Beirut-born Lincoln Carson was a globetrotter before becoming a chef in the U.S. Francois Payard mentored him at New York’s Le Bernardin. He later relocated to Las Vegas to work for chef Julian Serrano at Picasso. He met Michael Mina, and eventually became the Mina Group’s Corporate Pastry Chef. On April 6, Carson shared several culinary insights before serving a contemporary “red velvet cake” to close out the Pebble Beach Food & Wine Battle of the Coasts: WEST.
Josh Lurie: Was it a given that you would become a chef?
Lincoln Carson: No.
JL: What other careers did you consider?
LC: At 18 years old, a fighter pilot. I was actually about this close to joining the Marines. I considered architecture, I’ve always had an eye towards design. Not to say that my math skills were particularly great. I think I balanced that out with more of the artistic way of looking at things. I’ve always had an engineering mindset, in terms of taking things apart, putting them back together. I work with my hands a lot. I had a couple of friends who decided to go to culinary school after college. I had gotten accepted to college and had no idea what I wanted to do, and decided just to go, for the sake of going, though it didn’t make much sense on student loans.
One of my after-school jobs that I worked at in high school was washing pots in a kitchen, I hung out a little bit more with the friends who opted to go to culinary school, they were working as line cooks, going to Johnson & Wales in Providence. So, long story short, I went down, checked out the school with one of my dear friends, known him since we were 14, Mark Ladner, who is now executive chef over at Del Posto. He was like “Hey, why don’t you check this out, might be something you’d be into.” Because I enjoyed being in the kitchen, liked the artistic idea of it. At the time, seeing the school’s history, it seemed to be a better outlet for that. Now, that’s not the case, but it’s taken all of this to realize, you can have an artistic outlet in any of these endeavors. I opted to go, so after that it was pretty straightforward, you go to school to become a chef, you go to work to become a chef.
JL: Where did you grow up?
LC: I was born in Beirut, moved around a lot, first few years after Beirut was in Saudi Arabia, in Jeddah and Dhahran, back to the States, mostly northeast, Philly, New York City, Boston, back to Saudi Arabia for a couple years in high school, then I finished school right outside of Boston.
JL: What was the very first night like for you in a restaurant kitchen and where was that?
LC: We did an externship. I guess my first position was really pretty easy. It was a seasonal hotel in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, right after culinary school. I had worked maybe two years of culinary school in a bakery, I don’t think it counts in that regard. It was pretty laid back. When I got in a kitchen in New York, I worked in this seasonal hotel all the way through the summer, then opted to move to New York City. I think it was an eye opening experience, just the intensity level and what was expected of you, you really needed just a ridiculous work ethic. Especially in French. It was really my second job in New York, that was really the epitome of what it was supposed to be. And that was at La Bernardin. I worked in one New York restaurant, maybe not as busy, but very high standards, and then going over there, it was like a fish out of water again.
JL: Your Battle Of The Coasts counterpart [Francois Payard] also worked at La Bernardin for a while.
LC: I worked for him there. He was my mentor. This was in 1991. Yeah, Francois and I have stayed close for many years. He really kicked my ass in that restaurant and really helped push me to never accept anything for being good enough, but has followed closely behind most of my career and kind of helped me into the right job at the right moment, and has maybe sent a few things my way. But, when it was time for me to leave, he was the first person that hooked me up with a couple of interviews for my first pastry chef position.
JL: When did you cross paths with Michael Mina?
LC: First time would be when I was pastry chef at Picasso, in Bellagio, and then that opened up Aqua. At the time, Michael was really doing some really cool, cutting-edge stuff in terms of service. I remember he had this ice cream cart, with Pacojets table-side. I think there were a lot of cool touches, that got my attention in terms of what he was doing, and he had come and dined at Picasso once or twice, and he appreciated what we were doing with the program. After Picasso I moved back to New York and kind of lost touch with a lot of West Coast chefs, and there was a point, I guess it was six years later, I came back to open Daniel, at the Wynn. The Wynn was a difficult place, I think for a lot of the opening chefs, I was there for just under 2 years, a year and a half, and the chef at the restaurant, John, kind of reintroduced me to Michael, and we started talking and it seemed to be a good fit.
JL: You said that when you arrived he had 6 restaurants and you’ve opened 16 with him now?
LC: I opened, yeah #7 with him, which was Strip Steak, so that was in September of ’06. We opened up Strip Steak, I was in that kitchen for a good amount of time, and also trying to manage the Las Vegas-based restaurant. I got my hands on what they were doing there, started coming up in San Francisco, and then the following year we opened up two restaurants at the MGM and in Detroit, and it was on. From that point forward, we opened five restaurants within a year’s time. It was a really rapid expansion for a couple of years. I think Michael created my position and looking to hire me was in anticipation of that rapid expansion. He understood that as a professional, and someone who really cares about pastry and dessert, he wouldn’t be able to keep his hands on it while it was going through everything else, so he wanted to make sure that that position existed.
JL: You’re involved in a number of concepts, in the restaurant group. Would you say that there are any common threads in what a Lincoln Carson dessert would be?