‘It’s our time:’ Seeking parity and a place of their own, women chefs head off-strip

Chef Jamie Tran of The Black Sheep, left, chef Nicole Brisson of Locale, center, and chef Gina Marinelli of La Strega are shown in the dining area of La Strega at 3555 S. Town Center Drive on Monday, May 13, 2019. (Bill Hughes/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Chef Jamie Tran of The Black Sheep, left, chef Nicole Brisson of Locale, center, and chef Gina Marinelli of La Strega are shown in the dining area of La Strega at 3555 S. Town Center Drive on Monday, May 13, 2019. (Bill Hughes/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
 “In the hotel world, there are a lot of people who have been in their positions for a very long time. It’s kind of this old-school boy’s club.”— Chef Nicole Brisson, Locale

 

NOW SHE’S COOKING! Award-winning chef steps off corporate ladder and into her own kitchen.

Chef Nicole Brisson of Locale is shown at La Strega at 3555 S, Town Center Drive on Monday, May 13, 2019. (Bill Hughes/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Chef Nicole Brisson of Locale is shown at La Strega at 3555 S, Town Center Drive on Monday, May 13, 2019. (Bill Hughes/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

On the final night of this year’s UNLVino celebration, Larry Ruvo and Michael Severino, of Southern Glazer’s Wine and Spirits presented Nicole Brisson with the Dom Perignon Award of Excellence.
Severino spoke of her career, which began in her grandfather’s kitchen in Saratoga, New York, when she was 14, and included a stint in Italy working under legendary butcher Dario Cecchini at age 21. Severino praised her work in Las Vegas, where she rose to the top of local restaurant operations for Mario Batali and Joe Bastianich at The Venetian and Palazzo, and went on to open Eataly at Park MGM.
“We’re going to honor Nicole Brisson, who is one of the outstanding female chefs here in Las Vegas,” Severino told the crowd of revelers and UNLV culinary students.
The frequently used description of the 38-year-old chef is well-deserved. In a culinary scene that often can seem like a boys club, Brisson climbed to the top through hard work and talent. While most would be hard pressed to name more than a handful of women running kitchens in a Strip casino, Brisson oversaw three hugely successful restaurants on the north end of Las Vegas Boulevard before opening an operation that employs 500 just a few miles south. While she’s never had her name on the restaurants she’s run, her reputation among the town’s culinary leaders is impeccable.
Brian Howard, chef/partner in the award-winning Chinatown restaurant Sparrow + Wolf calls her “one of my favorite chefs in the city.”
“Nicole cooks the food that I love to eat,” he continues. “Her philosophy on using great product and serving amazing cuts you won’t usually see on most menus shows her dedication to the craft.”
Now, at the top of her game, Brisson is preparing to leave the bright lights and neon June 10 to open a neighborhood spot she can finally call her own. Three days later, she expects to start serving customers at Locale, her roughly 100-seat, Italian spot in Mountain’s Edge, where she lives.
Brisson cites several reasons for the move, including her “health and mental stability.” She suffers from Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disease that affects the thyroid.
She’s also excited to bring the food she loves to her neighborhood. But like many other chefs who recently have left high-profile, corporate jobs on the Strip for smaller spots geared to locals, her main motivation is a culinary one
“As somebody who is very passionate about food, I just wanted to be in touch with the ingredients more,” Brisson explains. “The more I went into those executive and director roles, and climbed the culinary ladder, the more I realized I was becoming so removed from what I originally loved to do, which is cook.
“You just want to see that beautiful produce that gets delivered to your restaurant that morning, and create a menu item that … you’re excited about,” she said. “Because those squash blossoms just look so beautiful. That beautiful Genovese basil smells so aromatic that day.”
The new restaurant will free her from the corporate supply chain, allowing her to purchase meats and produce based on how they fulfill her culinary vision, rather than which works best for a hotel’s bottom line.
“Getting in touch with the animals and spending time at pig farms in Kansas with Patrick Martin, one of the originators of Slow Food, and spending time with the cows at the slaughterhouses — seeing the process from start to finish became so important to me. Because you realize how hard these farmers struggle, just like chefs struggle, to put a good product on the table.”
That love of quality will be reflected in Locale’s cuisine, which will move beyond stereotypical pastas with red sauce. “I’m definitely going to push the barriers a little more, using more offal (organ meats), eventually using more whole animals, having tripe on the menu, having inzimino (seafood stew) and some very rustic dishes that aren’t widely recognized.”
“I want people to know that Italian food isn’t always spaghetti pomodoro. It isn’t always pepperoni pizza. … We will have some approachable items available for families … but I also want to offer quite a few things for the foodies.” Brisson also hopes the move off-Strip will free her up to pursue other projects.
“I’ve always wanted to do things like write a book, and continue to open small businesses. And that now seems like so much more of a reality.”

“The more I went into those executive and director roles … the more I realized I was becoming so removed from what I originally loved to do, which is cook.” — Chef Nicole Brisson


TURNING THE TABLES! For independence and respect, women chefs go off-Strip

The migration of culinary talent from Las Vegas Boulevard to valley neighbor-hoods has been one of the biggest dining stories of the past few years. Hidden within that larger trend, however, is one that’s rarely

Chef Gina Marinelli of La Strega is shown at her restaurant at 3555 S, Town Center Drive on Monday, May 13, 2019. (Bill Hughes/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Chef Gina Marinelli of La Strega is shown at her restaurant at 3555 S, Town Center Drive on Monday, May 13, 2019. (Bill Hughes/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

mentioned: Some of the most important recent off-Strip restaurant openings have been helmed by women.
While the year is less than halfway over, and Locale has not arrived yet, Nicole Brisson’s project is certain to be a contender for biggest off-Strip opening of the year. One spot that undoubtedly will give it a run for its money, however, is La Strega. Eagerly expected in 2018, but delayed until February of this year, the Summerlin restaurant has become nearly impossible to dine at without a reservation. As Locale will, it serves Italian cuisine, and is run by a female Strip expatriate: D.O.C.G. veteran Gina Marinelli.
For further evidence of how important women have been to the off-Strip restaurant explosion, one need only look to Jamie Tran. After honing her skills in the French kitchens of Aureole and DB Brasserie, she quietly began serving her spin on family Vietnamese recipes at The Black Sheep in May of 2017. Within weeks it became one of the hottest restaurants in Las Vegas, landing on nearly every best-of list for the year.
Having three of the most important restaurants opening in roughly two years headed by women seems extraordinary — even in an expanding off-Strip dining scene — especially with so few women running major Strip kitchens.
“It’s sending a message to everyone,” Marinelli said. “This is not really a movement, but it’s kind of like our time. And it’s (important for) young girls who want to be a chef one day, or want to run their own business.”
All three have experienced biases that may explain the gender inequality in resort kitchens.
“In the hotel world, there are a lot of people who have been in their positions for a very long time,” explains Brisson. “It’s kind
of this old-school boy’s club.”
She recounts experiences walking through casino hallways with male chefs, and mostly being ignored by executives who enthusiastically greeted the men she accompanied.
“Sometimes you feel like you’re not even looked at or taken seriously. And it doesn’t help that I look quite a bit younger
than I am.”
Tran concurs. “On-Strip, when you hear about the headline chefs and everything, it’s always a male chef. I never had a female chef to look up to. The only person I looked up to, honestly, was
my mom — and she’s not even a chef.”
Throughout her career, when Tran walked into a new kitchen, people often assumed she was a pastry chef, one of the few positions where women regularly are represented. As someone whose desire in moving to Las Vegas was to break down racial and gender barriers, Tran came to realize the casino environment wasn’t going to give her what she sought.
“There’s a certain extent (to which) you’re not going to be satisfied. And I feel like for female chefs, more likely there are better opportunities to jump off-Strip to make your own name because I know they won’t get it on the Strip.”
Andy Hooper, who is a partner in both Locale and The Black Sheep, is thrilled that Brisson and Tran finally made that jump.
“They are two of the hardest-working chefs that I’ve ever known,” Hooper said. “Their talent and unyielding drive to break through that stigma (against women chefs) makes them even more talented and more able to be uber-successful in this male-dominated world that we live in.”
Brisson is hopeful that the success this generation of women is having in neighborhood establishments will help break down barriers on The Strip.
“Eventually, as women like Jamie and myself (and) Gina, kind of break into the scene a little bit more, then those corporate executives are dining at your restaurant. Then the tables kind of turn a little bit. It’s a different dynamic.”

“This is not really a movement, but it’s kind of like our time.” — Chef Gina Marinelli, La Strega

Chef Jamie Tran of The Black Sheep is shown at La Strega at 3555 S, Town Center Drive on Monday, May 13, 2019. (Bill Hughes/Las Vegas Review-Journal)
Chef Jamie Tran of The Black Sheep is shown at La Strega at 3555 S, Town Center Drive on Monday, May 13, 2019. (Bill Hughes/Las Vegas Review-Journal)

“For female chefs … there are better opportunities to jump off-Strip to make your own name because I know they won’t get it on the Strip.” — Chef Jamie Tran, The Black Sheep

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