Location: Las Vegas, Nevada
Current job(s): Proprietor at Scotch Myst
Position: Chef & Owner
Years in the industry: 35
Notable employers / awards: Stella Artois, Four Seasons, Raffles Hotel, Bellagio Hotel, Wynn Resorts, Sandy Lane Barbados, Westgate (Former Hilton Las Vegas), Gold Culinary Medal at the 1992 Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt, German as member of Singapore National Team.
Everyone has a story. Tell us how you knew you wanted to become a chef?
I knew I wanted to travel and that was the route to having a chance to do that. I got my first “real” job as a dishwasher, started prepping chicken wings, and somehow I found my way through a couple entry level chef gigs. I grew to love working in fine dining and deciding to go to culinary school to really pursue a lifelong career.
What are the most rewarding things about your profession?
I believe that if your mind is in the right place, you can create a great living. I think it’s rewarding to take on a job, whether it be at a hotel, restaurant, consulting, to a dinner or the simplest thing: entertaining friends. I never get bored with creating new recipes, looking for great ingredients, or learning about new flavors or cultures. For me, being a chef has always been tied to travel, learning and adventure. Also, being a chef or a cook is about giving. I happen to give through my cooking, and it’s always rewarding to see people happy.
What are the most difficult things about your profession?
Balancing your personal life and family life with your professional passion. I have two children and I want to be there for them. I’ve had to make sure that my passion for my job still allows me to continue being there for the kids. I’ve adjusted my life over the past 10 years to make sure that I can be there for them.
What is your food philosophy?
Simple is not only good, it’s great. The freshest ingredients, the most straightforward way to highlight the beauty of whatever ingredient you have at hand. I loved the comfort foods of my childhood in Scotland, but my time cooking in the Orient really taught me a love for clean, simple great food.
What is your leadership philosophy?
I worked for some of the most demanding and phenomenal mentors in the food world, and they all taught me to always keep striving for perfection. I try to lead by making sure that the people working with me know that I will get into every aspect of every job. I want them to know that I have a clear and decisive plan, and I like to be organized and prepared.
What is your claim to fame?
I suppose to some it would be my time with the Wynn Hotels because of the size of the hotels, the new things that Steve Wynn’s vision enabled us to create in the kitchen and to elevate in the resort world in Las Vegas, and the ability to translate that into multiple properties like the Bellagio, The Wynn, the Wynn Macau and all the early design work for the Wynn Encore.
What is your most unusual source of inspiration for cooking?
Music isn’t unusual, but I definitely go to music as often as anything. I’m a rock guy, and great legends of rock…Led Zeppelin, The Doors, and so many have and continue to influence me. I don’t play guitar, but I collect them, and I tend to think of cooking in somewhat “musical” terms for inspiration. I’m a lover of music. I have a pretty substantial collection of vintage guitars and famous musicians’ guitars and memorabilia. I love everything about the classic years of rock, and my tapes and music went around the world with me when I cooked throughout my career. I carried my tool box of cassettes through five continents and the music kept a thread going even when the surroundings completely changed.
What was the biggest ”break” in your career? Can you share what you did that set you apart from your competition and how you prepared for the opportunity?
I think it was migrating to Australia in 1988 and having the chance to work in the Regent Hotel in Sydney. This was a chance to work with the abundance of amazing ingredients that I had never seen before….the seafoods, the vegetables, the fruits. The seasons. In Canada, it was cold all the time. All of a sudden I’m doing hare, Alberta beef, lobster and just a breadth of amazing foods in the late 1980’s. It’s part of the reason that hotel was in the top 10 in the world during that time period.
How did your job as a consulting chef begin?
The desire to be with my children more pushed me into rethinking what I was doing and how I could continue to travel and cook worldwide, but also have the ability to do it in a bit more “free form” way than a more traditional chef’s job. I had the benefit of working for incredible chefs, hoteliers, restaurant owners and operators, and I have a real passion to take that background and help others benefit from those experiences. I love helping other people win and seeing them bring a dream into reality. Consulting as a chef has allowed me to have some wonderful intersections with people all over the world, and to keep evolving as I continue to learn.
From what we hear, you’re a local celebrity in Las Vegas – having worked at many of the city’s finest hotels. Tell us the story of how you found yourself working in Sin City and what’s keeping you there.
Well, it’s a bit odd, but Steve Wynn did “find” me at Raffles in Singapore and he asked me to interview for the initial job at the Bellagio. I wasn’t originally interested in coming to America, or Las Vegas, but I took the chance of asking if he would fly me business class to interview in Las Vegas. He didn’t know I had never flown business class before. He said yes, I took the flight, and it was impossible to say no to his vision and the opportunity that the Bellagio offered to dream big and be innovative. And once I got here, I loved the energy and diversity of Las Vegas. Incredible talented chefs, people who want to build cutting edge properties, and the chance to be based in a constantly evolving landscape and still travel the world keep me here.
With a career spanning five continents, we have to ask…what are you top favorite foodie destinations and why?
As I said, I love Asia, the Orient. The freshness, simplicity, spices, and influences. I love simple food. I love grilling, because it’s something almost everyone can do. I’m doing a grill book later this year with incredible photographer Bill Milne (he’s done all three of my previous cookbooks), because as I continue to cook, I actually simplify. What I love now is probably a lot different than 10 or 20 years ago. I also never say no to caviar.
With all the traveling that your consulting job demands, would you say that you are in or out of the kitchen most days?
I’m actually in the kitchen even more now…creating and testing recipes, showing my clients new ideas, working with talented chefs and up and coming people. I never want to be out of the kitchen. It’s my passion, and although I enjoy and love the business aspects of running restaurants or projects, improving food choices, production lines, or overall profits, it’s still all about the food at the end of the process. If the food isn’t right, nothing else matters and I never want to forget how it feels to make a great, satisfying meal and see people’s appreciation of that.
For those chefs who want to find themselves in your position, what pieces of advice would you share with them?
I suppose it’s a bit cliché, but follow your dreams. Cooking was the path to my love for travel and need for adventure, and a chance to see the world and meet incredible people. I was able to have great jobs because I just tried to always do my absolute best in every moment, and I never stopped wanting criticism and never wanted to stop learning. If you stay open, you learn, and if you apply yourself and reach beyond your comfort level everyone can surprise themselves. I never originally saw myself as an operations person, but a lifetime of work with great people gave me the knowledge and confidence to try new things and that led to new positions beyond being a chef.
What roles have you played in your culinary career and in your opinion, which level was the hardest to work through?
Dishwasher, line cook, sous chef, chef de cuisine, executive chef, corporate chef, and general consultant in restaurant and hotel food and beverage operations. Probably the most challenging are the positions that require a lot of management. The more people you supervise and lead, the more important it is to be organized, thorough and thoughtful. To me, the kitchen is always the best part, but I have enjoyed understanding all the layers of what makes successful operations.
Congratulations on your new role as Stella Artois’ Culinary Ambassador! What will your responsibilities be and what are you most excited for?
Thank you. It’s really a dream come true. George Reisch, the head brew master there for 35 years, became a friend years ago and I have so much admiration for him professionally and personally that it was great when he envisioned a way for me to work with such a world respected company and brand. Stella Artois is the finest and the chance to work with their creative and brand team on food pairings and new ideas for the expansion of their culinary ideas is a lifetime goal for me.
If you could change one thing about the food industry, what would it be?
I think it’s just making sure that people stay true to the product no matter where you are. That’s the key to me continuing to make the industry better.
If you could go back in time, what would you tell yourself at the beginning of your career?
Be patient. I have mellowed a bit over the years. I don’t do anything slowly, and anyone who works with me would tell you I am more than a bit OCD and touch things a lot to make sure they’re getting done. I don’t leave things alone as I want to make sure they stay moving ahead, but when I was young I probably could have benefited from a bit more patience!
Have you ever second-guessed your will to become a chef?
Not really. It’s where I felt my passion and my talent lay and what I wanted to do. I didn’t have a “plan B”. I was focused on being a chef as a career. I wasn’t the best at academic school work and it was tedious to me when I was young. I wanted excitement, wanted immediate gratification, and wanted to see people be happy. Food gave me answers to all those questions.
Who were your culinary role models growing up and who are they today?
Jean-Louis Palladin, Joël Robuchon, Serge Dansereau, all people who mentored and shaped me. People who run impeccable operations, and have phenomenal ethics and are humble and great people as well. Chef Peter Knipp and M.P.S. Puri were also big influences in the far east.
Culinary School…Yea or nay?
Yes, Niagara, Canada. Loved the experience. I still go back to work on things with the school and just did some things with them last month. I love teaching people to cook and I know how much I still learn. I benefitted a lot from my time in school.
What are your secrets to being successful in an always evolving food industry?
Passion for food. Bottom line, after 35 years of doing this, it’s still not a “job”, it’s a lifestyle and it’s an integral part of my existence. I couldn’t separate it from every part of my day if I wanted to.
What are your culinary and career goals? Life goals?
Culinary goals are simple. Never stop evolving. Never stop inventing or growing or trying or tasting. Life goals – raise my children well and enjoy life.
What is your culinary “best case scenario”?
Continuing on the path that I am on. I would love to do more cookbooks and even look at someday doing a TV series that allows me to have a unique take on combining my life traveling with culinary themes.
Name one chef we should be on the lookout for in the future.
That is a very hard question because I feel there are so many and think the next turn will come for the far east’s food to have more acceptance for ethnic foods from Asia and not be so Americanized. I’d look to that part of the world for the next set of inspiring young chefs.
How did you find Chef’s Roll and what urged you to join?
I think Chef’s Roll is a great resource. I really like having one place to find established and emerging chefs, sources to learn about new things, new people, food bloggers, and the buzz of the culinary world. Great job CR! Excited to see you guys growing and evolving too!
What’s next for you?
More travel, more consulting. Raising my kids and loving watching them find what they enjoy and want to learn about. More music, more food, and more great experiences with new friends.