Chef Julian Serrano has had a long and highly decorated career. He put Las Vegas on the culinary map with Picasso at the Bellagio and Julian Serrano at ARIA, and has picked up two James Beard Foundation awards along the way. Serrano visits the Shanghai branch of his Italian restaurant LAGO in the Bellagio Shanghai twice a year. We caught up with him on a recent visit to see how the restaurant has evolved after a year of operations.
A lot of big name chefs have come to Shanghai with varying degrees of success. What was your strategy?
The strategy has been not to have one, because you don’t know what will happen in a new place. You have to take a chance, be consistent and pay attention to what local diners want. Doing well in Las Vegas doesn’t mean doing well here. The moment that you begin to think like that, you fail. You can be a successful wide receiver with the San Francisco 49ers, then move to the Los Angeles Rams and suck. Different cultures and mentalities mean different things.
How have you evolved based on the customer feedback at LAGO?
Well, the five-course gastronomic menus were not in the plan originally; I wanted to do simple Italian food. But we get lots of couples in for romantic dinners and young people, and they want tasting menus. I also started to see that people expected higher presentation for the food photos, versus in Las Vegas. When the food arrives at the table, people in Vegas just eat it – no photo shoots.
What have been the challenges since LAGO opened?
Shanghai and other big cities are really hard to figure out. In Las Vegas, you open a restaurant and everyone knows about it and they come. Here, you spend tons of money on PR and the restaurants open so fast around you that you are old news within five months.
“When the food arrives at the table, people in Vegas just eat it – no photo shoots.”
Another big problem is getting used to the produce. I have dishes that I do with potatoes that I can’t cook here. The potatoes are too starchy and don’t get crispy. On this visit, I wanted ratatouille stuffed in patty pan squash. We couldn’t find the squash, so I couldn’t do it. Although there are lots of challenges, I don’t mind having an open mind and making the best of it.
Have you had a chance to sample the local cuisine?
Well, when I come here I don’t leave the hotel because I come here to work. I did learn about Shanghai hairy crab on this trip though. A friend of mine from Hong Kong gifted me a box of 12 hairy crabs, and I had no idea what do with them. I only cooked it for two minutes and they were terrible. Then we went to a restaurant and it was incredible. The crab was cooked longer and marinated in rice wine.
Your restaurants are so beautiful. How do you keep people focused on the food when the setting is so overwhelming?
To have a good restaurant you have to have what I call the whole package. That means a good view, good food, good wine, good service and good location. Fifty years ago, if you had good food you could get away with a bad location, but now people don’t always go too far for the food.
I have a friend in San Francisco who is a big lawyer. He and his wife go out for dinner four times a week, and they eat the same thing everywhere. She has salmon and he has chicken. But he likes talking with the manager and the maître d’. It’s not about the food, but the whole package.
Fortunately for me, all my restaurants have a good location, good food, good everything. Take Picasso, where we have 180 million dollars in paintings hanging on the walls, plus the view and the food. Even with these advantages, you have to be consistent because customers have a lot of choices.
[Cover image courtesy of Bellagio Shanghai]