Gastronomy

Published on November 2nd, 2015 | by Isabelle Karamooz, Founder of FQM

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Interview with Eric Klein, Executive chef at Spago in Las Vegas

Credits of the interview
Editor of the interview: Isabelle Karamooz
Interviewer: Isabelle Karamooz
Editor: Isabelle Karamooz
Transcription & video: Pascale Nard

Isabelle Karamooz: Eric, how would you describe yourself in three words ?

E.K. : How would I describe myself in three words? Simple, amazing, happy, technically, and I love people, it’s very hard to describe. Social, yeah, absolutely.

I.K. : When did you know that you wanted to become a chef ?

E.K. : Well, I wanted to be a chef, I didn’t know that I wanted to be a chef. I just knew I loved nature and a long time ago when I was growing up I was growing up with the nuns, in a convent and it was amazing when I was in touch with nature. When it came to a point where I was trying to decide what I was going to do, always cooking at home, I just did not put two and two together and I was always going in the convent and helping in the kitchen, always in the kitchen so it was always very comfortable for me. And then my mom asked me… “So what do you want to do?”… Well I always liked hanging in the kitchen, you should try out, so I went and I never looked back. You know and it’s just a fascinating time to be in touch with nature, to be in touch with everything, meeting wonderful people and being able to travel around. It’s been amazing.

I.K. : Who have been your major influences ?

There’s so many people being a major influence. I think it’s very important to see people, each person can touch you in a special way. It’s not only one person. I think life brings friends to you, brings colleagues, brings a lot of different things to you that make you very different. And I think, you know, yes, of course, I was mentored by a lot of great chefs Schillinger, Sue Postemsky and other chefs, of course. When I came to America hans Rockenwagner, chef Wolfgang Puck, Lee Hefter, you know where things are and of course your wife, for example, also is a huge supporter of you, who helps you to be who you want to be every day you know somebody who loves you and supports you with what you do every day. This job we do is not easy, we work 14 to 16 hours each day and have maybe one day off if we’re lucky, you know, hard work a lot of physically and mentally (hard) work.

I.K. : Why did you decide to move to the America in 1995 and then in Las Vegas ?

A few reasons I decided to move to the United States, first I was very lucky now after working for someone in Europe after coming off my military service. I was working in Germany and I did not know the people, but someone told me: “oh my brother has a restaurant in California, you should go to America one day” and I’m like, I always wanted to discover America, the United States, I was fascinated by certain things, everybody thinks about it and how they do things [in America]. I did not have much experience of, or no knowledge about the food that’s happening in the United States. We think always in Europe we always do the best thing, very fascinating, so when I came to the United States I got an opportunity to come over here and I was blessed to work with wonderful people. I met Sherrard Farmers Market who introduced me to Wolfgang Puck and then I came over there and I cooked one day and Wolf asked me “oh yeah, go ahead, start working here.” And then I worked at Chinois —Asian cuisine. I was always fascinated by that. It was a wonderful different flavor. I was blessed to have worked at Spago and started at the bottom as a line cook and worked myself to a sous chef and got to a point where I got the opportunity to take on a restaurant myself, the Maple Drive. And then I got a phone call one day from Steve Wynn and he says “Why don’t you come to Las Vegas?” and I say “Well what do you want me to do over there?” and he says “I want you to run a steak house” and I say “Well I’m not a steak house chef, I am a chef who does gastronomy restaurants” – “This is the reason we want you to come over here.” So I had the opportunity to come to Las Vegas and to be a part of an opening team for an amazing project; and besides that it was a fantastic experience and then Wolfgang called me back and said “You should come back {so you moved to Las Vegas after working in LA in Spago} and Maple Drive, yes, those restaurants for Wolfgang for over 10 years almost.

I.K. : What sort of « French-ness » do you bring to Spago restaurant ?

I believe Frenchness is a very good name for certain things we do definitely, I strongly believe(5:30), being Alsatian, l’m a little bit different versus true French people, you know, we grew up in a continent where we were basically between two countries: France and Germany. We always refer to ourselves, oh we are Alsatian.
But what I bring over here is very true food that speaks to the soul. Yes I was trained classically French. I do have a lot of respect for that, meaning the cuisine we have learned, passed on from generation to generation of chefs, and was given to me to pass on the techniques, the repertoire, and all the basic cuisine. But also I bring a lot of food that I grew up with and sometimes something special like a tart flambé, a choucroute, a grenouille, or coq au vin or something but maybe not the name directly, but maybe just the technique of the cuisine and bring it to us here. And people realize “What is this? It is actually very good!” It is not American but it has a lot of soul. French cuisine is very technical and I think, you know, a dish is unlimited, what you can prepare from fresh pasta, even from a simple thing like a mashed potato. I’ve been taught the most important thing is simple, less is more. So just the potato, the cream and the butter. That’s it, you know. Or even not use cream, use crème fraiche to have a more French aura, very important.

I.K. : How often do you update your menu ?

Our menu gets updated every time we have an opportunity, something comes in, sometimes it happens every day, sometimes we change the lunch menu, we change the dinner menu and the café, we are changing the dining room menu tonight and certain items because certain things we are not able to get. I think — in our restaurant is the most important thing is not to be behind, is be ahead. If we cannot get something, ok, let’s come up with a new idea. Let’s make something different and the people are going to open the menu, they come over here, yes they have a lot of things they like, and they have the usual stuff they love but they will open the menu and if they don’t see it they try something else. It gives our customers something to constantly see in our restaurant, and I think we update it constantly, the menu…we changed all the fonts on the menu. We changed the way we read the menu, simpler, understanding (when) things are vague, the way people should see things, you know, and also to understand to make it readable for a customer who is basically international. Sometimes I think Las Vegas we are [international], people come from all over the place. And we need to cater to them and in a certain way to all of them. So we need to write things in a very simple way, we need to make sure we explain certain things, having catchy words in there and [make sure the customers] understand. For example like we put in the menu, a French sea bass, we put just “loup de mer” on the menu. You and I perhaps would know what a “loup de mer” is, it’s called a “bar” in France and for a long time, we could not sell that fish, because people did not understand, so I went and I put French sea bass, I couldn’t even keep it on…oh yeah sea bass OK people understand that, French sea bass, what is that, it is the best sea bass you can have in France. So you know this is how to understand and adopt a menu, and to do all these things.

I.K. : How important is it to continue to innovate in terms of menu selection ?

It is the most important thing. If we think, somebody told me once, if it’s not broken don’t fix it. I must agree, but we always need to look at ways to make things different, I believe. And we all believe in our company from Wolfgang to all our partners and myself included, to innovate is the most important thing to keep us always here. I am fortunate to say this restaurant has been here for 21 years and a couple of days and we are doing things. It’s the hardest thing, sometimes, to change a habit of doing things. It’s hard because we fall into repetition mode, we’re human, and innovating and changing things sometimes not the first things we can see in the quality of a person but I think you know it’s very important to always be innovative. Look at it differently, you know. I say sometimes we don’t have all the answers, let’s put it in the menu and figure it out. And this will help us and force us to always think differently, you know.

I.K. : Do you source as much seasonal and local produce as possible for the Spago restaurant and does this have a big impact on the menu ?

Yes, of course! I think I wish we could do more. Probably the biggest problem over here using small farmers, sometimes the quantity is not there. They only can produce so much. I am the first one to use local produce. I have the Olson Farm, we have Hydro Greens …we have some farmers up north, Gilson Farm, and there is only so much. Sometimes they have [limited] product because they don’t have the financial stability to produce certain things. Reduced carbon footprint is one of the most important things… (to) understand where everything comes from is even better. We buy stuff from the Farmers Market from Santa Monica, CA and we get it over here. We also are supporting the local farmers. I know there are two farmers markets here, I know all the time. Yes definitely influence what’s on the menu. If it’s not in season it should not be on the menu, whatsoever. People sometimes do not understand that, and you say “Why don’t I have tomato salad in December?” Well tomatoes do not grow in December; they only grow in the area, but you know, sometimes we need to get certain things, whatever it is, because we are in a city that is driven by business and sometimes we need to adapt ourselves, but it’s very important to be thinking about nature. Very important.

I.K. : What do you feel that clients should focus on to get the most out of their culinary experience ?

Well, there are a few things. A client should always have some experience. It is sometimes very hard to explain to a client what to expect and how for example, quantity versus quality, size versus how we are preparing.You know I always say to a customer, for example it is very intriguing, when a customer goes to a basketball game and for example they can sit in a plastic chair and they pay $50 to park, $70 for a ticket and then have to get up to buy food or beer or something in a plastic cup and they are ok with doing that. Our restaurant business is not very different but we spend so much time to have beautiful linen, plates from France, silverware from France, a custom chair, the décor, an atmosphere and we don’t charge more than a basketball game. But what we do is giving something to the guest. A guest you know can tell the difference. And I think overall we are not pretentious, we are not arrogant but we give something to a customer. I always strongly believe feeding and giving something to a customer is something for them to remember. Sometimes customers can be misled by like, say I’m going to go to this restaurant. I’m going to order a six course tasting menu. They are not going to be full-size 8 ounce pieces or portions; they are going to be maybe 3 or 4 ounces per portion where you are going to have a multitude of flavors, versus you have one dish with a big plate where there is going to be, like I’m going to have a 12 ounce piece of meat with like a bunch of French fries for example, or something like that versus we’re going to do like a tasting menu. Or certain things where we believe, “Well hey, how about more of a first course, a main course and a wonderful dessert because we prepare everything from scratch. If I can make a sausage we make it over here. Are we gonna serve a ton of product? No, I would rather have quality versus quantity. And as a peace of mind you know, I think definitely the American palate has evolved and I always see sometimes we are very European in this restaurant and when you see a European customer come into they say “Oh my god, this is so wonderful! The first course is so beautiful, the main course is the perfect size, and I still can have a dessert! I can even enjoy myself!” Sometimes when we have people, and it is not to say it’s their fault, it is just the style of cuisine you get exposed to it and you expect to have bigger portions versus to have quality, you know. I love quality and taste and everything…I get bored easily with too enormous of a dish. I would rather have something small and four or five more dishes and at the end of the day it costs you the same thing. It’s about having your palate explore different flavors and it’s very important. But again, you know, it’s an experience and I think, you know, we have a wonderful selection of restaurants. We can serve big portions, small portions but at the end of the day the customer has to be happy.

I don’t think so. In terms of French restaurants there are bistros, there are cafes, there are brasseries, varieties of food. You know a long time ago there were few selected people who created an empire of chefs, who created food, who made gastronomy cuisine. I think I have a lot of respect for this group of people who created this cuisine because eventually something very complicated, very labor-intensive, was expected. Things have evolved I think, you know, the French cuisine, the French chef or French portions. It’s not about quantity, it’s about quality. I remember when I was a young man, when I was an apprentice in 1985, 86 there were maybe 35 cooks in a nighttime diner and we only did maybe 25 covers but everything on the plate was hand touched, everything was just made for that plate. Technically it is not feasible, economically speaking but is a respect that we gave and dedicated to ourselves the food of the French cuisine. I am respectful for all the chefs who have created that, because we are today what we are because of them. And people just need step back and look at it and say “It is not what you know, it is what you experience.” It’s not what you see every day; it’s true, experience is something you’ve never experienced before. You know I am very fortunate, I can see things and I go travel and open my mind to different quality, you know, and it’s the most important thing.

I.K. : How does changing culture affect the food we eat ?

The culture, um, everything, you know! I mean we’re fortunate in the United States where the cuisine goes from French, American, Italian, I mean you can have everything you want, Asian, Mexican… But again what I think is the most important thing, if you take any culture and you mix it with a classical dish, something like that, it gives you limitless touch and food. You know I see some chefs who are basically South American Latinos and they are putting a French cuisine touch on their dishes, like a nice technique of French cuisine. Or taking Italian cuisine but still very French-based techniques and they mix it maybe with Asian. It’s wonderful, things like that. So the cultures are very important and still understanding how to make something very respectful.

I.K. : What are the differences between eating in a French restaurant in Las Vegas or New York and eating in Paris ?

Well in the United States, being a French restaurant we’re here this restaurant is more an American cuisine or a Californian cuisine that is being touched by the French technique. It is very different, when people go to France, Paris for example, they would not question anything they serve over there. They would respect what the chef has done, but here we have 70 percent of people who understand an average cuisine, and you have perhaps 30 percent or even less nowadays sometimes, who understand what a chef tries to create or to make. So to answer your question it is a totally different thing. People who go to France expect to be treated like a French person and eat in a French restaurant; when it comes to America it is a “French style” where people experience more French cuisine in an American way. And I think you know it is a different experience, but quite amusing because sometimes you can say “What was that? That was very good, it was actually a little bit different from what I expected.” For example, a very classic dish for a brasserie, like steak tartar. How many times, how many ways can you make steak tartar but at the end of the day it comes down to one thing: the quality of the meat you put on the plate, not how you prepare it; and so, I think the integrity in France, what we have, and you find good restaurants and bad restaurants everywhere, but overall you find something where it’s very important for the guest to get customer satisfaction and coming back and evolving and being inspired by other people, very important.

I.K. : What is your favorite dish that you cook, just for your own pleasure ?

I have so many, you see. I think personally for me I’m a very diverse person. I enjoy when I can get different flavors, but it is something… I can be very homesick sometimes. And sometimes dishes your mom used to prepare or something very simple that touched your heart, something very simple like a mashed potato or something that is prepared so perfectly and properly… I enjoy that almost as much as anything else, you know. But I do like where I grew up, you know I am constantly, you see, if I can go home and my mom would prepare a dish, it is touching, it is emotional, it is beautiful. Just thinking about it is very sensitive. It is what you are all about. It is simple, like I remember my mom used to cook for example like spaghetti and tomato sauce. It’s maybe not very Alsatian, very French, but it was just prepared and I actually have a dish like that on the menu over here. And I do enjoy it because it’s all the simple things of life, that make you happy. And I think you know even a national dish like where I grew up, the tart flambé or the chou croute … or even something that you grew up with in France to make you remember what you’re all about, where you come from. So it’s not one dish, it’s about everything, the experience. I think for me, you know it’s like conjugating and understanding to say the right word.

I.K. : What is next for Eric Klein ?

I am asking that every day. You know, for us, for what I want to do, (there are) so many different things, I really enjoy taking care of guests, I really enjoy giving, you know. I have a dream, one day eventually maybe to be more involved in our restaurant. I am very fortunate to work for a company and partners who truly care about me, you know, and they make the restaurant. Say Eric, he’s the chef, you know, you go to the dining room, it’s almost like my own. But you know, say next…you know I always look for a wonderful opportunity. I work for wonderful people and no destiny is made [set, determined?], you know, everything can change in a few moments, like the weather, it’s appreciated, the time that you have. And I think what’s next for me, I am figuring that out right now, actually to figure out what should I evolve into, what should I do to make sure we’re content? But you know, I’m not going to lie to you, I would love one day to have my own restaurant. Would love to have something like that but …is that the right thing, is that the right answer? We don’t know, I don’t even know myself. I enjoy having a wonderful restaurant where I am, like Spago and being the chef of Spago. Tomorrow maybe something will be different. We don’t know. But, for now, I am here and the most important thing is to be consistent, be respectful, innovating and true to myself, to my roots and be respectful. I think this is the most important thing; I’m demanding as a chef. I am very, how do you call it, demanding, not for me, for the guests, because if we do not do the right thing, the guests, one day, there are not going to come. It is hard for us in Las Vegas sometimes because it’s just a roller coaster.

I.K. : Thank you for the opportunity to interview you Eric

E.K. : My pleasure

To make reservation, call 702-369-6300 or visit Spago restaurant Website at http://www.wolfgangpuck.com/restaurants/fine-dining/9044


About the Author

was born in the royal city of Versailles, France and have lived in the United States since 1996. After earning a Bachelor's degree in History from the University of California Berkeley and studying for a Master program in education at the University of Southern California, she went on to teach French to aspiring UNLV and CSN students in Nevada. When she is not teaching, she is writing, interviewing people in a wide range of circumstances, pitching story ideas to writers and editors, taking pictures, traveling, painting or trying delicious foods.



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