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Star chefs lay it on the table at Horseshoe Casino Baltimore

You can thank Wolfgang Puck.

The era of good casino dining is generally traced back to 1992, when the Los Angeles-based chef opened a version of his famed Hollywood restaurant, Spago, at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.

From then on, you didn't have to know a flush from a straight to have a good time in Sin City. Within a decade of Spago's opening, Vegas was a paradise for restaurant lovers. Michelin-star chefs like Thomas Keller and Joel Robuchon came to town. Nobu, Le Cirque and other famous New York restaurants opened on the strip.

Soon it wasn't unusual to see big-name chefs in casinos from Uncasville, Conn., to Bethlehem, Pa.

So you can thank Wolfgang Puck that the Horseshoe Casino Baltimore, the new $442 million full-service casino on Russell Street, opened with not one but three chefs who are known — to varying degrees of household-name status — for their appearances on the Food Network.

Guy Fieri's Baltimore Kitchen + Bar is the brainchild of Guy Fieri, the widely recognizable TV personality and chef. Fieri opened his first Kitchen + Bar in 2012, in New York City's Times Square. A second version opened this April in Las Vegas.

Johnny Sanchez, a first-time collaboration between the chefs John Besh and Aaron Sanchez, is a brand-new concept, debuting at the Baltimore casino.

In the days leading up the casino's opening, the three chefs were in Baltimore to put finishing touches on the menu, rally their staffs and talk food.

Johnny Sanchez

If you were developing a reality TV show about two chefs from different backgrounds and with radically different temperaments who were forced, against all logic, to collaborate on a restaurant, you'd want to call in John Besh and Aaron Sanchez.

Besh, 46, a native of Louisiana, is the master of technique. He has nine restaurants and counting, including his James Beard Award-winning flagship restaurant called August in New Orleans. His kitchens are like applied-physics laboratories where teams of dedicated professionals work to braise, steam, poach and vacuum-seal in the most intensive flavors possible.

Sanchez, 38, who was born in El Paso, Texas, and grew up in New York City, is the sensualist, proceeding more on instinct about flavors. Sanchez comes from a family of chefs. Both his grandmother and mother were cookbook authors, and his mother was also a restaurant owner.

The chef and owner of Mestizo in Leawood, Kan., Sanchez is in a restaurant-building phase — in addition to Johnny Sanchez, he has restaurants opening this year in Stamford, Conn., and New York City.

It was an appearance on the first season of TV competition show "The Next Iron Chef" where the men forged their friendship. (For the record, Besh outlasted Sanchez, losing in the final round to Michael Symon.) Their paths had crossed before, at various benefits, competitions and awards shows. They started traveling together, both alone and with their families, hunting together and, especially, cooking together.

A few years ago, they decided to collaborate on a restaurant, one whose concept would combine their talents. Johnny Sanchez is rooted in the Mexican food that forms Sanchez's culinary heritage, but both chefs say that Sanchez has not been overly protective of Mexican food.

At Johnny Sanchez, almost anything goes. A tostada might be topped with fatty tuna belly, fire-seared yellowtail or a shrimp ceviche with coconut and lemon grass. Tacos are as likely to be filled with grilled veal sweetbread or crispy Gulf shrimp as they are traditional Mexican fillings like roasted suckling pig and slow-cooked beef barbacoa.

"We wanted the platform [at Johnny Sanchez] to be the tortilla, whether it's the tostada or the tacos," said Besh. "That's the platform that we're using to transport great flavor."

The menu at Johnny Sanchez might be inspired by Mexican street food, but many items have the camera-ready looks of food that shows up on the cover of food magazines or wins the blue ribbon on TV chef competitions. But the chefs say they aren't worried about diners or critics calling them out on authenticity. "This food is in my DNA," Sanchez said.

Besh said that he and Sanchez have been conscious about how far to take the food at the casino. They wanted to find a mix between "playful and fun" and the authenticity of Sanchez's grandmother's cooking.

"It's a delicate balance," Besh said. The food at Johnny Sanchez might not resemble what one might discover at a Guadalajara street cart, but it's not a radical departure either, the chefs say.

"We're trying to elevate the tradition of the Mexican table," Sanchez said.

A 10-day visit to Guadalajara in the spring of 2013 energized the chefs and inspired the planning for Johnny Sanchez in Baltimore. Chefs in high-end restaurants there are doing just the kind of culinary exploring they're doing at Johnny Sanchez.

"What we wanted to do is create a restaurant that would mimic the type of restaurants that you would find in Guadalajara," Besh said. "[Johnny Sanchez] isn't a typical Mexican restaurant, but it could be a restaurant you would find in a cosmopolitan city."

Besh said, "I'll put the flavors here up against anything that I've ever cooked."

Each dish on the menu is a collaboration, Besh said, but for him, one dish — an arroz con pollo with puffed rice — defines the way that he and Sanchez worked together.

"The chicken is braised down the way Aaron wanted. It's a reverse braise," Besh said, a method in which meat is sauteed after it's been cooked down; in traditional braising, the meat is seared first.

It was Besh who incorporated puffed rice into the dish, a flourish that Sanchez welcomed.

"I send my chefs to work with [Besh] in his restaurants," Sanchez said "and they come back and they're like, 'Dude you gotta see what they did at August — it was unbelievable. They were puffing rice, man!' And they're like super jazzed and they're applying [at my restaurants] what they learned with John."

"This dish is really good. Some things people say are a matter of taste," Besh said. "But this is just good."

Guy Fieri's Baltimore Kitchen + Bar

For sheer spectacle, it might be hard to beat The Mayor of Flavortown Burger at Guy Fieri's Baltimore Kitchen + Bar. It's a burger blanketed in a mound of pastrami, stacked precariously with Swiss cheese, caraway seed cole slaw, pickles, onion straws all on a double-toasted pretzel bun.

But Fieri thinks it's an appetizer at his new Baltimore restaurant that will garner ahs and ohmigods.

"Outrageous, creamy, crabby," is how Fieri, 46, describes B-More Fries, a pile-up of double-fried waffle-cut fries, bechamel sauce and lump crab meat that's drizzled with Old Bay oil. The fries are served in a portion that might alarm Homer Simpson.

The fries, along with Old Bay wings, a Maryland crab soup, oyster shooters — and, yes, a crab cake — are among a half-dozen offerings that Fieri has created just for his restaurant at Horseshoe Baltimore.

"Here's the thing," said Fieri. "You cannot mess with folks in Baltimore about the amount of crab. If you're going to call it a crab cake, it's gotta be packed with crab."

Fieri said he loves Baltimore. He recalled childhood family visits, and he's made repeated visits here to tape episodes of his long-running show "Diners, Drive-ins and Dives" — he taped episodes while in town to open the casino restaurant.

Fieri almost needs no introduction, at least not for anyone with basic cable. Even if you're just flipping through the channels, you're bound to see Fieri pop up on your screen. Usually, Fieri's face — crowned with a shock of platinum blond hair — will flicker on the Food Network, where past episodes of his show dominate the schedule.

But Fieri has had exposure beyond the Food Network, as host of the NBC game show "Minute to Win It" and as the subject of parodies on "Saturday Night Live."

He's a polarizing figure — for all of his popularity, some people cannot stomach him, or the thought of his Motley Que ribs, Tatted-Up turkey burger and Righteous Rojo rings.

For his part, Fieri just focuses on all things positive.

You'll never see him go negative on a restaurant. Instead, on rare occasions when a diner doesn't work out, he'll just shut down production instead of saying anything bad about it.

"I build restaurants, I treat my team members — and I cook my food — the way I would like to be treated, and that's with respect," Fieri said. "You've got to keep that in mind. What do guests want? They want a comfortable place to sit. What do team members want? They want really cool uniforms. I remember working in fine dining and hating my uniform so much that I would wear a sweatsuit on over my uniform to drive to work in case I ever had to get out at the gas station and get gas."

Fieri recruited the senior staff positions for Horseshoe Baltimore from other restaurants in Las Vegas. Once hired, his new chefs spent months working in his Las Vegas Kitchen + Bar, absorbing the corporate culture.

"I've got eight restaurants of my own in California called Johnny Garlic's and a concept called Tex Wasabi's. I've opened 20 restaurants," Fieri said. "The key is having really good people. It's kind of like a sourdough starter. Someone's got to bring in the flavor, bring in the enthusiasm and awareness."

rgorelick@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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