Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater Vegas sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of restaurants celebrating their one-year anniversary.
Shawn McClain [Photo: Aria]
Just a year ago this week, Shawn McClain opened his second Vegas restaurants, FIVE50 Pizza Bar. The restaurant marked his first casual concept, serving up wood-fired pizzas, small plates and of course craft beers. The chef behind Sage found a whole new set of challenges with the move from fine dining to America's go-to favorite. Luckily, he had an industrial chic space from David Rockwell and Rockwell Group, a recipe for great pizzas and a staff ready to take on the challenge. Here, McClain talks about how the restaurant got approved, the challenges of dough and what you should be ordering at the FIVE50 Pizza Bar at Aria.
How did FIVE50 come together?
Someone said that the other day. About two weeks ago last summer, I was heading out there for the summer. It's a bad reverse commute.
I don't mind the heat, that's never bothered me. I think it proved an invaluable experience for me and a new cooking experience. Developing pizza is such a hands on job. Now I understand it. I've grown quite a bit in a year. It was an organic growing experience.
The challenge was rough for us. As a chef who comes from a fine dining background, I think a lot of people have delved into more casual arenas, whether an American tavern or pub or pizza or burgers.
Aria needed a casual comfortable approachable spot that was accessible. Geographically, the Skybox seemed the most accessible. [Aria president and CEO] William McBeath is a huge pizza lover. Serendipitously, I found that out that they were interested in doing pizza there. We had about a week to put together the history of pizza, what's going on in modern day pizzas, what's our flavor. We put it together and presented it. He said, "That all sounds great but the proof is in the pudding." We had two weeks to perfect the pizza dough.
The only pizza oven we had was in the employee dining room. We annoyed the staff and got in their way. But this is crunch time. We practiced. We got Bill and a couple guys to come in to taste them.
We didn't want to transfer the pizzas to the board room because that's about a 15-minute walk. He had to come to Crossings [the employee dining room]. We made the table look nice. All the employees were eating around us. It was nerve wracking doing a tasting for the president and seeing if we could follow through. Bill seemed happy, but you can never tell.
A couple days later, he called me and said, "I would love for you to do the pizza."
He had already talked to David Rockwell about doing something casual and that we were thinking pizza. Rockwell's team started from the beginning from the blueprint on to the materials. I can't say enough great things about the Rockwell team and how creative and cooperative they were.
It's hard to find people who are willing to interpret a vision. We started from there. Our foundation point was pulling the soul of East Coast and European pizza and rock and roll.
Obviously things have changed. We changed just one of our signature pizzas. The Gotham and margherita are the same. But the white anchovies didn't make it after nine months. My staff said, "Chef, come on, let's do something new and fresh." We still have white anchovies as an ingredient. They would love to change the menu every day.
Pizza is the focus. We understand that's where it was going. This is more than just pizza; it's an experience. We have small plates, floats and shakes on now. It's fun and challenging. Whimsical.
What have you learned in the first year?
I think the challenge of the business. At Sage we are predominantly reservations, although we did have some walk ins.
This is the first time I feel connected to what's going on in the hotel at all times. The slice counter is walk up. I feel connected to the traffic patterns and ebbs and flows and being open from 11 a.m. through dinner, counter to 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. on weekends. That's a long period of service.
At Sage, it starts at 6 going to 9:30 and slows over one or two major pushes. Here it can happen at many different times of the day.
Dough is a funny thing and a finicky thing. It does not act the same way all the time. Fresh milled flours and things change. Funny enough, on a humorous note, we bought a 20-quart mixer that was going to be our mixer plus a dough cooler. Within weeks we were like, "We have to go somewhere else. We need a walk in." There was a little naivety about that.
We have 200 pounds of dough upstairs and a pastry chef and kitchen, and they've been accommodating about the use of space and their modern equipment. That's 200 pounds of dough in a three-day resting process. At any given time, we have 600 pounds of dough in our coolers.
Organizationally, we hand rolled balls, cut and hand weighted them. It's super labor intensive. It's definitely an organic process. Our dough guys are so in tune they can tell me what's wrong every time. Richard Camarota is too. I'm terrible at stretching dough. I slow down the entire operation. I like cooking. I like working the ovens.
There's nothing we can use that one dough maker with now.
We learned the taste of the diners. I thought pastas might sell a little better. I'll never give up on them. The desserts don't sell as well.
What were you thinking about in terms of design of the restaurant?
I think it's stylish but cool with some classic elements and the chalkboard menu. Then you have the mural from the Cyrcle Group out of LA that's mesmerizing to look at. It's not just wallpaper. It's individual pieces. It's more than four walls and a pizza oven.
Has Vegas embraced the restaurant?
Absolutely. Again I think it goes back to having an option with amazing talent and restaurants at Aria. They're a little more of a commitment. For lunch or late hours, FIVE50 fills in those gaps.
Pizzas are that common denominator with people.
What's the must order dish of the moment?
Pizza wise, I guess it depends. The truffle pizza is savory, delicious goodness. The picante is new and fun with ghost chile salami. It's spicy but won't get you on a Youtube video.
We also have a nice penne with braised oxtails, ramps and fava beans. I come from the Midwest where you get ramp overload. Everyone gets excited and pickles them and saves for the fall.
Ramps and soft shell crabs. Around Mother's Day in Chicago, everyone goes nuts for soft shell crabs. They're not ordering them here. I always found that kind of odd. I guess the West Coast didn't grow up on that.
What's on tap for the future?
I feel like I still have some good years in me. I want to grow. I want to do things. I would do another FIVE50 somewhere. We're going to work on that. That's a goal for the next year or two. I want to find a great location to try to establish the brand outside the Strip and feed it back to us in Las Vegas.
And two to grow with MGM. They're fantastic partners.
Growth is something we want to do in the right way in an organic way.
Anything new happening in Chicago?
Green Zebra celebrating 10 years this summer. We are in the process figuring out how to celebrate. The restaurant is doing great. It's such a unique place in a town that is so competitive. Chicago has so many great restaurants with tremendous talent.
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