Q&A: Timon Balloo
For executive chef Timon Balloo of Sugarcane Raw Bar Grill at The Venetian, bringing the energy and the vibe of the Miami original to Vegas has been an ongoing process. During the year, Balloo introduced his dynamic cuisine, tweaking it where needed, and the restaurant changed its facade. He also opened a Brooklyn restaurant and competed in Iron Chef Showdown. Recently, Balloo dished to Las Vegas Magazine’s Nina King about changes, life and what’s on the plate for the coming year.
Last year, you opened Sugarcane. What type of triumphs and challenges did the restaurant have during the year?
… The Las Vegas culture has been a learning curve in a way. A lot of the food that I cook, and my style of cooking, is definitely strong avant garde and culinary-destination-style dining, and we’ve really had to learn how to mainstream our flavors, and that’s been extremely challenging… there’s a lot of energy and soul behind what we do. We alter and find a different way to deliver it. It’s been interesting. Good, positive, but interesting.
What do you see happening this year?
…We’ve made some changes to décor and opened the facade, opened ourselves to the walkway, made ourselves more visible. Actually, I’m very hopeful and really excited, honestly, not just for the restaurant, but for the hotel property. I know there’s been a strong push of modernizing … the brands and anchors that are affiliated here. That’s really exciting to see because brands like Black Tap, The Dorsey, Rosina, that’s on the same lines and levels of energy as we operate in our Brooklyn unit, in our Miami unit. … we share a lot of the same ideology. We love things like overloaded sundaes, oozing off the side, and gluttonous burgers, ’cause those are the types of things we do, in a different aspect— soulfulness and an indulgent-style flavor profile. You’ll see that with our Fat Boy hash and brunch, or duck and waffles, things that make you want to lick your fingers and eat with your fingers, and have that indulgence.
One thing we’re going to do is we’re going to incorporate a higher-energy nightlife component. So we’re looking at local artists and DJs and we’re going to bring someone in Thursday, Friday, Saturday and kind of shift and bring what people love about Miami, that energy, soulfulness, that vibrance. … We came to Vegas and we weren’t partying like we party in Miami and it’s like, we may as well do what we do. People are coming to Vegas to do that, so why are we holding back? Let it all out. I’m excited to let it all out.
Speaking a little farther in the future, what type of projects do you envision?
… I want to do more national and political stuff and have more of an impact on food policy and really use the size of my brand for that global voice. Whether it’s food consumption, sourcing, waste, it’s really trying to define how I can better strategize my brand into those platforms, those policies and topics. That’s really important.
Do you have any causes you particularly support?
I’ve been the chef chair for South Florida’s Taste of the Nation No Kid Hungry, for the past three years now. I’ve been participant and co-chair for the event more than five years now… It’s very important for us to recruit and hire from the community; to better the community we are in and give back.
What influenced you most in terms of your career?
As a kid growing up, I used to watch a guy called Martin Yan in Yan Can Cook, so he was like an idol or a magician and I was always in awe of what I thought a chef could do. I actually started my career going into finance, working for Smith Barneys and a brokerage firm and interning.. I thought I was going to end up on Wall Street until I was miserable and just left. Long story short, got into the restaurant business, thought, “Let me try it out, and if I fail, I can go back to finance content, and I never went back to finance.” What inspired me in that sense is Martin Yan. There are definitely many levels of mentors, many experiences that dictate the outcome. It was something I was willing to do for free, I was engaged and passionate about—I was doing it for free, back then we staged for free, you had to give your life away for the cause, but we were more than content to do. That was a defining part.
You live in Miami? What types of things do you do there in your off-time?
I live in Fort Lauderdale (north of Miami). In Miami, my off time is definitely spending time with my kids—I’m father to two kids, it’s extremely important. We … visit farmer friends picking strawberries, do bike rides for sure; we’re always riding bikes. And that’s pretty much it. I just purchased a home and I’m trying to do DIY; pretty unsuccessful at that, because YouTube videos don’t do it justice as to how easy or hard it is. That’s the hobby right now.
When you’re out here in Vegas, what do you do?
… I spend most of my spare time on Spring Mountain because being … raised in San Francisco Bay Area, there’s a strong Asian influence there. Going to Florida, there’s no Chinatown there, so we find our one-offs. But coming to Las Vegas is like the jackpot motherlode. Some of my chef friends are the chefs on the Strip, but I’m spending a lot of my time either here, or on Spring Mountain, and on Fremont. … I like to see the one-offs and operator-driven (businesses), because I know the true art form will come from that, and it dictates corporate structure. I want to see what that organic Vegas culture’s about, and how things hybrid and fuse; that’s what I get excited about.
I think we all like it when a chef opens a new restaurant.
That fuels me more than anything. This restaurant is supposed to be a small restaurant on a big platform, but my partners keep adding more seats onto me. Brooklyn is like 300 seats…The ideology behind it is, I want it to be a canvas for all the young talent passing through and it’s very important to me we maintain that. Right now, I’m very excited about our cocktail program. The mixologists we have behind the bar … are super-awesome, they’re going to rival the Dorsey and all these other guys. It’s soulful when you can create a canvas and a platform for these artists—who share your craft—to be able to express themselves.
Let’s talk about your stint on Iron Chef Showdown in the Bar Food Battle.
It’s so weird. The secret ingredient wasn’t bar food. The initial challenge was chicken wings. How do I cook a chicken wing? You can either make it really cheffy, or do a good old Buffalo chicken wing—and I think every chef doesn’t really want to do a Buffalo chicken wing. I just went with one of my favorite ways that I like chicken, and that’s very much robatayaki, Japanese-style. You can go into a robatayaki and have chicken cooked so many ways, whether it’s gizzard, skin, cartiledge; so how do I embody that process? …I’ve been invited to go on a lot of TV shows, but I always declined, because I wanted to go on Iron Chef, but they stopped the season in 2012. So I was like, if I go on the show, I’ve got to display myself great. I can’t come up short and do Mickey Mouse food, I thought about that. And what really encompassed my winning the dish was the texture…it was enough to take the win and go on to battle Alex Guarnaschelli in shrimp…
Are there any favorite restaurants in Las Vegas?
I love Monta for ramen, Dragon Tea for boba tea and Jose Andres’ Jaleo. I always go to a Hawaiian barbecue when I’m in town, whatever’s closest. And Makers and Finders. Last night, I was eating tacos off a food truck. After many years of cooking refined, French nouvelle cuisine, not that’s not embodied in our brigade system in the kitchen, but we really try to embody what do cooks go eat after work? And that indulgent flavor profile, we try to translate that into our food that we produce. That’s kind of our ethos, that’s what it is.
If you were to advise visitors to try just one dish at Sugarcane in Las Vegas, what would it be?
It’s the bone marrow with the beef cheek marmalade. It’s so monumental, with what beef bones represent, it was given to the peasants what was left over. How do you make beef marrow a meal? I use the bone and the cheek, and it embodies using the tail, the whole animal— there’s a lot of romance behind that flavor profile.