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November 12, 2018

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Q+A, Part 1:

Guy Savoy: After 28 years, a new palace for reigning king of cuisine

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Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris, France.

Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris

Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris, France. Launch slideshow »

Guy Savoy

Guy Savoy and Robin Leach at Caesars Palace

Robin Leach and Guy Savoy at Restaurant Guy Savoy in Caesars Palace. Launch slideshow »

Guy Savoy’s restaurants at Caesars Palace and 5,400 miles away in the French capital of Paris are recognized as temples of fine dining, and Guy is hailed in both cities as the high priest of culinary cuisine masterpieces.

At the center of his new and magnificent mansion in Paris is a red neon sign with his motto: “Cuisine is the art of instantly transforming products rich with history into joy.”

Las Vegas VIPs who have bid high prices for trips to his restaurant at auctions here have all returned raving with high praise about the food, setting and service. Here’s a remarkable YouTube video of Guy’s new restaurant at Hotel de la Monnaie de Paris that dates back to 1767 on the left bank of the River Seine.

It’s one of the oldest institutions in France, and now the grand top-floor space houses Guy’s highly acclaimed 28-year run in the capital. With one of the longest facades on the Seine, its appearance has been likened to the traditions of an Italian palazzo. The video makes it mysterious, sensuous and stunning.

Somewhat similar to his aerie in Augustus Tower at Caesars Palace, where soon he will celebrate his 10th anniversary, there could perhaps not be a more spectacular place to make one of the top chefs in the world feel like a king. Mathieu Chartron, executive chef at Restaurant Guy Savoy in Caesars, flew to Paris for the relocation festivities.

Proud winner of three Michelin stars, Guy smiles, “Ne sur un bon etoile — born under a lucky star, and I added two of my own.” I have interviewed Guy several times. Many Las Vegas friends have told me that dining there is an experience unlike anything else.

Guy has invited me several times to see what everybody is talking about at home base in Paris, but, with no immediate plans for a visit to France, I wanted to discover how he is doing in his new moneyed manse.

I asked my friend Emmy Award-winning TV host and journalist Laura Meagher to go in my stead and report as a guest correspondent. [email protected] conducted her interview in French to get the sense and spirit of a Renaissance man — a true man and king of the kitchen.

By Laura Meagher

Click to enlarge photo

Laura Meagher.

I knew getting my Hugo Boss power pinstripe out of its garment bag that aesthetics and physical presentation count for so much in French culture. I knew that I didn’t want to bore the truffles out of a Michelin three-star French chef with Wikipedia-style journalism, extra sauce on the city and year of birth. I knew that I was about to listen, follow, follow up, be informed, surprised and, yes, eat.

I knew that I was going to appreciate every rarely gotten moment I was about to spend along the Seine in the new central Paris home of one of the greatest living chefs of our time, chef Guy Savoy. What I didn’t know when I arrived for our one-on-one interview at 9:30 a.m. was that I wouldn’t leave until nearly 4 p.m. And that when it was time to go, I’d feel more like staying than going.

Here’s the Q+A over an extraordinary lunch of Tourteau graffitis en deux services (crab graffiti in two services); colors of caviar; bar en écailles grillées aux épices douces (whole grilled sea bass with sweet spices); soupe de potiron à la truffe blanche d’Alba (pumpkin soup with white truffle from Alba); poêlée de moules et mousserons, jus terre et mer (pan-fried mussels and St George’s mushrooms with surf and turf jus); soupe d’artichaut à la truffe noire, brioche feuilletée aux champignons et truffes (artichoke and black truffle soup, layered brioche with mushrooms and truffles); and foie gras, palombe, faisan, colvert et chou en marmite lutée, jus léger (foie gras, wild pigeon, pheasant, mallard and cabbage in a pastry covered pot with light gravy).

The first star chef I was aware of was Jean Banchet at Le Francais in suburban Chicago. We would read in the papers of the rich and famous who flew in for the evening just to dine in his restaurant. That sort of thing was previously unheard of in Chicago. Was he a showman?

No! He was not a showman. He was a child. When he laughed, it was extraordinary — he laughed with his mouth, his eyes, his cheeks. He was a sun. Some of my first impressions of the United States are tied to him. I was an apprentice at the restaurant Troisgros in Roanne, and Jean was from there.

I would see him when he came to town. You couldn’t miss him. He used to drive around in this huge old American car flying the flags of France and the U.S. It was a small town in southeastern France, and there he was, the incarnation of the American dream.

We became friends. In those days, I had a Harley. We met up once at Daytona bike week. He had this Hummer with a trailer and showed up with three bikes in the trailer. He was a child — playing in his life.

Was this the period when you first visited Las Vegas?

No! I avoided Las Vegas for years.

So how did you end up there?

Guy Savoy

Because Las Vegas wanted me. It wasn’t my idea because I didn’t want to … at first, I said no. Finally, the first time I went was in 2003, and all the cliches I had in my head fell away immediately. There was no feeling of noblesse, but then I saw all the luxury brands were already there — Dior, Chanel, Prada — all the big houses.

Today you have the latest hotels. I’m at Caesars. You have Gordon Ramsay, Nobu, Wolfgang Puck, Joel Robuchon, Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire.

So who flambeed the crepes suzettes of that migration?

The community. Ten years ago, the community started expressing that they wanted more than all-you-can-eat for $4.95. They started establishing themselves as a gastronomic destination just as they had established Las Vegas as the place for the best shows. To be this place of folies, madness, it’s its own planet. You are obliged to nothing. You can find the most beautiful and you can find the most ugly.

You go 10 miles outside Las Vegas, and you can believe you’re John Wayne in the desert. I often go walking mornings in Red Rock Canyon — it’s just within reach. Then you have L.A., San Francisco so near. All the riches of the U.S. is out there. The farms aren’t far. Yes! In California — it’s no farther than Paris to Marseille.

Guy Savoy

So for your ingredients …

We find everything. Between California, Oregon, poultry from Pennsylvania, some things from France, of course. The truffles come from France, milk products from Australia.

Guy Savoy

Is it your goal to replicate in Las Vegas what you’ve created here?

Yes, I’m there for that. When Caesars Palace came to convince me to come out there, they said that they wanted the twin brother of my French restaurant, for the atmosphere, the cuisine — all. So I told them OK, but we can only be open five nights a week to produce at the same standard in Las Vegas what we do in Paris.

Soon, we will celebrate 10 years in Las Vegas, and I have the same team I started with Day 1. If I have a signature, it is the atmosphere. I’m known to say that great restaurants are the last civilized places on Earth because everything possible is done for the guest’s pleasure. From parking the car to reception to discussing wines with the sommelier, it’s all done in a manner that you feel completely taken care of and completely well.

Guy Savoy

Look out the window. The bouquinistes are opening their bookstands along the Seine for the day. That’s Paris. Every city has its show. This is part of Paris’ spectacle. Let me show you my spectacle.

We have five small dining rooms with a seating capacity of 25 to 30 people. All are situated in front of these floor-to-ceiling windows with views on the Seine, the Louvre, the Pont Neuf and l’Institute de France. The show is constantly changing; it’s a living show and changes with the seasons. For example, today we can see the Seine through and below the leaves on the trees. But soon the leaves will fall, and the Seine will be fully visible.

In the next dining room, my architect, Jean-Michel Wilmotte, found this 1950 chandelier by Stilnovo in New York. He phoned and sent me a photo. I found it awesome. It’s like fireworks. Place yourself here, and look in the mirrors. You see it everywhere — left, right, everywhere. The works of art are mainly pieces on loan from the François Pinault collection.

I never dreamed to see such works in my restaurant. A few pieces are my own. Look at this multicolored painted ceiling. Fabrice Hyber painted this magnificent ceiling for me. It has elements of my life. You see the artichoke, the masks for a life of love, for a romantic dinner.

What I love here in the back of the room is the feeling of being in an old house where a French grandmother lived.

(Chef opens a door I had not noticed was there. It was something out of an Alfred Hitchcock movie. An unnoticeable secret door that appeared as part of the dark wood wall paneling. He gestures to me. He’s all lit up and playful, transformed into what the French call “un lutin.” A sort of combination leprechaun/fairy.

And I become his happy conspirator, stepping out of time and space into the fairy tale with him. We are standing in an architectural motif hidden in the confines of the house. It is a space barely big enough to add one more slim person lit only by what light seeps under the doors. We are kids playing hide and seek, my all-time favorite game.)

It’s beautiful, this detail. Sometimes, late in the evening, when I’m alone, I pass through here and imagine someone slipping out of the dining room to escape to a secret rendezvous with a lover.

(He opens the door on the opposite wall, and we are facing the corridor, which leads to the kitchen. It is 9:30 a.m., and the kitchen is bustling with activities carried out by what strikes me as a small team. He introduces them as we tour.)

This is Michel. He has been with me 23 years. He is in charge of all purchasing. He always overbuys — always returning half of what he orders because it is not good enough. But look at him: He’s a big guy, and we’re not afraid of the suppliers’ reactions.

Click to enlarge photo

Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris, France.

Click to enlarge photo

Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris, France.

Click to enlarge photo

Restaurant Guy Savoy in Paris, France.

Nicolas has been with us a little more than a year. We recently created a new position for him, coordinateur de maison. It is his role to oversee and maintain a sense of harmony and coherence throughout the entire operation. I haven’t seen much return on this investment yet, but I’m piling on the pressure.

Sophie is in charge of all cold appetizers. She is the female chef of the team. We have plenty of women working with us, but she is the sole chef.

(We pass a counter with a full tray of opened oysters. I hadn’t noticed the sea water overflowing out of the tray and on to the floor, but the chef did.)

You miss nothing.

I have my antennas up in all directions at all times. So, here we have reached the vegetable department, the fish department, meat … everyone starts their day at 8:30 a.m. We have people on the team representing 15 nationalities. Japanese, Italian, Ivorian, Malian, Moroccan, Malaysian, German, British, French, Brazzaville in the Congo. Of course all these cultures touch our creations.

(I notice a young girl who couldn’t be more than 12 years old. The chef puts his arm around her shoulders. She had won a contest at school making a whipped cream, which won her a day in the star chef’s kitchens.

He is engaged in community projects such as inviting elementary schools into the kitchen, an organization called Women of the Future, and another that works with young adults who can’t find their way into a profession.

We pass a small container of potato chips: I peer inside. The chef had identified these chips as burnt. I’d have eaten them.)

Ghislain pulled them aside. He sees the mistakes others miss. He is our most senior employee. Twenty-nine years we have been together. The greatest thing my colleagues can do is see everything.

Into the pastry area: Voila! Brioche with pink praline. This is good. This is my preferred: Brioche with candied fruits. People generally prefer the pink praline. Me? I prefer this one because it is from my childhood.

(We return to find the dining room is nearly set for lunch. I ask where we might be seated for a few more questions. We resume our seats at the window overlooking the booksellers and the Seine.)

It was with chef Jean Banchet that I first heard the expression “three star Michelin chef.” Charlie Trotter was also in Chicago. He was the next three star chef I was aware of, and the press called him “an innovator.”

Charlie had a little Japanese restaurant at the Venetian in Las Vegas that was a marvel, a wonder. It was a small place with maybe 16 places for diners. Three or four years ago, I had a meal there that was the best meal I ate that year. It was sublime.

I remember a fish — mackerel served with beets. He created such cuisine, such combinations, precisions of combinations that were absolutely just. He created with such clarity, beauty, “cuisine d’intelligence.” The restaurant didn’t last long, which I never understood, because that place was magical.

So if we say Charlie was an innovator and Jean Banchet was a child, or the sun. What word would you use to describe yourself?

I’m independent, autonomous … free.

Was there a moment when you knew you had this sense of independence, that you knew you were a chef capable of something else, different from other chefs?

When I was 26, I was a chef in a very good restaurant. I was not a partner of any kind. I was employed as chef. At a certain moment, I knew that I could not advance as I wanted. I said to myself, “I must be in a place where everything depends on me.” I needed to be free.

Let me give you an anecdote. Nothing is “unimportant.” While I was chef for three years in this restaurant, one day the dishwasher came to me and said he needed a raise. He said that he had found a place that would pay him more for the same job, and if he could not have a raise, he would be obliged to leave. I found that normal. This man was a very good man and very attentive to his work.

So I went to the owner and told him this man should have a raise, or we will lose a very good member of the team. The owner said, “No. He is a dishwasher, and he is paid correctly for the job of dishwasher.” But I didn’t want to lose this man. So, I paid him the difference out of my pocket. In a sense, it was a little detail, a raise for this man. But, for me, keeping him with the team was worth more than that raise.

I try to transmit to my team my sense of taking care of what needs to be cared for. If we don’t, little by little, we grow in the direction of things not being as they should be. I feel this is my role in my life. It’s in life’s details we sense how we feel. If I see a piece of paper on the ground, I pick it up. It’s not that I have obsessive cleanliness traits. I just care not to let things fall into a negative spiral.

Are you superstitious?

No. On the other hand, I would never place a bread upside down on a table, which French superstition says brings bad luck. No, I wouldn’t do it out of respect for the baker. If something should be like that, it must be like that.

At night, after a long day, I say to myself, “This was a good day.” It is such a good feeling. I can feel myself in proportion to the efforts I made that day, this really good feeling knowing we did what we could, what we are capable of doing. This is what I work to transmit to my team.

* * *

On Thursday in Part 2, a tall, handsome stranger arrives on the scene, and Laura finally learns how to enjoy soup — but no ordinary soup.

Robin Leach of “Lifestyles of the Rich & Famous” fame 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 Las Vegas Sun Entertainment + Luxury Senior Editor Don Chareunsy on Twitter at Twitter.com/VDLXEditorDon.

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