The Eiffel Tower sparkles in the distance. A helicopter swoops down on New York’s skyline before making a sharp turn towards Lake Como. A goliath-sized image of Bette Midler dances across a JumboTron above Caesars Palace, while fireworks spew out from a volcano on Treasure Island… The full-sensory stimulation of a Saturday night in Las Vegas is unfolding brilliantly outside the windows of Mandarin Oriental, Las Vegas, at Twist, the latest restaurant from the French world-renowned chef, Pierre Gagnaire.
Meanwhile, the mood inside is joyously peaceful. Well, for a moment it’s peaceful. Suddenly, an army of waiters surrounds my table, and a parade of bite-size canapés begins to land. First is a duo of quivering, translucent brown cubes. ‘A cocktail to start,’ the waiter says, winking. I pop these into my mouth, and instantly the flavours of ‘Guinness!’ and ‘Jack Daniel’s whiskey!’ scream across my tongue.
My attention captivated, I sit up straight. I feel my smile widening as the next dish arrives: a confetti salad of microscopically chopped cuttlefish, sweet green peppers and haricot vert, which is scooped up and devoured in a single bite just as the next item is making its way to the table. A piece of smoked sardine, along with a raisin, balance atop a fried potato crisp.
Before I’ve had a chance to react, the next bite is already incoming: flaxseed breadsticks, delicately long and slender. I grab the sticks, as instructed by the staff, and gently scoop them into a fluffy, cloud-like Chantilly cream that tastes not of Chantilly cream, but of… bluefin tuna?
I feel a powerful urge to put down my fork and discuss what is happening with my tablemates, but our conversation keeps getting postponed by the imminent arrival of the next curious bite: crunchy, cheese-flavoured crackers, followed immediately by penny-sized almond cookies in the shape of bunny rabbits…
Finally, the dust settles, and all we know for sure is that we’ve just been knocked off balance, nudged outside of our comfort zone, confronted with unexpected flavours and outlandish juxtapositions. The dining room is calm once again, yet we’re still dizzy – riveted to our seats, hungry for more.
Pierre Gagnaire didn’t become one of France’s most famous chefs by playing it safe. He’s a legendary risk-taker who has pushed the boundaries of modern cuisine. His first Michelin three-star restaurant, located in St Etienne (outside of Lyon) went bankrupt, yet he refused to be silenced. He moved to Paris and started over, soon earning back all of his stars. Flash forward: his expanding empire includes critically acclaimed restaurants in London, Hong Kong, Seoul, Tokyo, Dubai, and now Las Vegas.
Gagnaire had long desired to open a restaurant in the States, but he never expected that his foray would land him in Las Vegas – a city he knew little about before Mandarin Oriental floated the idea. Still, he thought the destination sounded rather exotic, so he flew to America right away to see at first hand this wildest of fantasy lands in the Mojave Desert. His first reaction was utter shock. ‘Everything seemed so surreal,’ he says. ‘For the first 24 hours, that whole time, my mouth was wide open.’
But the following morning, while having coffee with his wife, the city’s magic started to click. ‘I realised I was falling in love with it,’ he says. ‘Las Vegas is exotic. But it’s not the sort of exotica I was expecting. They call it Sin City, but I don’t think that’s the best nickname. It’s not like that at all. Everyone here is having such a good time. It’s amazing.’ And since Gagnaire already operated one restaurant within a Mandarin Oriental (Pierre in Hong Kong), he knew, more or less, what he was getting into. ‘I had faith that the hotel would be gorgeous, and I trusted that the quality of the brand would absolutely be there.’
The free-standing, 47-storey Mandarin Oriental looms majestically above the city’s main boulevard, its glass façade shimmering proudly from the middle of the $8.5 billion, 18-million-square-foot complex, CityCenter, a new luxury development that also includes three other hotels, a casino and the city’s most exclusive shopping arcade. In total, CityCenter brings more than 6,000 rooms to the local market – but only 392 of those belong to Mandarin Oriental. By the exaggerated standards of Las Vegas, this makes Mandarin Oriental a petite boutique hotel.
Like the hotel itself, Twist defies Las Vegas stereotypes. The city is home to more celebrity-chef restaurants than in any other city in the world, maybe even more than all other cities combined. And nearly every one of these restaurants is able to accommodate 200 guests or more. Twist accommodates just 72 – a normal size restaurant in an oversized town. ‘That’s the only way I could do it,’ says Gagnaire. ‘I know my limits. This is how I’ve learned to work. I don’t know any other way.’
Twist marks Gagnaire’s first collaboration with acclaimed interior designer Adam Tihany, someone he’s wanted to work with for years. ‘Nobody knows how to build a better restaurant than Tihany,’ he says.
Tihany has applied a minimalist’s brush to the long, slender dining room, swathing it in soothing shades of purple and pewter. A banquette (royal-purple velvet and leather) stretches the length of one side of the room. The other side is edged with wall-to-wall, floor-to-ceiling, two-storey windows overlooking the city. The walls are purposely void of art. (No art could possibly compete with that dramatic Vegas skyline.) The tables are covered very simply with long, white tablecloths topped with elegant white china. More than 300 spherical lights dangle from invisible wires, casting a soft glow upon the room, giving the impression that the air is filled with champagne bubbles. A glass-encased wine cellar floats above the entrance. The floor of the cellar, also made of glass, allows guests to peer up into it from below. Guests are also offered a glimpse into the kitchen through a narrow window placed high enough into the wall so that only the chefs’ heads and toques are visible, creating the impression not of an exhibition kitchen but of performance art.
To run the kitchen at Twist, Gagnaire tapped his long-time accomplice, Pascal Sanchez, a fellow Frenchman who’s been working with Gagnaire for 14 years, first at the chef’s eponymous flagship in Paris (where he was hired on the second day), and later as the opening chef and driving force at Sketch in London. Sanchez was the first chef Gagnaire ever trusted to run a kitchen that he himself couldn’t physically visit every day.
Originally, Gagnaire entertained the idea of opening a steakhouse, something he’d never done before but has been contemplating for some time. But because this was his first venture in America, he knew that it needed to be a restaurant that stayed as true as possible to the spirit of the cuisine for which he’s become so famous. He knew Sanchez was the only one who could help him pull that off.
With a lot of celebrity chefs, expansion isn’t such a big deal. The master chef creates the recipes, then someone else is put in charge of their stewardship. But Gagnaire doesn’t believe in recipes. He eschews traditional culinary discipline. ‘I’m not a very good chef,’ he is fond of saying. ‘I don’t know how to cook traditional French food. Well… okay, I know how… but I don’t like it. I’m not much of a technician. When I was very young, I tried that and quickly lost interest. I wasn’t good with rules or recipes, so I knew that if I were going to last in this profession, I had to find a way to give more meaning to my job.’
Rather, for Gagnaire, cooking has always been an expression of art, an act of love. ‘I would much prefer to eat a dish with too much salt than a dish that lacks emotion,’ he says. ‘There’s a tenderness that must be present in the way we communicate every dish. And that’s maybe the biggest challenge at Twist, because Las Vegas isn’t necessarily a town of tenderness.’
To better visualise what Gagnaire is talking about when he says he doesn’t cook with recipes, consider a dish called ‘mushroom broth zezette’. Essentially a soup, it includes a bowl of green broth accented with a few bites of chicken and three types of gnocchi. But it doesn’t stop there. Two accompaniments are served on the side: one is a fried codfish cake, and the other is a martini glass filled with ratatouille-flavoured Bavarian cream, topped with a frozen sorbet that tastes like a Bloody Mary.
‘There’s no recipe for that,’ Gagnaire insists. ‘And it has to be made by someone who really wants to make it good. A dish like this will only ever work if it sincerely comes from the heart.’ It’s up to the person making it to properly adjust the amount of mushrooms, the milk, the garlic, the rosemary – and depending on the season or the product, each time might be different – until it tells the right story. ‘I expect the chef to improvise and implicate himself,’ Gagnaire says. But to do so while remaining true to the purity of the broth. ‘It’s this wonderful, heartfelt combination of imagination and know-how and emotion. It’s 95 per cent Pierre Gagnaire. So that five per cent that Pascal contributes is enormous.’
It’s hard to categorise Gagnaire’s cuisine. He calls it modern French for lack of a better term and because, frankly, he’s French. But it’s not French in any technical sense. It’s not a cuisine based on classic sauces or techniques or flavours. Venison might be served with ice cream instead of au jus. Dessert might include arugula (rocket). And, indeed, guests at Twist will encounter both of these.
The foremost consideration is to find the highest quality ingredients, and then to use them to tell a story. Every dish at Twist creates a spectacle. And in return, Gagnaire hopes that each course will elicit a visceral reaction from his guests. It’s up to the guests to decipher the story. It’s like watching a movie or reading a good book – not everyone will interpret it in the same way, and that’s exactly the response he’s hoping for. ‘I want people to get lost in the joy of every dish. I don’t want to serve a simple course that someone will just eat without looking at it, without connecting with it.’
This explains the overwhelming onslaught of canapés at the beginning of the meal. It explains why some dishes require several waiters to deliver all of the various components for a single guest. And it explains why sometimes a dish has a bizarre accompaniment that might not make any sense.
Take, for example, a fillet of John Dory. The fish is delicately poached and served à la nage-style, in a shallow bowl filled with a buttery broth that conveys undertones of Malabar black pepper and citrus, along with a smattering of large white beans and a few plump mussels removed from their shells. This alone is an exquisite dish. Most chefs would stop there, satisfied that they had created a masterpiece. But not Gagnaire. On the side, he offers an extra condiment: a mostarda (or marmalade) made from red bell peppers, spicy French chillies and sweet-sour grapefruit. Added to the John Dory, the elegant dish takes on a much wilder profile, one of far greater risk and tenacity. Some guests adamantly dislike the condiment and choose not to eat it. But others are amused by the jarring contrast. And that’s the point: to encourage a discussion, an interaction, a dialogue that goes beyond simply eating a piece of fish.
Similarly, when a loin of venison is presented, it arrives with an instruction and a warning. The dish comprises several components, one of which is a frozen ice cream made from venison jus and black pepper. ‘You might like to spoon the cold ice cream on top of the warm meat,’ says the waiter. ‘Or, you might find that you don’t like the contrast of temperatures. You might prefer to eat the ice cream separately, or not at all.’ The chef is essentially giving his diners permission to not like what he’s created.
This is precisely what happens at my table. We’re split fifty-fifty on the venison jus ice cream – half of us love it, half of us are left scratching our heads – which amuses our waiter immensely. But we can all agree on one thing: the venison, and the blackcurrant jam served underneath it, are sublime, with or without the ice cream.
We’re only halfway into this debate when we’re suddenly ambushed by the arrival of the grand finale of desserts (about 10 dishes per guest, possibly more), which suddenly begins to fill up the table: a bavaroise (think of a fluffy little cheesecake) with sturdy droplets of quince gelée and chartreuse syrup; a deconstructed lemon meringue tart re-envisioned as a citrus sorbet topped with a butter cookie and meringue; a refreshing cachaça granita with cucumber marmalade, green apple and the odd leaf of arugula; a chocolate ganache with crystallised ginger and chocolate ice cream… And the meal suddenly ends as dramatically as it began.
This story originally appeared in MO, the magazine for Mandarin Oriental by Condé Nast.