Thursday, April 2, 2015 | 2 a.m.
It’s a remarkable milestone for a business let alone a chef and his culinary skills that launched three restaurants in a dining city that often shuts eateries within their first year. Andre Rochat, widely regarded as the city’s first star chef, has been king of his craft here for 35 years.
In 1980, Andre changed the face of our restaurant industry introducing Las Vegas to its first freestanding fine-dining experience. Decades before Fremont Street Experience and Zappos arrived to put downtown on the map, it belonged to Andre.
He purchased a 1930s era house and transformed it into beautiful dining rooms named after French cities. With copper pots turned into light fixtures and wine labels framed as art, it had the ambiance of a French inn. It was an overnight hit with residents, visitors and celebrities.
Andre still has the guest book from Day 1 with such names as Frank Sinatra, Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas.
Over the years, Andre has been the mentor in his kitchen to many younger chefs who have gone on to open their own restaurants. Sixteen of them joined forces to salute their master with a one-night-only anniversary celebration dinner with 16 magnificent masterpiece courses. It was a spectacular feast of inspired cuisine.
Contributing photographer Tom Donoghue was on duty to capture not only the excitement at Andre’s, now in the Monte Carlo, but also behind-the-scenes as the chefs battled one another to be the best.
Today Andre is semi-retired. He spends six months of the year in Las Vegas and six months in Thailand, where he consults for former Las Vegas restaurateurs Gregoire and Agathe Verge, who used to run Marche Bacchus in Desert Shores. They now have an eatery in Bangkok and an 80-room hotel and restaurant in Phuket.
Andre’s GM and business partner Joseph Marsco said: “Out of what was once a small, unassuming restaurant on the corner of Sixth and Lewis Streets became a legacy of culinary excellence that has impacted the Las Vegas dining scene for multiple generations. Over time, the restaurant grew into a landmark, and Andre’s name was synonymous with excellence and fine dining.
“In 1980 in a town of primarily all-you-can-eat buffets, Andre touched diners in a different, unique way re-creating the fine restaurants of his native France with a large wine list, exceptional service and food worthy of a detour in a growing city.
“In 35 years, Andre’s restaurants produced chefs, master sommeliers and industry professionals who helped shape the hospitality industry in Las Vegas, the United States and abroad. These professionals point to their time spent with Andre as some of the most influential in their careers and credit him with helping shape them into the successful professionals they are today.”
Andre, who also has the rooftop Alize at the Palms, gave me a tour of the changes to his Monte Carlo restaurant before we sat down to talk ahead of the celebration dinner. He showed me the start of the library he’s filling with his 800 cookbooks collected over the years. He turned the pages of his guest book filled with some of the biggest VIP names in the world.
Here’s our Q+A:
Thirty-five years is a remarkably long time. Does it seem like 35 years?
No, it doesn’t. It went a lot faster. I guess when you’re working, when you enjoy what you do, time goes fast.
How barren was Las Vegas when you arrived here?
In 1971, there were about 225,000 people in town. Every hotel had what they called a gourmet room, and I was a maitre d’ with a frou-frou shirt. They served what they thought was traditional French food: Spinach salad at the table and the flambe dessert.
Not real French food, but what Americans thought was French food?
It was kind of nice. It was romantic. Where people spend time at a table and you had the nice cart service and guests were dressed up to dine. It was nice. I miss it, you know. People just eat too fast today.
Were there any restaurants not in the hotels that were good here?
No. The only one; there was some, you know the old place like The Flame, but that was not really a gourmet restaurant. You had The Rathskeller down by the village, but there was no place that chefs went to eat. There were a few Asian restaurants, but that was about it.
What was the night, the epiphany, where you said I must open my own restaurant downtown, and why downtown? Was the Strip in any way what it is today?
No, the Strip was … everything was scattered. To go from a hotel to another, you would take a taxi. You didn’t walk down the Strip like now. I opened a bakery in 1973, sold it in ’77’ or ’78, and that’s when I decided to open a restaurant. I was looking for a location. I wanted to find a place that wasn’t out of the way, the type of place that locals look for, their special little place.
I found that big house downtown. I bought the house with a friend of mine and started remodeling. We paid $140,000 at that time for a double lot. We got a SBA loan at a time when Jimmy Carter was president at 18 percent interest.
So you know I repaid that loan a few times over. It’s just been fun all along from opening in July 1980 to closing that location in 2008 and then reopening here at the Monte Carlo.
Everybody acknowledges you as the first celebrity chef in town. In fact, you were really the only chef in town other than at hotels. Until when? Until Wolfgang Puck arrived at Caesars 20-plus years ago?
Yes, until Wolf arrived, but I’ve never considered myself a celebrity chef. I’m just a good cook. Yes, Wolfgang was the first one. Then everybody else followed after, and it’s just become now every hotel wants to have a so-called big name. You know the celebrity chef, and then there’s the celebrity chef, the one who the media makes and the one that cooking ability makes.
You say you’re a good cook, but you’re a good fine cook, or you’re a fine good cook. With this 35th anniversary dinner, there has to be some pride within you as a father of cuisine in Las Vegas that you have these 16 people cooking for you, all of whom have gone through the Andre Rochat school of cooking.
Yes, absolutely. There’s a lot more than that. It’s nice when the guys come see you and say, “Hey, you made me work my ass off, and it paid off today. That’s nice.” All these guys have a part of me in them. They’re go-getters. In our business, you have to be insane kind of because for us in this profession, there is no eight hours a day, there is no vacation or holidays. There’s no pain, there’s no tired, none of that.
People don’t understand that the more work we have, the more we like it. It’s just the way we are. We’re always walking the edge. It’s like we’re here today but that’s where we want to be tomorrow, so when we almost get there, we’re always running on the edge, always pushing, always trying to do better. I see that in these guys. Some of the chefs will tell me, “Andre, I hated you. I just hated you, but I’m where I’m at today thanks to you.” That’s great when you hear that!
For the first time in a long time, and I’ve known you 15 years, you don’t look worn or tired. You look healthy, you look the youngest I’ve seen you. There are no wrinkles. Is this because you’ve taken a sabbatical and gone fishing in semi-retirement?
I think you have to know when to stop. I don’t work for the glory. I could care less about it. I see a lot of my friends, Kerry Simon is a guy who’s good-looking that has everything going for him, and where’s he at today? I don’t want to die behind the stove, you know? I’ve been cooking for 56 years, never had a Christmas, never had a New Year’s. I worked seven days for years nonstop. Enough is enough.
I still have Andre’s and Alize, but I’m a very lucky person to have the people that I have working for me. Over the years, we are family, all of those guys have worked for me a minimum of 15 years, there are some 20 to 25 years and more. We work tighter than any organization that I know. Those guys come to work looking forward to coming to work. That’s why we are who we are and we do what we do.
What’s your plan being in Thailand and Las Vegas?
Six months in Thailand and six months in Las Vegas. Joe, I couldn’t have found anybody better. He’s been with me 15 years. He’s a lot smarter than I am. He’s great with the people.
I’m mostly in Phuket. I found a little hotel, so once a week I do cooking lessons for the cooks there. We’re in the process of remodeling the kitchen, so when I go back, I’ll teach them. Then Gregoire from Marche Bacchus has his hotel there, plus his cafe in Bangkok, so I do things and help them out. It keeps me busy, but now I have time to enjoy myself, too.
Are you going to add any Thai twists to the menus at Alize or Andre’s?
It’s pretty much up to them now, even though when I go in the kitchens there, I still tell them what to do. Once I’m in here in Las Vegas, I’m in the kitchen; that’s it. This is home for me.
Are you learning new culinary things in Thailand?
Yes, you always learn if you want to learn. There are always some good things that I can see that could cooperate with what we do here.
Looking back over 35 years, what are the highlights?
All of the celebrities who came to downtown, from Frank Sinatra to Steven Spielberg. We were out of the way off the Strip, but everybody was there. They all signed the book.
What do you think about today’s culinary scene in Las Vegas? Are you sad in any way that dining in general has deteriorated to less appreciation of great food and a desire for faster service and eating?
Yeah, yeah. First of all, I think there are too many restaurants, way too many. Which makes it difficult for everybody to survive. All those big names, it’s just a name on top of the restaurant, that’s it rather than them being in the kitchen.
The food changes every time there is a new chef. People come to those places because of the name, then they leave disappointed because the chef is not there, the food is not what they thought it was going to be. Everything goes around. Now it’s all of those celebrity chefs, and then you’ll see them all go and then things change again. I look forward to going back to the old times.
You say that, but I wonder if that’s your age talking rather than reality.
Everything goes in a cycle. I think eventually everybody is going to get tired of all the frou-frou food and running in and out because there’s nothing better or nicer than sitting at a nice table with a tablecloth, flowers and a candle,
getting good food and good service. We spent time at the table and talked; people don’t talk anymore.
That’s the worst part today. It’s sad. People don’t talk. There’s no communication. There’s no feeling while they eat. They are on their phones. All four people at a table are clicking their phones instead of talking with each other. I hate those phones and people in a restaurant using them instead of enjoying what they are eating. I’d love to ban them from my restaurants, but it would hurt my business.
Food has become something you just need to survive instead of being a special part of your evening’s enjoyment?
It’s a big part of your life. Whatever you celebrate, the best time that you have is always around food. The day you’re going to get married, you take them to the restaurant. Instead, I’ve seen tables of six to eight people all on their phones — people communicating with the person across the table with their cell phone. It’s sad.
I think young people should be taught the enjoyment of a nice meal table, the social time around the table because basically it’s the only time of the day when you can have communication. Otherwise, you’re too busy. Even if it’s just simple food, have a conversation. Talk about your day. On Valentine’s Day when you see all those couples coming for dinner, people ask for a romantic table. There is no romantic table; you’re the one who’s going to bring the romance.
It’s sad what we’ve become. Where are the feelings? People don’t communicate them, and too many subjects are taboo. Put a group of French chefs together at a table, we eat, we drink, and we talk, and we’re there for hours. People say there are moments that you remember, having a good time.
People forget to have a good time; they have a different sense of what a good time is. Spending $5,000 on a bottle of booze at a club where you can’t even have a conversation, that is not a good time. Nightclubs have hurt the restaurant business because people save their money to go to the club.
If people could only realize how much enjoyment there is in a great dinner experiencing food, wine and talking with people who you care to be with. Go have a nice dinner and relax and have a conversation. You’re going to be relaxed after it, a lot better than going to a shrink.
Your favorite dish that’s been on the menu for 35 years?
Dover Sole, rack of lamb. Every time we try to change it, people say, “No, no, we want it.” I guess Dover Sole is my favorite. We’re still doing them fresh from France every week.
In Thailand, there’s a lot of great food, a lot of vegetables, a lot of fish; fruits are fabulous. The pineapple is small, but it is so sweet and good. You go to the restaurant, you pick out your fish nice and fresh right from the tank, barbecue or steamed. The only thing you have a hard time with in Thailand is the meat. Good, good, good meat is very expensive.
Do you like this balance in your life?
For now. Life in Thailand is easy. You don’t bother nobody; nobody bothers you. You can do whatever you want as long as you understand the system.
I am so glad I became a cook. I’ve been doing it for so long. I like to cook. Put me in the kitchen, I’m at home, you know? This celebration dinner is exciting, but I won’t sit in the dining room. I will still be in the kitchen. It’s exciting. It’s great to see all the guys there.
If I were to be in the dining room, I’d have to cook in the same place; I wouldn’t eat. That’s just me, where I want to be. I feel I’m the only one who can expedite the way it should be and timing and all that. I can do it better and faster than anybody else.
I might be 71, but I’ll smoke any of those youngsters any time behind a stove.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past 15 years giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
Follow Robin Leach on Twitter at Twitter.com/Robin_Leach.
Follow Sun A&E Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.