and squash. It’s notably more fresh and flavorful than the average diner breakfast. Even an expensive one on the Strip.
“Everything is local except the plate and the eggs.”
Many of the other dishes he has me sample are much the same, although the chef is careful to note that proteins are a bigger challenge: there simply aren’t enough eggs here to supply his average 400-700 daily covers, although he’s working with R.C. Farm to hopefully use their pork soon for the buffet’s popular pig roasts.
Still, Jacquez knows he isn’t serving downtown hipsters: the menu here is almost entirely familiar favorites like chef salads, tuna melts, and liver and onions, and surprisingly at prices no different from any other casino (almost everything is under $10). If you never notice that the walls here are covered with iconic field shots taken within spitting distance, you won’t feel lacking.
Jacquez is aware of other Valley restaurants promoting local produce, including Summerlin’s Hops & Harvest, and Honey Salt, as well as others on the Strip. None though has a stated goal of sourcing virtually everything possible locally. Nor are their definitions of local confined to Clark County (or even Southern Nevada).
Jacquez has also taken the further step of getting his own agriculture certification, making it possible for him to do some herb and vegetable plantings alongside the property’s pool deck and even erect a working hydroponic grow house inside MRKT, Aliante’s steakhouse. At the same time, his farm partners, he says, are enthusiastically setting plots aside specifically for his use (Cowboy Trail Farm is even testing banana and mango trees). Eventually, he forsees serving a house salad “of the day” and several dishes designated as wholly local.
The chef admits the concept (which came together in a very short 6-week process) is more ambition than reality right now, but things will be much more fleshed out come springtime. Still, he figures he’s already gotten farther with the concept than he would’ve at any of his previous employers, owing to Aliante’s now rare ownership situation.
“We’re an independent entity,” he beams. “We can do what we want.” CL