Andre Rochat made a name for himself in Las Vegas as one of the original celebrity chefs to set up a restaurant here. For 35 years, his restaurants Andre’s, first in Downtown Las Vegas and now at the Monte Carlo, and Alizé at the top of the Palms have been serving up French fare long before the likes Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse joined the fray. Rochat left France in 1965 and landed in Boston with $5 in his pocket and a bag of knives. He worked his way through East Coast hotels including Boston’s Charter House and Washington’s Mayflower and as well as a stint as an in-flight chef for United Airlines. His Savoy French Bakery opened In 1973, and then decided a French boulangerie was just what Vegas needed. In 1980, Rochat opened Andre’s with its rustic ambiance and gourmet dinners. Success continued with Andre’s Restaurant & Lounge opening at the Monte Carlo in 1997, followed by Alizé on top of the Palms in 2001. Here, Rochat talks about just how he landed in Las Vegas, what the dining scene was like when he arrived, how he changed the local dining scene and what happens next.
What made you come to Las Vegas in 1980?
After working in hotels in Washington, D.C., and New Orleans, as well as United Airlines, I moved to Lake Tahoe and was the chef at the Kings Castle. I was in a relationship at the time. She was a performer and when she was offered an opportunity at the Sands in Las Vegas, I followed. This was in the early '70s so I was in town for some time before opening Andre’s Downtown in 1980. I had worked at the Sands then in 1973, opened the Savoy Bakery on the corner of Flamingo and Maryland Parkway where Paymon’s Mediterranean Café is today. I bought the house on Sixth Street in 1978 and over a couple of years, with a few friends, converted the house into a restaurant. I did not sleep very much in those days.
What was the dining scene like at the time?
In the '80s, this was the period of the $1.99 and $2.99 all-you-can-eat buffets. El Cortez right down the street from Andre’s was serving meals for 99 cents. The fine dining restaurants were in the hotels. There was usually only one "gourmet room" in each hotel. The Bacchanal Room at Caesars used to have belly dancers and performers. Some of the other gourmet rooms were more traditional, typically where the tuxedo-wearing maitre d’ with a ruffled shirt would carve your prime rib at the table. It was nothing like it is today.
You were Downtown then. How did you get diners to come?
In the beginning it just kind of happened. Downtown and the neighborhood were different then. Many of those homes are law offices today but many of the neighboring homes were residential back then and some of the neighboring communities were where casino executives and operators, judges and local celebrities all lived. Remember, the local support was very close; Henderson, Green Valley and Summerlin were not as developed as they are today. Also keep in mind there were only about 450,000 to 500,000 people living in Las Vegas at the time.
Did you see a lot of tourists coming in?
Eventually the hotels began sending customers to dine at Andre’s but that took some time. Tourists began finding out there was a fine dining restaurant off the Strip and they were seeking us out on their own. Then there were the conventions, which kept the place very busy, so much so that we expanded at one point. COMDEX was one of the big ones and people and limos would be lined up down the street. You don’t see that very much anymore. It was also a hang out for celebrities. Frank Sinatra had his own table and the Rat Pack would come in often after they performed at the Sands. Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro would come in when they were filming the movie Casino. Phyllis McGuire was a regular all the way up to the day we closed that location.
What do you think your legacy is in Las Vegas?
For those who have worked for me and for those who I have influenced in the industry, I think my legacy is one of staying true to the classics. In Las Vegas, some people say I set the tone for fine dining in Las Vegas. I don’t know if that is true or not. I just love to cook. It is my passion and at the time, I saw pieces of a community that were missing and I tried to fill that gap. Many people said I was crazy when I said I was going to do a fine dining restaurant in Downtown. I was going to do authentic and classic French cuisine, I was going to have a large wine list. I saw gaps in the community and I tried to fill it with what I loved doing — cooking.
Do you have any good war stories from your career?
Probably far too many. I have fought every fight there is. I am not someone who backs down easily and I have a reputation to stand up for what I believe in. There are a number of chefs in town now, who when asked something about a controversial subject, they say, "You should call Andre." I’ve had those calls on every subject from the health department and sous vide cooking to the banning of foie gras in California (before it was recently overturned), to tax issues facing small businesses in Nevada.
What keeps you motivated? How do you stay fresh? How is it still fun?
My team! I think we all keep each other inspired and motivated. I have a great team of chefs at Andre’s and Alizé and they know what I like and they know what I don’t. They do a great job creatively with the menus and also have a respect for the history. Our menus change seasonally and our tasting menu at Alizé changes on almost a daily basis. To this day, I still love to cook and when I am in one of the kitchens. That is fun.
What are some of the biggest changes in the restaurant industry in Vegas?
Things change in the restaurant industry so much and continue to change. From back when Andre’s first opened in 1980, I would have to say that the biggest change in the industry was with the mega-resort. Steve Wynn with the Mirage really set a new standard. In a way, the chefs he brought to Las Vegas in his resorts really put attention on Las Vegas from around the world from a culinary standpoint that changed Las Vegas forever. Another big change was the fine dining restaurant boom. Every hotel had multiple fine dining restaurants. Personally, I'm interested to see what will become of the recent trends with casual dining.
What’s the most shocking thing that ever happened in one of your restaurants?
I think one of the most shocking days I had was when Mayor Oscar Goodman renamed the street to Chef Andre Rochat Place. I was honored.
What about the craziest memory you have?
There are so many crazy memories. Customers in Las Vegas sometimes are in another state of mind, they are certainly generous and sometimes too generous. We had a party of 20 at Andre's in Downtown one night who enjoyed their dinner so much, not only did they pay for their dinner, they also cut a $4,000 personal check to the waiter.
How did opening Andre’s at the Monte Carlo and Alizé at the Palms compare to your first location Downtown?
Those openings were very different and on a very different level. Both of those opportunities came about because of Andre’s downtown. Bill Richardson was a regular customer and was building the Monte Carlo. He had a small corner section of the property he did not have plans for yet and offered to see if I would be able to use it for another Andre’s location. Andre’s Downtown was a very popular spot at the time and this was a few years before Bellagio, Mandalay Bay, Paris and Venetian were to open so I was very excited to be part of a Strip resort. The process was very different. I didn’t have to do the work myself. (HA!) Bill arranged for build out and design, we collaborated on what we wanted and we made it happen.
Alizé happened in much the same way. George Maloof used to often dine downtown. He mentioned one night he had just bought the property across the street from the Gold Coast and was going to build a resort. I mentioned, casually, if you need a restaurant on the top floor, let me know. Six months later, he called, asking if I was serious about the restaurant on the top floor because if I want it, it was mine. It was a very exciting project to be part of.
I am still good friends with Bill and George and am grateful for the opportunities they gave me with these restaurants. There are not many deals done in town anymore with a handshake.
What’s the toughest part about staying at the top in Las Vegas?
Day-to-day survival. There is a lot of competition in town today and there are a lot of big companies doing business. You see we are unique in rather difficult way. We have never had an investor and we have never had a financial partner. I don’t know of any restaurant operator at our level operating without a partner or part of a larger company that has larger financial means. Many fine dining restaurants are partners with the hotels they are in. Some of the others are management agreements and some of the others are just names of chef’s on the wall. This aspect of the competitive climate makes things a challenge at times. When things are good, they are good for all of us. When things are tough, we tighten our belts do so we can and make it through.
What’s next for you?
My plan moving forward is... to step back. I have spent more than 60 years in the kitchen. I have been waiting for the most convenient and best time to pass operations off to who has been with me since we opened Alizé in 2001, but in this business, no time is perfect. I plan to offer my guidance and advice and pass the torch to the next generation: my partner Joseph Marsco, executive chefs Mark Purdy at Alizé and Christopher Bulen at Andre’s. I cannot think of three better guys to leave the operations in the hands of. These guys have ambitions in their 30s and 40s that I had when I was their age.