Welcome to The Gatekeepers, a monthly feature in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite tough-to-get tables.
Jerome Astolfi [Photo: Chelsea McManus]
Meet the new general manager of Twist by Pierre Gagnaire at the Mandarin Oriental Jerome Astolfi, a veteran of the fine dining scene with stints at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, as wells as Flavor Del Mar & SIP Wine Bar and Market Restaurant & Bar in San Diego. Astolfi just joined the only outpost of Pierre Gagnaire in the United States on Bastille Day, and next week he'll meet the great French chef for the first time when he visits and prepares two special menus for guests. Here he shares what it's like to work for Gagnaire, the pressure of creating memorable experiences for guests and what guests have tried to do to secure a table at Twist.
So, what's the busiest time right now?
In the summer people tend to dine a bit later. We start to get busy around 7 p.m. until 9:30 p.m. That will change I would say after September and things will start to get busy at 6. In the winter you get an earlier crowd.
As one of the hottest restaurants in Las Vegas, you've surely been offered gifts or cash in exchange for reservations or a table. What have people tried?
Usually when people don't have a reservation, they come up to you with that look of I'm sorry. Usually the perfect thing they do is try to hand a $100 bill. You don't give away a table. At the end of the day, I just won't do it. If I don't have a table, I will accommodate you at the bar. Mandarin Oriental is the best in the city. You show them the place.
I think that accepting gifts for a table is wrong. The minute you start to do that you compromise your ethics. It's a trust relationship with the guest and I'm not going to compromise that. It's called a bribe, right?
Tell us about your favorite customers.
I take care of everyone regardless of whether they are a regular or fist-time diner. One table might be local and another from California or from Europe. I think it's really exciting to offer that kind of experience. A couple from Europe might go back and say this is the highlight of their trip. I like returning guests.
Delighting the guest is part of dining at Mandarin Oriental. For me, everyone is my favorite. I think it's great to make an experience dining with Pierre Gagnaire, who is an ambassador of French cuisine and Las Vegas.
How about celebrities?
We do. Mandarin Oriental is such a unique hotel. The fact that it's a bit more private, a bit more for celebrities. It's something to be respected because they come in for that reason.
How do you deal with VIPs when there are no tables to give?
You want to recognize the VIPS. They are very important for us. I do not give away tables. You have to anticipate these unexpected visits. You can always order a table up until the last minute. Mandarin Bar is a great place to enjoy a cocktail. I ensure them that I am working hard to get them a table while they are enjoying cocktail. A lot of times they're very happy with that.
So, what's the strangest request that you've accommodated?
To be honest with you surprisingly, I haven't had anything to crazy. Being in Las Vegas, I was expecting a lot more. We've had guests wanting to propose for dinner. They come in the afternoon and give you the ring. You are always worried; you don't want to lose it. One guest wanted the ring inside the cake.
Do you ever get any requests for vegetarian dishes here at Twist? How do you accommodate them?
We do, and I'm really proud to be working with chef Gagnaire. He's a dynamic and forward-thinking chef with a vegetarian and gluten-free menu. A lot of chefs see that as an inconvenience. I have a lot of vegetarian friends. Now it's a lifestyle when you read about what's going on in the food industry. The menu tasting shows how forward thinking chef Gagnaire is.
What's it like to work for Pierre Gagnaire?
You work for one of the best chefs of France. That requires a lot of discipline and commitment. I'm also very excited about it. He has such high standards. It's a lot of pride to work for them. He's also a very approachable person.
I did my research before coming to work here. He has such credentials but he's approachable and appreciating the people who are part of his team.
What's the most popular dish right now?
The most popular is the trio foie gras, especially with our guests for California, where they banned it. I knew when that happened it would increase the consumption of foie gras. The terrine of foie gras is crusted with gingerbread and stuffed with chocolate. When I came in to try out the foie gras, I was skeptical, but they paired a port wine with it and it was one of the best bites of foie gras I ever had.
In the summer people like the tuna done three ways. Like most dishes, it comes with a twist, and there's one with Spanish ham and a white tuna paste with asparagus. Very simple, very light for the summer. Frankly when it was first served to me, I didn't know what to think until my first bite. That's what a restaurant of that caliber should provide, that wow factor.
So, when you're not at Twist, where are you eating these days?
I'm a foodie. My family is French and Italian. We enjoy cooking. Being in Las Vegas and on the Strip, I really enjoy Sage and Julian Serrano. I've been trying to Lotus of Siam, Due Forni and Raku.
I will say our place in San Diego, Markets. I'm tempted to drive five hours for a dinner. I really enjoy that approach to food.
Being new really it's important to try all of these experiences.
At the end of the day, what's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to get the job done?
When you're in my position, you have to have everyone involved 110 percent. You can't have a bad day. People have to have a passion for it. You mentor and inspire your staff and in return they appreciate everything you do for them. You also have to be genuine.
You have to create good experiences for your guests. Passion, that's what you need. Everything else you can learn and work with. I can be the greatest manager in the world but if my team is not on board, you cannot succeed. Once you achieve that, things are very good.
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