Star chefs lay it on the table at Horseshoe Casino Baltimore

Guy Fieri, John Besh and Aaron Sanchez set up shop

September 03, 2014|By Richard Gorelick, The Baltimore Sun

You can thank Wolfgang Puck.

The era of good casino dining is generally traced back to 1992, when the Los Angeles-based chef opened a version of his famed Hollywood restaurant, Spago, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

From then on, you didn't have to know a flush from a straight to have a good time in Sin City. Within a decade of Spago's opening, Vegas was a paradise for restaurant lovers. Michelin-star chefs like Thomas Keller and Joel Robuchon came to town. Nobu, Le Cirque and other famous New York restaurants opened on the strip.

Soon it wasn't unusual to see big-name chefs in casinos from Uncasville, Conn., to Bethlehem, Pa.

So you can thank Wolfgang Puck that the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, the new $442 million full-service casino on Russell Street, opened with not one but three chefs who are known — to varying degrees of household-name status — for their appearances on the Food Network.

Guy Fieri's Baltimore Kitchen + Bar is the brainchild of Guy Fieri, the widely recognizable TV personality and chef. Fieri opened his first Kitchen + Bar in 2012, in New York City's Times Square. A second version opened this April in Las Vegas.

Johnny Sanchez, a first-time collaboration between the chefs John Besh and Aaron Sanchez, is a brand-new concept, debuting at the Baltimore casino.

In the days leading up the casino's opening, the three chefs were in Baltimore to put finishing touches on the menu, rally their staffs and talk food.

Johnny Sanchez

If you were developing a reality TV show about two chefs from different backgrounds and with radically different temperaments who were forced, against all logic, to collaborate on a restaurant, you'd want to call in John Besh and Aaron Sanchez.

Besh, 46, a native of Louisiana, is the master of technique. He has nine restaurants and counting, including his James Beard Award-winning flagship restaurant called August in New Orleans. His kitchens are like applied-physics laboratories where teams of dedicated professionals work to braise, steam, poach and vacuum-seal in the most intensive flavors possible.

Sanchez, 38, who was born in El Paso, Texas, and grew up in New York City, is the sensualist, proceeding more on instinct about flavors. Sanchez comes from a family of chefs. Both his grandmother and mother were cookbook authors, and his mother was also a restaurant owner.

The chef and owner of Mestizo in Leawood, Kan., Sanchez is in a restaurant-building phase — in addition to Johnny Sanchez, he has restaurants opening this year in Stamford, Conn., and New York City.

It was an appearance on the first season of TV competition show "The Next Iron Chef" where the men forged their friendship. (For the record, Besh outlasted Sanchez, losing in the final round to Michael Symon.) Their paths had crossed before, at various benefits, competitions and awards shows. They started traveling together, both alone and with their families, hunting together and, especially, cooking together.

A few years ago, they decided to collaborate on a restaurant, one whose concept would combine their talents. Johnny Sanchez is rooted in the Mexican food that forms Sanchez's culinary heritage, but both chefs say that Sanchez has not been overly protective of Mexican food.

At Johnny Sanchez, almost anything goes. A tostada might be topped with fatty tuna belly, fire-seared yellowtail or a shrimp ceviche with coconut and lemon grass. Tacos are as likely to be filled with grilled veal sweetbread or crispy Gulf shrimp as they are traditional Mexican fillings like roasted suckling pig and slow-cooked beef barbacoa.

"We wanted the platform [at Johnny Sanchez] to be the tortilla, whether it's the tostada or the tacos," said Besh. "That's the platform that we're using to transport great flavor."

The menu at Johnny Sanchez might be inspired by Mexican street food, but many items have the camera-ready looks of food that shows up on the cover of food magazines or wins the blue ribbon on TV chef competitions. But the chefs say they aren't worried about diners or critics calling them out on authenticity. "This food is in my DNA," Sanchez said.

Besh said that he and Sanchez have been conscious about how far to take the food at the casino. They wanted to find a mix between "playful and fun" and the authenticity of Sanchez's grandmother's cooking.

"It's a delicate balance," Besh said. The food at Johnny Sanchez might not resemble what one might discover at a Guadalajara street cart, but it's not a radical departure either, the chefs say.

"We're trying to elevate the tradition of the Mexican table," Sanchez said.

A 10-day visit to Guadalajara in the spring of 2013 energized the chefs and inspired the planning for Johnny Sanchez in Baltimore. Chefs in high-end restaurants there are doing just the kind of culinary exploring they're doing at Johnny Sanchez.

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