Welcome back to Staff Spotlight: a monthly series where we’re digging deeper into the minds behind the magic. As our Culinary Director for B&BHG restaurants in Las Vegas, this Florida native knows a thing or two about running kitchens. And to think he didn’t know what ‘guanciale’ meant when he first started! Meet the man behind our Vegas magic, Chef Jason Neve.
Where are you from? Cape Canaveral, Florida.
When did you know you wanted to be a chef? I decided kind of young that I wanted to be a chef, or at least cook and be in food probably in high school. I started looking at culinary schools and went that route. I went to CIA and did the four year Bachelor’s program up in Hyde Park, New York (the original). My parents insisted that if I were to be a cook that I at least be educated, so that was good. Then I moved down to Manhattan after school and started working in the city. Eventually I hooked up with the Batali/Bastianich gang at Del Posto and helped open the restaurant. I was there for just a little over a year, from construction walls and cooking with no heat, to flooding in the basement when the river got too high… I think they’ve figured that part out by now! It was a fun time.
How did you end up in Las Vegas? A little after a year of being at Del Posto, Zach Allen, who was working with the cured meats at the time, approached me. He said that B&B was opening restaurants out in Vegas and he wanted to see if I was willing to go out there and help him. Zach was the first culinary director out here. I came out with no real title or anything, just to work.
You obviously worked your way up quickly? I was basically Zach’s right hand man when he was out here. I became chef de cuisine for B&B Ristorante right away, so I was really focused on that restaurant. I also worked with OTTO out here because the two of them are kind of connected. I handled all of the ordering and stuff like that. I had my hands full with those two restaurants, but I did help a little bit with the opening of Carnevino. I wasn’t in the major talks, but I always had my ear on the door and heard what was going on. It was interesting, just the commitment that was put into it as far as the meat program itself. When Zach stepped off to open in Hong Kong, I took over as culinary director.
Give me a run down of the restaurants you overlook. B&B Ristorante was first and opened in April 2007, so I’m going on seven years here. I definitely feel closest to B&B because I still think of it as the heart and soul of the true Batali & Bastianich experience. It’s the closest to the full on traditional menu and experience based after Babbo. It’s a rustic fine dining experience. If you just want to come in for a quick appetizer and bowl of pasta, that’s great. If you want the full blown tasting menu, we have two. So this one can really adapt to anybody.
OTTO, just like in New York, has that casual enoteca, wine bar feeling. People come in for a quick bite and end up sitting for hours just to enjoy the wonderful sky in St. Marks Square, as fluorescent as it is. It’s a very relaxed, good time.
Carnevino, of course, is the first steak house for the company. There are great dry aged steaks. You can open a steak house and cook potatoes, spinach and steak and you’ll make money. But to go out and do the research we did and to find the right meat purveyors and a warehouse to dry age that meat was a huge step in making it what it is today.
Burger and Beer was just opened in December 2013. Again, a new concept for the company with lots of tv’s and tasty beer, great sliders and burgers. It’s still down with the Mario philosophy in that we find the best ingredients and don’t mess around with them too much. We make everything from scratch except for the breads, which we get from a local bakery fresh daily. We also buy Heinz because everybody loves Heinz ketchup. Everything else for the most part we make; our mayo, our dressings, sauces, we grind our own meat and trim everything out by hand.
Were you always interested in whole animal butchery? I think my butchery training came from a combination of everything. You go to school and you learn the basics, as long as you pay attention, and you can remember them. You learn how to grind meat or trim this or cut that, but then it’s just time and experience. Learning on your own and making mistakes is why I know a lot of the stuff that I do. As far as butchering with B&B, we do full pigs and whole lambs. Lamb prices are shooting through the roof, so let’s see what we can do with a whole lamb and break one down a couple times until we can figure out what to do with it.
Executive Chef Nicole Brisson at Carnevino does an amazing job running the meat program there. We’re talking about one of the busiest steak houses in town, written about as having the best steaks and a reputable meat program. Most of this falls on her shoulders and she’s been trained really well. Her background is definitely more star studded than mine for sure!
How often do you work directly with Mario? I worked with Mario directly during the opening of Del Posto. He was literally there every single day for the first couple of months. When we first opened, just doing menu testing before even guests or anything like that, it was intimidating. They literally gave us a menu and said, “here.. go make this.” I was one of the two or three that wasn’t from the gang already. Everybody else was a sous chef at Lupa or Otto, or a lead line cook somewhere else that had been brought in specifically for the opening. I was from the outside. I didn’t know what gaunciale was or all these Italian terms, so there was a lot to learn. Mario says to go make it and you make it. Then he says we’re going to taste it and you walk up to a table of Joe Bastianich, Lydia Bastianich, Mark Ladner and Mario Batali sitting down to taste your food. You’re next to someone like Zach and other longtime Batali team members and it was really fun. I learned a lot from that.
Do you like the mentoring aspect of your job? The mentor role can be challenging and I’m still trying to fit into it and figure it out. I still want to be a line cook just banging out food, you know? I think every chef still wants that as you grow up and become more. As you take on more stuff you kind of shift a little bit away from the food. Everybody says that and knows it, but actually doing it is kind of painful sometimes. You don’t want to give it up.
Why do you think B&BHG is so successful in Vegas? I think the success of B&BHG in Vegas has a lot to do with Mario having trust in his staff. He’s about finding the right people in the right positions and letting them do their jobs. He’s definitely watching over everything and we’re in communication all the time, making sure everything is going in the direction that he wants it to go. It’s the Mario and Joe philosophy to know that their employees need to grow with the company. Mario lets us have some autonomy over stuff to make things happen so that we can make effective change quickly out here. If something isn’t working, we fix it, we find a solution and we fill Mario in on it.
How is the Vegas clientele different from NYC’s? New York is great because it is such a huge food city, mostly because nobody really cooks there. You live there, your kitchen is tiny and you go out all the time. You get people going to Babbo every week or any of Mario’s restaurants there. It just has that standard base clientele of regulars that are coming back all the time. In Vegas, people are here for a total of two or three days and then they’re gone and you have a completely different clientele. There are thousands of new people that fly in and you get them from everywhere. You’ve got business professionals, you’ve got people on vacation and a lot of international travelers that come here as a destination. So you really have to have a broad range of what you can do and how you can make everybody happy. It’s not like it is in New York, where people know the hottest restaurants or the next biggest thing. Here you have people that may have never even heard of Mario or Joe coming into our restaurant simply because it’s Italian.
You have a big life change coming up!! A big change coming up in June indeed. Heather, my wife, and I have a kid on the way so that’ll be different and I’m excited. We met toward the end of culinary school; she went to the baking and pastry program at CIA and we met during the Bachelor’s program. We’ve been together ever since and somehow I managed to drag her out here. At one point she did work for us at Carnevino as a pastry sous chef. Zach was then looking for an assistant and she knew a lot about food and how the restaurants worked and it was a good match. Just by default, when I took over as culinary director she became my assistant!
Have you organized your baby/work schedule yet? My schedule is the big unknown. I’d like to try and hammer it down and get it a little more consistent, but it’s a restaurant and schedules fluctuate all the time. Right now it’s ten to twelve hours a day, six days a week for the most part.
Advice for young chefs? It takes commitment and time, and time is the thing that I think a lot of younger cooks aren’t putting in right now. When people see talent, they want to be able to move talent up, but sometimes there just physically isn’t the space. You may have to wait that year or two until the next big project comes along. Eventually for those that stick it out, which I have done for quite a while now, it pays off.
Do you gamble? I do not. I’m down about one hundred bucks in the seven years I’ve been out here. I work too hard to make this money, I’m not going to give it back to Vegas!
Where is your happy place? Outside where it is quiet and still. Working here, the casinos are always dark and you don’t know what time of day it is or what it looks like outside. So when I have time off, I go somewhere like Red Rock or a national park. It’s only thirty minutes away from here and you don’t feel like you’re in Vegas at all.