There’s a key ingredient Maryland’s casinos are throwing into the mix as they look to elevate their culinary offerings: the celebrity factor.
As two more celebrity chefs prepare to make their entry into Greater Baltimore, casinos are banking on their pull to boost their profiles to gamblers and non-gamblers alike. It’s a strategy that has trickled down from Las Vegas as casinos expand their entertainment portfolios.
The Horseshoe Casino Baltimore is opening Gordon Ramsay Steak by the end of the year, replacing Jack Binion’s Steak. At the same time, Live Casino & Hotel — formerly known as Maryland Live — is planning to debut the first Todd English outpost in the state next year when David’s by Todd English, a 24-hour restaurant serving breakfast all day and international cuisine, opens at its forthcoming hotel.
Plans for more star-studded eateries come less than a year after a sixth Maryland casino, MGM National Harbor, opened with restaurants from well-known chefs like Jose Andres, Marcus Samuelsson, and brothers Bryan and Michael Voltaggio.
Gaming experts say incorporating celebrity chefs in casinos is a trend that began in Las Vegas, where the major tourism driver has shifted from gambling to broader entertainment options. The strategy has become a regular part of casino culture.
“With the opening of MGM National Harbor casino, Maryland casinos are all upping their game as resort casinos, and that would include celebrity chefs,” said James Karmel, a casino analyst and Harford Community College history professor. “There’s real direct competition going on in Baltimore right now between Live and Horseshoe.”
Each of the casinos already has celebrity chef restaurants; the Horseshoe lays claim to Guy Fieri’s Baltimore Kitchen + Bar and Johnny Sanchez, by chefs John Besh and Aaron Sanchez. And Live houses a Bobby’s Burger Palace, named for chef Bobby Flay.
Another celebrity chef, the Food Network’s Giada de Laurentiis, said last week in a Facebook Live video that she plans to open a Baltimore restaurant in 2018, though it was unclear where her new spot would be. De Laurentiis has one eponymous restaurant at the Cromwell hotel in Las Vegas, which is owned by Caesars Entertainment Corp., the parent company of Baltimore’s Horseshoe.
Caesars said in a statement the company is looking to expand its relationship with de Laurentiis, and “Baltimore is one possibility.”
“It’s kind of sweeping across the nation, so it’s not surprising,” Alan Woinski, president of New Jersey-based Gaming USA Corp., said of the prevalence of celebrity chef restaurants at casinos. “I’d say the jury’s out in terms of how much it brings to the property.”
Ramsay said he sees celebrity chefs as entertainers that casinos use as attractive add-ons to reel in a broad spectrum of customers.
“I look at chefs almost very similar as [DJ] Calvin Harris,” Ramsay said. “Everyone’s looking to get the best chef, [the] latest DJ. That whole food scene now has become so much more important as the gamblers are sort of becoming less important, so how else do you influx those numbers food- and beverage-wise? You have to start increasing a much better offering.”
If a chef has a partnership with a casino company, his or her restaurants will likely end up across their portfolio, Woinski said.
That much has been true for Caesars, which has an agreement with Ramsay. Among Ramsay’s 31 restaurants worldwide, he has eateries at other Caesars properties in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, including Hell’s Kitchen Caesars Palace, two Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill locations, and Gordon Ramsay Fish & Chips.
Jay Lattimer, vice president of food and beverage for the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, said Gordon Ramsay Steak has been successful during its five years at the Paris Las Vegas, and the company wanted to build on its success.
“As a company, we’re always looking to bring these fantastic outlets that work, whether it’s Vegas or D.C. or any of our areas, and bring them to our regional properties,” Lattimer said..
The family-owned Cordish Cos., which owns Live Casino & Hotel, has the same philosophy. The company recently partnered with English to open Todd English Tavern at Live at the Battery Atlanta as part of the retail and restaurant district at SunTrust Park, the home of the Atlanta Braves.
“I enjoy working with them. I feel that it’s an interesting take on the restaurant,” English said of David’s. “I like restaurants that have themes. … You need to have a reason.”
David’s will offer international dishes from all corners of the world, inspired by the travels of David Cordish, the Cordish Cos. CEO and chairman.
“He is quite the gourmet, he loves to eat, has dined all over the world,” English said. “It doesn’t really have to be the fanciest food. It’s not pretentious, its supposed to be fun, it’s really about a selection of foods.”
Cordish said he expects English’s addition to bolster the hotel and casino’s reputation.
“It’s very helpful,” Cordish said. “Putting in Bobby Flay and putting in the Prime Rib was very helpful, and putting in Todd will be the same way. And you need to do that.”
Rob Norton, president of Cordish Global Gaming, said opening the casino five years ago with a mix of well-known local and national restaurants such as the Prime Rib, the Cheesecake Factory and Bobby’s Burger Palace was effective.
“Having a recognizable brand, whether that’s a chef or whether that’s a restaurant establishment, is a very important part,” Norton said. “A key part of our strategy is to add value by adding a blend, a mixture of recognizable names and faces along with our own unique creations.”
When the casino began considering concepts for its hotel’s signature restaurant, executives chose English in part because his name is highly recognizable.
“As we started to look at our options for the additional dining that are going to go into the hotel, we went through a lot of different ideas, and what we landed on was that Todd English really is one of the highly recognizable chefs in the entire world,” Norton said. “It just seems to be a natural partnership.”
English owns and operates a number of restaurants worldwide including Todd English’s Olives, Todd English P.U.B. and Todd English’s Figs. And he has hosted and appeared on a number of television shows including “Food Trip with Todd English,” “Top Chef,” “Iron Chef” and “Cooking Under Fire.”
Casinos can use celebrity chef restaurants as incentives for their player base, Karmel said, particularly for their carefully cultivated, higher-end players. David’s will be open around the clock, and Cordish anticipates at least half the restaurant’s business to come from rewards members at the casino, who can put points earned from gambling toward food purchases.
Others, he expects, will come to the restaurant for the dining experience alone.
“Families can come, non-gamers can come, and I think we’re going to do very, very well for where we’re located,” Cordish said.
The hope then is that some of the foodies who come for the food will become regular customers, Woinski said.
“It’s supposed to add a higher clientele,” Woinski said. “The people that go to these properties are not the type of people that are going to gamble at a penny slot and pay $50 and leave.”
But both chefs and casino operators recognize they’re playing a different game in Greater Baltimore’s casino market compared with Vegas.
Ramsay said he sees the lack of foot traffic as the biggest challenge coming into the Horseshoe.
“My biggest concern there would be we don’t have the footfall that we have in Vegas,” he said. “Here in Baltimore there’s going to be a level of localization in a way that we need to focus on locals. … It has to be more personal.”
The menu is still being fleshed out, but Ramsay said diners can expect signature dishes from the Las Vegas restaurant, such as beef Wellington and sticky toffee pudding, as well as more seafood dishes and regional specialties. Other menu items will include fish and chips made with local beer batter, classic British ale soup, braised beef cheeks and smoked bone marrow, Ramsay said.
“I’m going to interject a lot more of the East Coast, fish, crabs,” he said. ”I think it’s going to be easier sourcing from the East Coast and the surrounding waters.”
English will take the same approach, he said, offering dishes like Maryland crab cakes on biscuits with tempura asparagus, in addition to Italian, Asian and Mexican cuisine.
“I like seeing what the local guys are doing,” English said. “That’s something that always inspires me. That keeps me motivated and honest in terms of incorporating what the local flavors are.”
Ramsay said he will look to source from some local purveyors, with five or six menu items that include local ingredients to start.
“I sort of want to strip back the glamorous side of Vegas so that it becomes a little bit more personal,” Ramsay said. “I’m betting into the localization. I’m making that restaurant feel less flashy than Vegas and more comfortable locally.”
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