Q&A: Harvest's Roy Ellamar
Roy Ellamar quickly rose through the ranks of the kitchens of Las Vegas to become one of the Strip’s foremost proponents of farm-to-table cuisine. After making his mark at MGM Grand’s L’Atelier de Robuchon and Sensi at Bellagio he had the opportunity to reimagine the latter restaurant as Harvest by Roy Ellamar, which celebrates its first anniversary this month. Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen sat with Ellamar in the chef’s dining room to look back at Harvest’s first year, his career and the future of farm-to-table culture.
You’re installing brand new aeroponic grow towers today.
We’ve been trying to get these towers installed for a while now. We had them at (MGM Resorts International Chairman and CEO) Jim Murren’s office, and that was pretty successful from the spring through the summer. We got to harvest a little bit of produce out of it sort of as a test to see how it works and how the whole logistics are of operating it. It’s kind of cool. It’s a bit of a novelty for now, and then we’ll see how we can expand upon it to see if we can actually use it as part of the restaurant.
What can it produce?
It can grow just about everything that can be grown hydroponically, so we can grow lettuces, herbs, tomatoes. Nightshades like eggplants can come out of there, bell peppers. It’s pretty cool.
So I can get one of these and put it outside of my house?
You could, you could. I’ve seen guys have them outside their house. I was watching this episode of Tanked and they were setting up all these aeroponics around their house and it was very cool.
When did you first hear about it?
A couple of years ago when it first came out, I guess. I was always trying to figure a way to somehow use it for the restaurant when we rebranded, and I talked to our horticulture guy and he was also looking into it as well, so he purchased a bunch of them and now we’re ready to put it in.
Do you stay informed on farm-to-table technology?
Yeah, well here in the desert we’re limited to what we can grow. The things that we can grow here, a lot of the future is going to be in hydroponics and aeroponics and things like that. It’s just a little easier for the people to grow that way, so there’s a big company that’s starting up soon that will be ready in the spring. They’re doing a whole hydroponic set-up, indoor growing facility, so I think for us that’s a big part of the future. Not just for us as a restaurant, but us as a people. That’s going to be a big trend in the future, growing that way. The use of resources is less. There’s less of an impact on the land, less of an impact on water.
Are you literally going to pick with diners watching?
Oh yeah, for sure. What I wanted to do was use these carts, these towers, because they have wheels on them, yeah? So I wanted to be able to push it tableside and cut the lettuces and make a salad off of it. That would be awesome but there’s a lot of logistics, health department issues, stuff like that. You can’t just push it to the table and start cutting off lettuce and serving someone.
It’s been a nearly a year since Harvest opened. Do you feel confident and happy with how things turned out?
Yeah. The first year was finding ourselves and figuring out our identity, understanding the space and how it’s going to work, understanding our guests and clientele. Now next year is going to be focused on cementing the concept and supporting the concept, and doing more things to drive that concept. That’s the areas we’ll be looking at this year as we move forward. Having the grow towers, that’s important. What else can we do to drive farm to table? Of course we’re in the desert but what can we do, who can we work with, who can we partner with to really solidify and legitimize the concept?
You list farms you work with on the menu. Are these relationships you formed over the years in Vegas or were they specifically chosen for Harvest and this menu?
There’s different ways. Some of the people I’ve had relationships with for years like Rodney and his wife Christine at Blue Lizard Farm in Caliente. I’ve been working with them for years. They were going to lose their farm last year and we didn’t want that to happen, and we were sort of able to sponsor them and commit to buying everything they grow and help them to build more hoop houses on their property. They’re poised to become one of the largest employers in their little town of Caliente up in Lincoln County. Relationships, yes, that’s very important—knowing the people and having those relationships with the people that grow the food and harvest it for us. Other times it’s going to the farmers’ markets, meeting people, meeting the farmers, understanding what they grow and how they can get those products to us in the restaurant.
So a year into this, with you being able to really apply your attitudes and philosophy, do you see this restaurant as part of a direct lineage to your heritage and culture back on the Big Island?
I think so. I’m glad you brought that up because that’s another area of focus that I want to shine a light on next year, is bring more of that heritage, as you say, of my background from Hawaii and really infusing that more into the food, and making it even more personal with that, with my cultural heritage being shown in the food. Some of those things show up now in certain recipes, in certain ingredients that I choose, but I’d like to make that a little more pronounced as we move forward next year. I would say yet it could be directly linked or correlated to my upbringing or my heritage. Growing up with my family in Hawaii, we always knew where out food was coming from. We always knew who cut the fish or who brought us this pork, or we had killed it ourselves. There’s already a lot that’s been said about that, but it’s important to me because that’s the way I grew up.
Your community has a tradition of being outdoors and sees itself as hunters and fishermen.
And sustainable people.
Do you feel like you were sourcing food as a lifestyle?
Absolutely. Way back when I was starting to cook I thought if I could ever had my restaurant it would be focused on that, knowing where the food came from and celebrating the people.
Do you think it’s different for a chef to see animals being raised and used, like you were around your grandparents’ pigs and chickens, versus never having that experience while being educated as a chef?
I think so. There’s a lot of cooks now that have never killed an animal. … They don’t know how to dispatch a live fish or things like that. Or seeing things grown in the ground. I took them up to a farm once, some of the cooks, and they were like “Wow! That’s what asparagus looks like, huh? That’s what a fig looks like on a tree.” It’s important, right? You’ve got to know what food looks like before it comes into your kitchen and where it comes from, you know? All those things. It just helps you to understand what to do with it, and that’s what we do here. I don’t like to do too much to it. I don’t like to over-manipulate the food, and I know a lot of chefs say that now, you know, let the ingredients speak for themselves. But it’s true, I really don’t like to do too much to it. I try to keep it as simple as possible and use some technique, but I don’t like to introduce crazy flavors or stuff like that.
You wanted to be a pro BMX rider at one point and you were looking at being an electrician.
(Laughs) Yeah, all kinds of crazy things.
Everybody does that, but when you got into cooking you found it was a good fit for you. Can you recall when you realized cooking had become a passion?
I think that feeling has come and gone over the years. I think a lot of people deal with doubt: is this the right career choice, is this really what I want to do, what I was meant to do? But I think when I moved to Vegas … I was on the career path already before I got to Vegas and I worked at some good restaurants and places, but there was always that thought of “Maybe I can do something else. You know, when I moved to Vegas I originally wanted to be a bartender. That was 2007. I thought I’d go work at L’Atalier Robuchon and figure out how to become a bartender, because my friends were all working at Robuchon and told me to come to Vegas and work there.
So you were going to go from being a chef de partie to being a bartender, where the big bucks are?
Yeah (laughs). Then I realized that, man, it’s going to take too much time and you’ve got to start from the bottom. I’d have to restart my whole life.
What brought you to Vegas in the first place?
The offer to work there, and also the cost of living was so good here.
How did you get the offer?
I came out and tried out, and then Chef said, “OK, come back.”
I think you’ve said before that your passion was at a low point at that time.
It got totally reignited.
How did that happen?
Everybody that was there, my friends included, we had worked together in the past. Everybody that was there that were peers were all pushing for something. That was early on in Robuchon years. That was year two of Robuchon. Everybody who worked there had a purpose for being there, and I think that kind of being in that environment was like “Oh, man. This is highly competitive first of all, and everybody is on a mission to become something great.” And they all have.
You rose pretty quickly in a few years. Did you feel like you were on a fast track or were you too in-the-moment at the time to be aware of that?
I think I was in the moment at the time. Maybe luck had something to do with it. But, you know, right place right time, and this opportunity came up. I was able to form great relationships with everyone here and that’s how the opportunities happened, I guess. Of course, hard work and proving yourself, but yeah I look back at that time there at Robuchon L’Atelier and really everybody was pushing so hard. One of my friends, now he’s a two-star Michelin chef, who was there. He just took over (È Tutto) Qua in San Francisco. Everybody has gone on to do so many amazing things, so it was really an incubator of amazing talent that was there.
Were your impressions of Vegas like what you found when you got here? There’s a big Hawaiian community, so Hawaiians already know what the score is in Vegas, but for you personally what were your impressions when you got here?
When I first got here, yes I was impressed by how much Hawaiian [presence] was here. I mean I knew that everyone came to Vegas, but I never came to Vegas until I lived here. I came here once in 2005 or so and I didn’t like it. I came to look for a job. I was maybe going to work at the Wynn with Alex Strata, and I didn’t like this town at all. I was in Chicago at the time. Chicago’s a real city. You’re walking everywhere, and there’s culture and all that, and when I came here I didn’t like it. The second time I came was 2006 or so and I had a better time. I realized how many Hawaiian people were here and I was like “This is pretty cool.” And now I almost feel like … not that I don’t miss home, but there is so much local people here that you could really be yourself.
If you’re cognizant you can find a place here that reminds you of home. There’s people here from everywhere forming their own little …
Yeah, there is, and if you look … I mean here, [Hawaiian] Pidgin is the second language (laughs).
So how did Harvest come about? Do you remember when it was first suggested to you?
Probably a year and a half ago when our food and beverage vice-president came to me and asked—they were going to redo the restaurant—“What is it that you would want to do?” It sort of snowballed into this, and our chairman Jim Murren was very onboard when we presented it to him. Sustainability is a huge part of our company and his personal agenda, to make sure our company is doing the right thing all the time. This concept really resonated with him. He really enjoys it. He said several times that this is his most favorite restaurant in the company.
When you knew you got the green light what was going on in your head? Did the wheels just start spinning out of control thinking about what you wanted to do?
What I wanted to do, how we were going to do it, what is the big story going to be, and all those things.
Did you always have an idea of what you wanted to do with your own restaurant concept or did it take this to make you see a vision? There’s some design change here, but you still have the glass-walled kitchen (designed for Sensi).
The restaurant and the kitchen and the bones of it were always a great restaurant. The ending year of Sensi, probably the last year of Sensi, I was already starting to move in this direction and so it really turned out to be a natural progression for the restaurant.
Some things have changed that were part of the initial concept.
Yeah, the snackwagon we just have in the lounge now, and the dessert wagon as well, the sweet wagon. Part of the evolution of the restaurant is understanding what it is that’s important and taking away the things that are not as important to supporting the concept. The wagon was cool and it garnered some attention, but could we offer a better experience and focus on the farm-to-table in the dining room? Absolutely.
There was a brief period a while before you opened Harvest when there was a little bit of a backlash against farm-to-table, some inevitable cynicism. By the time you opened that had faded, but what was your impression of that?
Yeah, you’re right. There was some cynicism. I think it’s still there in some regard. I think as chefs we should always try and source the best ingredients possible, and if you’re able to talk about the people who grow it for you, you should.
Do you do that?
For those that are interested. In Vegas we have a very mixed clientele. Some people care and some people don’t care. Some people just want to eat their food and be left alone. We gauge that with the server. The server gauges that to see what level of service they want with the restaurant, with the concept, and then we go from there. There was a couple here from Louisville, Kentucky here the other night and they have a restaurant in their town, and it’s called Harvest, and they wanted to talk about it and see if we’re somehow related to them. Of course we’re not, but they were very intrigued by the restaurant and the concept, and they wanted to know more about it. For those people, absolutely we’ll go outside [of the kitchen] and talk to them and their experience.
You set about putting together your menu, you’re in the desert and you’re trying to source foods. What was that process like?
I had a preconceived idea of what the menu was going to look like, because like I said it was sort of a natural progression from Sensi to where we are now. I kind of knew what steps to take in order to write the menus. One of the key things is sitting down with our guys, like Rodney from Blue Lizard, and planning out the next grow season and what’s going to come out of the ground – really having that personal relationship with a farmer to see what can grow and what we can harvest regularly to feature on the menu.
Yeah, that’s a better question: How do the farms you’re working with affect your menu?
It goes both ways. You can tell someone to grow something but either they can or they can’t. Sometimes nature is tricky. You cannot just throw something in the ground and make it work. Some things they can do, some things they can’t do. If I want to make something with a particular ingredient I have to go to that particular person that grows it. We also work with Kerry Clasby, who is a big proponent of the two farmers markets. She runs both farmers markets here and she forages ingredients, her team, for us from different farms in California to bring them out here, and so yeah it goes both ways. I have one guy in Sandy Valley growing carrots for me, and then a whole family of rabbits came in and wiped the whole thing out. What are you going to do, you know? There’s some things you can control and a lot that you can’t when you’re dealing with concepts like this. You have to be very flexible and very nimble in making changes to the menu, which is good because we print menu in house, so we know something here today may not be here tomorrow. Sometimes guests appreciate that and sometimes they don’t. Hopefully they understand that’s part of nature. We’re not going to have a static menu item all the time. Right now you look around the room and you see tomatoes. Why are there tomatoes? It’s November. But Brian Andy, who is right over in Pahrump, grows tomatoes and he can bring me 200 pounds every day.
Is this the first restaurant that you actually displayed food that you were going to use?
Why wouldn’t I use it, you know? Somebody was asking me the other day: “Why do you have tomatoes? It’s November.” Well if they’re growing 40 minutes from here, why wouldn’t I use it?
Do you have special challenges when it comes to sourcing the “Ocean” items?
We work with several fish companies. One of them is called Sea to Table, and they work with 70 different docks around the country. We’re getting ready to do a fish-of-the-day again. We did that last winter when we didn’t hand long-season fish like salmon and halibut. When we move into these winter months we’ll start sourcing from all these different docks around the country and we’ll have a different fish every day. It was really cool last year because the cooks got to see fish that normally you don’t see on menus all the time, like Golden Tilefish, one of my favorites. We were getting different sorts of snappers, vermilions and lane snappers. Docks out of the Gulf we were getting triggerfish out of, which is a real pain in the ass to clean by the way (laughs). That was real hard, but yeah as far as fish goes, fish is an important part of the concept as well. We need to make sure we’re using responsibly sourced fish, sustainably caught, and make sure what they’re doing is the right thing.
As far as your approach to the kitchen and working with the staff, you have a mentor/learning kind of philosophy. Were you able to fully implement that with this restaurant or had you been able to put that into practice before at Sensi?
When I was at Sensi that was something that I had started doing, teaching the staff.
I have a feeling you don’t have a big turnover rate.
I don’t, but you know I feel very proud of the people who have left and have gone on to become sous chefs and executive chefs. It feels good. Part of it makes me feel old (laughs), but it’s cool to see. One of my old cooks came by last night, He’s a sous chef over at Della’s [Kitchen], which is also a farm-to-table restaurant over at Delano, and he came in last night for dinner. It’s cool to see these guys come back and see how they’ve grown, and see how they’ve come up. Part of that is because of me, I guess, and the environment that I helped create for them.
Do you think that’s also from coming up in Hawaii? Is aloha spirit part of that environment, kind of like a family thing?
Oh, absolutely. One hundred percent, because this is the way I was raised, that spirit of aloha and always wanting to share knowledge with people, and I think that’s the environment that we create in the kitchen.
You had no idea your son Tayden was going to follow you here to Vegas when you first arrived here, right?
No. He’s at Robuchon. I didn’t even know he wanted to be a cook. He was interested in food and he was interested in restaurants of course, growing up in them. He went, for a year, for electrical engineering then he called me up and said he wanted to try culinary. I was kind of shocked. That was 2010, going on ’11 I think it was, and so I thought that was very, very cool. We’ve gotten to do a lot of cool things because of our shared interest.