Q&A: Shawn McClain
With Libertine Social ranking high on year-end “Best of” lists, Shawn McClain enters 2017 knowing his third Las Vegas culinary concept is a success. The Mandalay Bay restaurant reflects the tastes of fictional freewheeling bachelor “Kyle,” with expertly crafted cocktails conceived by mixology master Tony Abou-Ganim and a new spin on casual dining. The chef behind Aria’s Sage and Five50 Pizza Bar spoke with Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen the morning Vegas public radio station KNPR announced Libertine Social as Las Vegas’ Best New Restaurant.
I came by Libertine Social last night for bar-dining, planning to try the Scotch olives and a “Local Fare” dish. They brought out a Modern Fried Egg and it flipped the entire experience. I think I got Kyled. What’s the story of the Egg? It’s like molecular gastronomy meets bar food.
I would say—from a larger format, going back and setting a format, setting a canvas here of kind of, “what do we want to do?”—we really wanted to execute on straightforward ideas. We called it “New American Bar Food” in the beginning. We really wanted people to understand the food when they read it, yet when they got it have it a little bit different, or flipped upside down. Chef Jamal [Taherzadeh], who is our executive chef here, had an idea when we got together on the menu, and he said, “I’d love to work something into an egg and I’ve been thinking about these ideas.” So we kind of worked through the ideas. It is like a perfect little bite, but it’s an unexpected bite and I think it really captures a great essence, as you say, of making this a more in-depth experience that just a great beer and a great cocktail and some snacks. Coming from a culinary background and being in the business a long time, there’s a wealth of experience to bring to casual dining. To me it comes through in the ingredients and the execution of those dishes.
Were there other items that became breakout hits?
I think they’ve all had their little day. The churros, right off the bat. The Parmesan churros, the savory churros … a churro is a decadent dessert. So I think things like that and really trying to grab people by reintroducing a new look on food and not making it too complicated. The menu, we’re always striving forward and we’re always changing things. The Egg and a few things are probably not going to change, other than what’s in the Egg. We did corn in the summer, and (will) update that, whether it’s squash puree or something else seasonal. Our mantra is to over-deliver on really approachable food. That’s kind of how we approach each dish.
Your three restaurants in Chicago seemed to follow a natural progression with distinctly different directions. Did you mean for Libertine to a be West Coast contrast with Sage, which seems like it could fit in Chicago’s dining scene?
I think the story began with Mandalay Bay and understanding the space, understanding what Mandalay Bay needed. That’s where the story started and that’s where the creative spark came from. I think the social aspect and the West Coast stuff rather quickly evolved. The mixology and the bar program quickly attached itself to that creative idea early on, and then the rest just came organically. We knew from a social point, a price point, where we wanted to be. It was like, “How can we fit the best menu top fit that?” So when we have somebody coming in here for two people on a date, to have a really nice dining experience here or a group of 10 that can sit up front and have cocktails and pitchers of punch and just share a bunch of apps and flat breads. How can we please those all those palates, please all the situations. That drove a lot back into the programming of the space and understanding the different zones of the space, but the menu kind of had to fit everything, and so I think it was an organic process—definitely one I didn’t see when the process started, but just kind of evolved to that spot and got there.
Kind of like a film. You can’t be so attached to the original idea that you can’t adapt to make the end result is the best it can be. You have to flow with it.
I did not expect to see Tony behind the bar, or have him mix a Boulevardier for me, but we talked about the design of the bar. The bartender has sight lines like it’s a street scene, and the curved design both showcases the bartender for passers-by and creates more of a connection when they sit at the bar. Was that intentional?
Absolutely. Tony just had an idea of … when he’s at a bar he wants to see faces. He wants to see people interacting, and not just a line of 20 chairs with everybody’s backs to the space. He wanted as much of that design to create little pockets of interaction, and play upon a social thing and opening it up a little bit, and it really has worked.
The lounge is very inviting. It’s a different look than most restaurants, which is “this is for the diners.” When you walk by here it’s like “Come on in, check this out.”
Essentially. We started with the premise that we wanted the dining away (from the lounge), but to that effect we also wanted the kitchen to be incredibly visible and fire to be seen from the get-go, because that automatically changes the dynamic of the lounge, because the lounge isn’t just “Let’s go grab a drink.” The dynamic is expanded. There’s cooking going on. There’s action going on. It just kind of brings the energy up, and that was hugely important as well.
Libertine Social is a conceptual contrast from Sage, but was the design an extension of the different environments at Sage?
Sage, I think, was a reaction to a design. It’s a peculiar space, the way that it was built—a lounge; a real kind of brooding, dark entrance. If I could go back 10 years when they were designing Sage I would have opened up that front. I would love to have that more welcoming because I think in Vegas—whether it always has been or has grown to be—the more welcome, the more open, the more inviting, the less barrier to entry for people the better, both psychologically and … they didn’t really know they could step in, step up to the bar. And a lot of people come in and go, “I didn’t even know you had a dining room in the back here.” I’m like “Yeah, we have 200 seats back here.” That’s a big space.
I had been in Sage before but recently stopped in and realized I you could visit without discovering there was a back dining room. It does create a sense of different worlds within a restaurant.
At Sage, the nice thing too is we started concentrating on making the lounge different. Before the lounge was always pre-dinner—maybe a cocktail, maybe something at the bar. Now we’re driving music on the weekends, live music on the weekends, so we’re really creating a new energy center, a new destination place in the front of the restaurant, which is nice. And it’s a nice complement, so we can have both (music and dining) going on at the same time.
How soon after Sage did you start thinking of your next restaurant concept?
It’s different every time. It’s an organic process, and it just happens. I’ve never over-pushed or tried to force something in too early. That situation with Five50, we knew there was an opportunity that the property was interested in changing that sportsbook bar at the time, and we had gotten an inkling that they wanted pizza. So it was hearing that, capturing that: “OK, here’s an opportunity. If we were to do this, how would we do this?” And it really came about like that, a couple of meetings with the president with us saying, “We have an idea. We understand you love pizza, and there’s some great pizza places around and some great national places, but listen to us and how we would do it.” And we sold him on the idea and did a tasting, and got the space. It was an unusual circumstance, or bunch of circumstances, but I’ve always kind of followed that and just let that stuff lead me forward. The same thing happened here with an understanding there was an opportunity at Mandalay. … I love the creative part. I love putting all the pieces together. I love having a designer come in and blow your mind, taking your idea and moving into a whole new level. It was pretty amazing working with Rockwell Group to do Five550, for one of the best design firms to come do a pizza place (laughs).
Did you have ideas for Libertine before you made the LA trip with Tony and Alessandro Munge?
Yeah, we did, we did. It all kind of coincided and came down together, but we had the foundation of the concept and we had mood boards of a look and feel, all the programming, floor plan. And then we were given the green light, and there were some designers names that were floating around within MGM, and they had worked with Alessandro and were very fond of Alessandro. … We met and had great chemistry, and then we said, “This is our core. These are the moods. These are all the things we came up with. What does this space say to you?” He came back and gave a design presentation, and it was brand new to us, and it was brand new to MGM. We sat in a room, and it was a crowded boardroom. He was so enthusiastic, like he was 18 years old. He was just so outgoing: “This is the greatest thing, this is a story about Kyle,” and kind of formulated this thing and brought all those elements together. Just to feel that energy, you know how excited he was about it. This wasn’t just pen and papers and art. It was something close to his heart, something that he really felt. I had never seen design brought to life like that, almost three-dimensionally with that kind of passion and excitement. He was so psyched about it.
You met Tony because of Iron Chef, but did you get a chance to know him before the episode?
I had known Tony’s name obviously, in the industry. We had mutual friends but we had never had an opportunity to meet. When that came about we suggested we have a couple of sit-downs. We basically sat down and had Negronis at Sage and a couple of bites to eat, kind of went over philosophy and strategy, what we would do and how we’d approach it. His work was kind of all brand new, other than his reputation of how he worked and what kind of approach we would have, but other than that yeah we got thrown into the fire there. It was overwhelming. In retrospect you think you’re ok, when you’re in the moment you think everything is a disaster. Tony was this calm force, having fun. It really helped just bring us together. I think the chemistry was immediate. We had a great time. He put me at ease pretty quickly, and then once we got to judging. It was a long day. … He made it more fun for me in terms of having that whimsical, “Hey, we’re having cocktails here. We’re having fun with this.”
I saw a chef apologize for being temperamental on a documentary recently followed by footage of him barking at his staff. You seem to take a more philosophical approach.
Absolutely. It’s a culture that I think if I’m known for a few things I’m probably known for that throughout my career. Not that I haven’t had moments, more in my youth, of important times that just didn’t go your way and you express yourself a little bit louder.
It seems like you’re mindful about the manner that you approach your kitchen with, how it’s going to affect people. I don’t know if I want to be served food by a staff that’s on edge.
It’s a double-edged sword. I never understood that. … At the end of the day, the chef wants you to care. If you don’t and you’re negligent for no other reason than you’re not paying attention, then it’s really frustrating to people. I moved out here when they opened Aria. I moved out here when we did Five50. I just spent three months here when we did the opening. I want to know everybody’s name. I want to know who’s washing dishes. I want to know the stewards. I want to know the prep cooks. Everything’s going to change, and I’m going to lose track of people as the months and years move forward, but I say hello to everybody every day. I ask about them every day. It’s a personal thing to me and I grew up starting businesses that were basically family businesses in a way. You start a restaurant, and everybody that’s coming to work every day, they’re not getting paid a whole lot. You have to create something that makes them want to be there, want to get better, want to enjoy their profession. That to me has always been the base culture that we want to instill in people. People that don’t get it generally don’t last. People that can’t get along or have egos generally don’t last in my organizations and my kitchens.
Have you started thing about what you would do next, or where you would do it?
My home is Detroit now.
Why is that?
In-laws. So I moved there from Chicago, kind of snuck quietly out of Chicago some five years ago, and moved back and forth here (Vegas) a little bit, but I would love to do something. I think Detroit has a lot of great energy going on right now. It’s a fascinating city. It’s a great story. Not all of the city is doing well, but there’s a lot of renewed interest in bringing it back because at one point it was a tremendous city, and it was one of the top cities. Obviously the car industry drove a lot of that, then went though its challenges, but it’s stabilized and it’s come back. Manufacturing has changed and the dynamics of the economy had changed, but through some great business entrepreneurs a lot of money has flowed back downtown. The sports teams are doing well. There’s just a renewed spirit, and it’s really nice to be part of that.