Exec led culinary colonization of LV

May 10, 2005 4:57 AM

Las Vegas has become famous for its world-class restaurants, many of them operated by the country’s most famous chefs.

But it hasn’t always been that way. Fifteen years ago, the dining scene consisted mostly of chuck wagon buffets, coffee shops and a few upscale "gourmet rooms" overseen by blow-dried maitre d’s and captains with greased palms.

Fifteen years ago there were no celebrity chefs such as Emeril Lagasse, Mark Miller, Bobby Flay, Alessandro Stratta, Michael Mina, Charlie Palmer, Bradley Ogden and Tom Colicchio, to name a few.

All that changed in 1992, when Wolfgang Puck opened his first restaurant here at the Forum Shops. But it wasn’t necessarily an easy entry, according to Puck’s point man, Tom Kaplan, who led the celebrity chef’s foray into Sin City.

Kaplan said that in 1992 there was a kind-of mutual suspicion between Las Vegas hotels and the world’s master chefs.

On the one hand, the hotels feared losing the control they wielded over their dining rooms, not to mention the revenues, and the chefs feared losing the autonomy they needed to prepare and serve the kind of cuisine they wanted to.

In addition, the hotels had the mindset that any money spent in restaurants was money not gambled away in the casino.

But all the concerns soon dissipated with the dramatic success of Spago at the Forum Shops.

"Nowhere else in the world can restaurants be created like they are in Las Vegas," Kaplan said. "Now, the best chefs in America are here ”¦ and the best in the world are coming."

Two years after Puck’s arrival, the MGM Grand hired popular chefs Emeril Lagasse and Mark Miller, both of whom were well-known cookbook authors and TV personalities. Other hotels quickly followed suit.

As a senior managing partner of the Wolfgang Puck Fine Dining Group, Kaplan works closely with corporate partners such as the host hotels. His task is to keep track of the restaurants’ financial performance, hotel relations and overall quality of the dining experience.

He is also involved in launching new restaurants, and plays an active role in the design and the selection process.

A 47-year-old native of Newark, New Jersey, Kaplan grew up in Stamford where he grew to love drawing, painting and building model railroads. He pursued that passion at Bowden College in Maine, where he graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s degree with majors in both art history and environmental studies.

Kaplan moved cross-country in 1980 and landed in Southern California, where he took a job in an architect’s office. But after a year he was offered the chance to design and manage a new fast-food restaurant concept, which he jumped at.

The restaurant concept ultimately became a national chain, Croissants USA, and Kaplan caught the culinary bug.

Croissants USA was eventually acquired by Ma Maison, a top Beverly Hills restaurant whose head chef at the time was Wolfgang Puck. In 1982, Puck tapped Kaplan to manage his new restaurant, Spago, in West Hollywood.

"I was in the right place at the right time," Kaplan said.

Ten years later, Kaplan relocated to Las Vegas to open Puck’s Spago at the Forum Shops.

Today, Kaplan oversees four additional Puck restaurants in Las Vegas: Postrio (The Venetian), Chinois (Forum Shops), Trattoria del Lupo (Mandalay Bay) and Wolfgang Puck Bar & Grill (MGM Grand). There are seven other restaurants nationwide and one in Tokoyo. Last year, the restaurants grossed about $80 million.

"This is one of the finest dining communities in the world," Kaplan said. "Tremendous talent and diversity exists here."

Currently on the back burner are a new Wolfgang Puck restaurant for Sheldon Adelson’s new Palazzo resort, now under construction, and two other hotel restaurants in town.

Kaplan says it is the Puck Group’s goal is to build outstanding restaurants that appeal to a wide variety of patrons, not just the super rich.

In addition to an eclectic selection of cuisine, Puck restaurants are noteworthy for their California-chic casual design and moderate prices.

"Marry great architecture with the restaurants," Kaplan said.

For his efforts, Kaplan was recently honored with the Nevada Restaurateur of the Year Award, which was presented at the International Hospitality and Restaurant Show held at Mandalay Bay.

"I was honored and humbled," Kaplan said.

When not building or running Puck restaurants, Kaplan devotes considerable time to charitable work. He serves as vice president of the Puck-Lazaroff Charitable Foundation and is a director of the local Animal Foundation.

When he is not traveling and dining with his wife, Kaplan enjoys running, skiing, cycling and hiking in the mountains with his two dogs, a Labrador and golden retriever.

Incidentally, Kaplan is quick to point out he is a lousy chef. "I can’t cook ”¦ but I’m a good dishwasher," he said.