Wednesday, June 24, 2009 | 2 a.m.
If you know anything about chef Gene Villiatora, know this: He’s a cook’s cook – creative, resourceful and perfectly comfortable doing whatever it takes to feed people, whether that’s frying up an order of calamari or McGyver-ing a hibachi grill out of next to nothing.
The Vegas-based chef’s makeshift hibachi was one of the moves that caught the attention of Tom Colicchio and company during Villiatora’s run on “Top Chef: New York.” An improvised Indian menu did as well, and unfortunately, so did the crispy red snapper with daikon fettucini that sent the former Roy’s employee packing in the seventh episode.
However, the Hawaiian-born chef who started as a dishwasher managed to showcase an innovative approach on the show that earned him fans like “Top Chef” guest judge and molecular gastronomist Grant Achatz of Alinea in Chicago:
“You can put [Villiatora] in any two star kitchen — I don’t care if it’s New York, San Francisco, or Chicago — that guy’s going to roll up his sleeves, burn his forearms, and bang it out.”
After his reality TV farewell, however, the chef with a penchant for gold chains and Spam seemed to have stopped “banging it out.” Villiatora simply dropped off the radar screen.
But Achatz was right. While it hasn’t earned the stars yet, Villiatora is back on the map and doing just what Achatz said: He’s in the kitchen, with his sleeves rolled, banging out meal after meal for Summerlin locals at Martini’s on S. Fort Apache Road. And he’s doing it four times a day. As executive chef of the 24-hour restaurant and bar, Villiatora is responsible for breakfast, lunch, dinner and after hours menus at his new Vegas home, and just a month into the gig, he’s already added his signature Pacific Rim flavors to the eclectic line up. You can find the recipe for one such dish, the red curry and coconut chicken satay, below.
We caught up with the chef who’s said he’d “take a can of Spam over a cut of rib eye” to talk to him about food, fame and life at Martini’s. Here’s what he had to say:
On life after ‘Top Chef’:
[Life has been] kinda hectic, actually. There were a lot of job offers. I was doing a lot of private catering, private dinners, but I figured I’d rather be here in Vegas. [Martini’s was] looking for an executive chef and I was content at the time doing private dinners, but I said, “Hey, you know what? It’s time to make a move on being on “Top Chef.” Why not go for it and see what happens?”
On his new menu at Martini’s:
I’ve managed to flip the entire dinner menu as well as our lunch and after hours. …When I looked at the menu I figured I’d want to add some diversity to the menu. Each dish has its own identity, but it’s not all over the place. I’ve added some Pacific Rim things; I’ve added some Mediterranean dishes on there, as well as some standard American dishes. … I redid the calamari here. Everyone seems to have calamari, but I do ours with a Thai lemon and cilantro vinaigrette. Me being from Hawaii, I had to put my version of poke on there; it’s more towards traditional style poke, but it’s taking very well. And I have a yellow curry and coconut chicken sate with mango chutney and mint tzatziki.
On dealing with fame:
I still have a hard time with people coming up to me, saying, “Hey, you were on ‘Top Chef.’ Blah, blah, blah. I was voting for you.” And I have a lot of people coming up to me wherever I go, saying “I’ve seen you somewhere.” I don’t want to come out and go, “Was it ‘Top Chef?’” That’s just not my style, but they eventually catch on. It’s cool that people recognize me, but I just don’t like promoting that I was on the show.
On his future in Las Vegas:
Actually, I plan on staying in Las Vegas for several years. My ultimate plan is to open my own little thing – I’ve got some ideas – and my idea is to do it back in Hawaii. I’ll keep it to myself, cause I don’t want people stealing my ideas.
On cooking at a 24-hour restaurant:
We have four different menus. We have breakfast, lunch, dinner and after hours. It is [exhausting], but if you’ve been dealing with it for some time it just comes naturally. Just dealing with the whole 24-hour thing was probably the hardest change for me, but everything’s going well here. Now, it’s just a matter of being consistent.
Red curry and coconut chicken satay with mint tzatziki and mango chutney
For the satay:
2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken breast
16 bamboo skewers
1 can coconut milk
1 cup sugar
½ cup chopped cilantro
½ tablespoon ground cumin
¼ cup Thai red curry paste
Pre-soak skewers at least a half an hour. Put two one-ounce pieces of chicken on each skewer and place in baking dish and set aside.
In a blender, add curry paste, coconut milk, sugar, cumin and cilantro and blend until smooth. Pour over chicken skewers and set in fridge until ready to use, the longer the better. For best results grill the chicken two minutes on each side.
For the mint tzatziki:
2 cups of plain yogurt, drained
½ cup of cucumbers, deseeded and diced
¼ cup minced garlic
½ cup olive oil
½ cup red onion, finely diced
½ cup fresh mint, finely chopped
Mix all the ingredients well in a bowl and add salt and pepper to taste. (Best if made a day ahead.)
Martini’s does their mango chutney in house, but store bought chutney will complement this dish well.