Welcome to Ten Years In, a feature in which Eater Vegas sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating a milestone anniversary.
Hubert Keller is a pioneer in the Vegas culinary scene. After all, he opened Burger Bar 10 years ago at Mandalay Place, doing what no chef would do at the time — put his name on a restaurant that only served burgers. "Ten years is a milestone for us, especially for a formula that we didn't know where we were going with it. It was a home run," Keller says. Now every chef out there seems to have a burger concept in the wheelhouse.
Here Keller tells the dramatic story behind the restaurant opening, how he dared even consider the concept, how Daniel Boulud inspired him and more in a time when Vegas was just making the changeover from buffets, cheap prime rib and gourmet rooms to chef-driven restaurants with a name you recognized over the door.
How did Burger Bar come together?
The way it actually happened was more like an accident. It was almost 11 years ago when I signed a contract with Mandalay Bay. At that time that plan was about doing Fleur de Lys. The place was under construction and going very well. I brought in my executive chef. We were delayed with the construction. Those people were already in Vegas. Mandalay Place, that was under construction and there was a place in there that was supposed to be another outlet. Something happened between the owner and the tenant. Knowing that I had my team here, they asked me to do something there. They were not going to open shopping mall with an empty space. They said once it was ready to open, they would take it over and run it or I could just put something in there to help them out.
It was all done with Bill Richardson on a handshake.
I felt like helping him out and he would be a supporter of the restaurant.
I didn't know what I was going to do. I flew there on Monday to see it. I had to decide really quickly. I said to Richardson, "I think I would like to keep that place." He had so much on his plate, he said, "It's yours."
There was a brasserie on the floor. I really had to branch out and come up with something different. Daniel Boulud had launched a burger in New York and that was like a brushfire across the country.
That was the inspiration between the place. A chef's name and making burgers. None of us —between us all French — no one had much experience with burgers. We literally went on a crash course on burgers. I hadn't even had five burgers in my life.
Since we didn't have much experience, we just used our experience. We invested in a butcher shop. Then we came up with the concept of building your own because no one had done that before. You could choose your bun and your toppings. We needed a couple of hooks so people talked about the place.
We had to surpass Daniel's burger. One little thing we played up, Burger Bar was the only restaurant that had the largest beer selection on draft. We had 24 and it was the only place on the Strip that had that.
You have to realize 10 years ago, no American chef would put his name on a burger. You were a loser in the industry if you would go and make burgers. It was risky. I was concerned that the press might destroy me.
The industry came in, the chefs came in. I was surprised to see them supporting the idea. The second and third time they came in, I knew they liked the burger. Then the press came in and loved the idea. We just sat back and watched what was happening.
It turned into a home run. Every other chef started a burger concept. Burger Bar was the original in Las Vegas. Burger Bar is the only concept born here.
Why open a location in Las Vegas?
That's easy. That was triggered in 2001. We had remodeled in Fleur de Lys in San Francisco. That was entirely between one partner, my wife and myself who put all our money into the restaurant. The whole thing was brand new. So we did that. When that was finished, we lost everything in the fire. That was brutal. We just ran it like a restaurant in France. It took 11 months to rebuild. It was very painful to rebuild.
I didn't want to have two, three or four restaurants. I knew I was the chef and the owner. So during all this time I was hoping to reopen and everything goes back to business and the customers come back.
Bill Richardson was a regular customer. I said hello to him. He said, "Would you like to do a restaurant in my hotel?" Let's see where it is, how it is. I knew it was starting to happen in Las Vegas. Already some other chefs had come here.
I know he was serious. He said it's a home run location at Mandalay Bay.
How has it been different in Las Vegas than in San Francisco?
In those days I think it was a lot different. Everything 10 years ago, things were being built here. There was a time when an architect wouldn't consider building a restaurant in Vegas. Basically I jumped on the wagon then it became interesting. You have a restaurant in Vegas? You must be so successful.
There weren't too may chef-driven restaurants. This is a real restaurant city now. So many restaurants opened up. The best designers are here. You could see five years ago that so many restaurants closed because of lack of business. Suddenly when it became competitive, now it was like San Francisco.
You see so many things happening here and chefs that would have a hard time pulling it off elsewhere.
What have you learned in the first 10 years?
A lot of things. I think I have seen the changes happening, the transformation of things, seeing what the audience wanted. You guide the audience in a certain way. You have to do what you think is right for business. That was never in my mind in that way. What would work better? What attracts people to come back.
We used white tablecloths. Fleur de Lys was probably the first restaurant that had a deejay. Music is a very important part of the restaurant. Now is the time of the sommelier and the mixologist. Restaurants often have lousy music.
After a while, I started introducing a bar menu. Again like a tasting but not salty to make people drink. Fleur de Lys was the first place to introduce frozen cocktails table side. We introduced drinks like absinthe.
Part of the idea was show. When you make ice cream, the smoke goes down the table. Once you taste that ice cream you love it because no ice cream maker can make something that tastes like that.
What were you thinking about in terms of design of the restaurant?
Burger Bar was getting built but there was still a lot to do. When you look at Burger Bar, it's a combination of a brasserie and American restaurant.
We didn't know how the place should really look. You see the ceiling is tin seen in most of the brasseries. The tiles on the walls are like what they have in the subways in Paris. Then we felt like a larger bar with the stone on it looks like an American place that serves lots of beer. Many describe it as a sports bar. We have TVs put in like back in the old days with diners and jukeboxes.
Steven Mitchell made some videos. The idea was to have black and white videos. It was a little risky. I'm not a sports person at all. Once I realized they wanted to see games, we switched the whole thing around. Now we have touchscreen TVs. It became kind of a sports bars. It was kind of cool to see the transformation of the place. It was to respond to the clientele.
The second part of the restaurant was a milkshake counter, but we needed the seats for people who wanted to eat burgers. Originally we had the milkshakes in mind, serving them in the glass with the leftovers. They were doing OK but we realized the waiters weren't pushing the milkshakes so much because they had to make them by hand. I looked at the blenders that are programmed, and I tried that and the waiters started serving them. People preferred that texture.
We had to have a Kobe burger. So I told Laurent Pillard to order the best you can. Everybody wows about the burger.
Today when I think about it, we had many reasons to close the restaurant. We put our heart and soul into it. I was on the line. We put that Kobe burger on the flattop and it was gone like a piece of butter. Very quickly we learned we had to do it with a lower grade of beef. It was funny. We learned very quickly.
At the time, gourmet burgers weren't found all over Las Vegas.
Were you thinking about being a pioneer or were you thinking about the demand from consumers?
I was not thinking I was a pioneer. I told you I was not sure that was going to work. When you want to do something I do it to the max or I don't do it. We were so concentrated on that thing. Suddenly we were at the opening. I had nothing to compare with. No one had done it before. If that single burger with a French chef's name on it can make such noise, maybe we have a chance. But this is not just a burger, but a whole concept. Burgers are exactly what steak frites are to the French people. You're never going to take it away from people.
We make our own stock, our own sauces. I would never do my own ketchup. On the side we made a mustard.
With the butcher shop, we wanted people to see what's ground up. We wanted to make sure that we knew what was in it. We regularly do tastings. The butcher shop could have three more tables instead of the labor of grinding meat. Every burger is hand shaped, grinding and mixing by hand. We serve 1,000 burgers, 1,200 burgers. If I bought a machine I could have it done in one hour.
In Beijing, you serve a Mongolian yak burger. Have you considered more experimental burgers in Las Vegas?
We have the buffalo burger here. The Keller burger is a buffalo burger. People ask what the chef is putting on his burger, so we have the Keller burger.
When I came to China, there is no buffalo that you can get. I knew I would have to buy the meat from Australia or the United States. Everything's imported. But then I heard about that yak burger I had not idea how it would taste. That burger stood out. Let's take a risk. Maybe they will try it. We launched it and after two weeks if it's not working we'll change it.
But here being adventurous, I think I wouldn't go that route just to make it intriguing. That's not what a Burger Bar is to me.
Some chefs are making the burgers too intellectual with four different cuts of meat. You could serve them one burger with four cuts or one with chuck. What's the difference in flavor here? There is no difference in flavor.
You can go adventurous with the hangover burger. We've had it on the menu for six months. If I blindfold you, that's the flavors you find in a fast food burger. Sweetness and sourness. We produce that with quality stuff.
You grew up in France. How did you first experience the American burger?
I remember when we went on a burger trip. France calls it a steak haché. Usually it's seared black and blue, seared off and you put an egg sunny side up on it. I have that at the Burger Bar too.
It was Balboa Cafe in San Francisco in 1982. The reason I'm saying I remember, that was the place known for burgers. You have to eat something really American.
The other burger I really liked Emeril Lagasse's burger at his steakhouse.
Fast food burgers I never ate. But it's honestly the truth.
I grew up in a pastry shop. We had pastries before lunch and after lunch. We always ate sweets, but I never had a moment that I couldn't eat anymore.
What made you decide to create the Rossini Burger?
When Daniel had his burger, it was $40 in New York. I said I need that too. I need that, too. In a sense it worked.
When I land here in Vegas, I would take a taxi to the hotel. I'd tell the driver I was just visiting , where would you recommend going for a burger? The taxi driver, I swear, would say, "Have you ever had the most expensive burger in the country?" Suddenly the most expensive burger put us on the map.
It's named after the Rossini filet mignon that has stayed a classic for 150 years. I'm just going to substitute a burger for the filet mignon. It was very simple but no one ever heard of it. It's international. That combination of flavors makes you say wow.
In the beginning, we had some good stories. A guy calls his wife loud on the phone. "I just had a $60 burger, No, not $6. $60."
Daniel and I are friends. It was a French battle. When Daniel heard there was a more expensive burger in Vegas, it became a very friendly battle between two French chefs.
The Rossini burger would become such a thing that the VIP host would bring them to the tables. We sell the burger as the ultimate experience. When you pair these two together (the bottle of wine and the burger), I'm going to charge $5,000 for a burger.
We sold of the Bordeaux for $5,300 on wine list. If you put those two together, the burger is free. Some of the high rollers came in telling their friends they had a $5,000 burger. It became fun and entertaining.
What's the must-order dish of the moment?
Just try the Keller burger. It's good flavor. It's a buffalo burger with bleu cheese and a shallot sauce. Buffalo is a leaner meat than beef. I order it medium rare, but order it however you want it. Since it's such a lean meat, at medium rare it's juicier. It's not a gamey burger.
We also have sweet burgers. We make doughnuts without the hole with a chocolate ganache patty, passion coulis and a hair of cream in it. On the side we use a kiwi like a pickle. We have the chocolate burger, cheesecake burger, peanut butter and jelly burger; flavors people love.
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Hubert Keller [Photo: MGM Resorts]