David Robbins, Executive Chef and Managing Partner, Puck- Lazaroff Fine Dining Group – Las Vegas
Executive Chef and Managing Partner David Robins has one of the most prestigious positions in Las Vegas. He is the man responsible for ensuring that the high standards of culinary and customer service excellence established by his mentor Wolfgang Puck are maintained in the Las Vegas operations of the Puck - Lazaroff Fine Dining Group. David is responsible for overseeing the culinary operations in Spago, Chinois, Postrio and Lupo. He makes it a policy to see each restaurant every day and makes himself available for special events and as a back up to his Chefs de Cuisine when needed for special functions, display cooking or unique tasting menus for key customers.
David migrated to Las Vegas eight and a half years ago to assist in the opening of the Spago operation. "This was our first project inside a hotel shopping mall and it's been a unique learning experience. At first, everyone couldn't understand why we would open a fine dining establishment in a shopping mall. Now this mall is the largest grossing mall in America on sales per square foot and we are very successful." The foresight behind this move comes from Henry Gluck, Sheldon Gordon, who is a partner in Spago, and of course Wolfgang Puck. "Wolfgang was a pioneer in developing the hotel market for fine dining as part of the total gaming experience. He was the first to recognize the potential in Las Vegas for a celebrity chef and a higher quality restaurant that met the fine dining needs of the developing upscale market in Vegas."
The Spago in the Forum Shops at Caesars was the first Spago Puck and Lazaroff opened outside of California. A key to their success was dealing with a clientele that was familiar with Puck-Lazaroff and what they stood for in terms of creative food concepts and dynamic design. "We started out catering to the locals, who had experience with Wolf in LA and wanted to have a Spago of their own. Since then the organic growth of Las Vegas into a marketplace that caters to a higher end guest has kept the business growing and allowed for the development of other concepts."
The development of a new concept is an important step in the evolution of the Puck - Lazaroff Fine Dining Group. David learned a great deal about opening restaurants during his experience in Spago Chicago. "I was then given the opportunity to build Chinois from the ground up. This was my first chance to research quality equipment for the restaurant." To some this would have been a daunting task, but David had some help. " I was very lucky to be introduced to Bill Fero, who introduced me to the cooking equipment and concepts from Garland and Enodis." The equipment is the heart of a Wolfgang Puck restaurant concept, as many of them are display kitchens and the center stage for the theatre that is a core element of the Puck dining experience.
The initial meeting with Bill Fero and Garland has been key for David. "The Garland Group is a great group to work with and has quality products. I settled on Garland as my equipment for three reasons:
Their commitment to involve the chef in the design … they really go out of the way to find out what the chef wants for the restaurant.
Their excellent start up and after market support when the equipment was on site.
The fact that with all this value-added support, they are still competitive, which is critical to us achieving our bottom line."
Garland has been involved in the major Puck Las Vegas projects and continues to work with David and his group of Chefs de Cuisine to plan for every contingency that they might have in the future. "To this day, I have Garland in three of the restaurants and we are very pleased with them. We will continue to work with Garland in any of our upgrade situations."
David is fanatical about consistency, quality and attention to detail in every element of the business. "It's our consistency that is critical, we produce the same product, the same experience 7 days a week, every week of the year. It's our job to provide a high quality product with outstanding customer service. We cater to the convention market that demands fine dining. We see the same people twice a year and we really reach out to them!"
This dedication to quality is ingrained into every element of the operation. "We look for quality ingredients, but we also search out quality equipment to work with and that's why we searched out Garland." To David, the kitchen is like a family and it is a very delicate balance between environment, atmosphere and culture. He has found that a happy kitchen sets the tone for the whole restaurant, "Quality extends from the atmosphere to the meals to the presentation to the customer. We use nothing but quality ingredients and quality equipment to ensure that our customer gets nothing but the best."
The Las Vegas market is the center of change in the hospitality universe and we could not leave David without his prediction on what he sees as the next trends in the market and cooking in general. It was a familiar message; "Quality is not a trend, quality is what makes good cooking good! It's the real base to cooking success, trends will come and go."
However, on a more pragmatic note, David did want to comment on the changes in the role of the Executive Chef in relation to the restaurant business; "We are not only artists anymore, we are business people. It's all about understanding which market you want to target and then catering to that market." David assured us that there is a greater emphasis now placed on stratifying the market and understanding who is your customer. The customer and the market are going to define the restaurant and how it will be designed and operated. "Restaurants are going to have to understand who they are going to cook for." The change in responsibility and accountability is not lost on David in his role as executive chef; "We are given millions of dollars to build restaurants and we are expected to return millions of dollars in profits to our investors." The numbers are having a greater impact on how the business is operated and there is increased emphasis on leadership. "It's the individual who operates the business who has to build something special and draws the most out of his staff who makes a success out of a restaurant. I'm all about bringing the chefs from the 80's and 90's, into the 21 st century and making them into successful business people as well as chef-artists."
But, no matter how much the business has changed, it is still the only business for David. "What I love about the restaurant business is that it is a lifestyle. Being a good chef is a lifestyle that you have to dedicate yourself to. If you want to be a success in this business, you have to pursue it with energy. You'll have plenty of time to rest when you're dead!" Another key benefit that David enjoys from his career is his involvement with the people around him. "I do enjoy the business, because it's a people business. It's all about influencing people, I'm into building careers for other people." David views his restaurants and his role as a type of school and a mentor / teacher. "Cooking is about passion. You have to have the Heart of a Servant and The Passion. The skill of the mentor is to bring out the passion in all the people, that's what makes success. A happy restaurant is a successful restaurant!"
What does he look forward to; "It's the thrill of going on stage every day at 5:00 p.m., when the curtain goes up, we're on stage –it's real theatre what we do. I love the thrill of the energy of the kitchen and the performance. That's what keeps me coming back every day."