Julian Serrano was one of the first chefs to bring high-end cuisine to Las Vegas when he installed Picasso in 1998 at the Bellagio. The restaurant has actual Picasso paintings and was inspired by foods that the artist would have experienced in Spain and France. In 2009, the Madrid native added a tapas-focused concept called Julian Serrano to the nearby Aria Resort & Casino. On February 6, Serrano was in San Francisco to promote Vegas Uncork’d, a 28-event, multiple venue “celebration of wine, food, and spirits” that’s taking place from May 9-12, 2013. He took a respite from the party to share several culinary insights.
What are the most important factors when you’re considering whether to participate in a culinary event?
For how many people do you have to cook? What conditions do you have to cook in? Where is the city? How far? That is very important. I’m not crazy about cooking for 1000, 2000 people. At the Naples Winter Wine Festival, I cooked in a private house for 40 people, and that’s really what I like to do for charities. Because I have more control of what I do. When I’m cooking for a big number, normally I like to do something I know they’re going to do well.
What’s the very first dish that you ever remember cooking?
I remember cooking after school, for three months, dinner at my house, duck a l’orange.
Duck a l’orange, after school?
After I cooked it, my mother said, “I can’t understand why you’re cooking in my kitchen.” I said, “Why?” She said, “Look at the mess that you’re making.”
What’s the most recent dish that you developed, and what was your inspiration?
I cooked for myself the other day, some salad. Kale, I don’t really cook it. I cook it in soups and things like that, but I say, “I don’t particularly like it, so I have to try something else.” I cooked it in a pan with very little oil and sweated, cooked it very slowly, to make it tender, for maybe 10 minutes, cooked it at like 200 degrees. I tasted it. I liked it. It was tender. I put some dried fruits, some Marcona almonds, and it was a fantastic salad. This wasn’t in the restaurant. This was in my house.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in one of your kitchens?
I’m looking for different things. I’m looking for somebody to have the passion. That is #1, somebody who is kind, and somebody who has a good energy, because I know in the restaurant business, you don’t have passion, you cannot do it, because it’s very hard. You don’t have energy, you cannot do it. You have to make a lot of effort if you want it to be good. Energy and passion, those two things are very important to me.
Is there anything you do not enjoy eating?
There are a lot of things that make me feel sick, like garlic, raw onions, raw tomatoes, pineapple. Everything that has acidity, I don’t enjoy. Some things I like – I like tomatoes – but I can’t [eat them] because I feel very sick. Acidity, I feel it for two days. [Also] raw onions, strawberries.
What’s the top selling dish at each of your restaurants, and why do you think that is?
At tapas, one of the top selling dishes is called huevos estrellados, French fries, chorizo and fried eggs. That is killer. Last year, I sold 12,000 of them. That is one of my favorite dishes. At Picasso, one of big sellers is still foie gras, because a lot of Californians cannot wait to come get that.
Let’s consider the possibility that Rice-A-Roni is not actually the San Francisco treat. What is the San Francisco treat? When you think of San Francisco, what food do you think of?
When I was in San Francisco, it used to be Dungeness crab on Thanksgiving. For one year, I used to wait until the season was coming, and on Thanksgiving, one of the things I used to eat was Dungeness crab. Another thing that’s very popular when it’s very good is sand dabs. They’re very tender, and not very expensive. When it’s good, I love it.