Q&A: Ronnie Rainwater
When Ronnie Rainwater visited Las Vegas 20 years ago, he walked past newly opened Delmonico’s Steakhouse and made a career-altering decision—to put his hat in the ring for a chance to work with celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse. Although he nearly walked out within the first 24 hours, he did some soul-searching and made a commitment to challenge himself, his character and his culinary skills. After 20 years of working his way up through the ranks in Lagasse’s empire and now as chef de cuisine, and talked with Las Vegas Magazine’s Elaine and Scott Harris about his career with Emeril’s organization and the changes he has seen as he celebrates his milestone.
As a chef, there is a natural assumption that you have always had a tremendous love of food and a natural curiosity towards all things culinary. Was that always true for you? Or was it something that was cultivated in your life and then expanded?
My Grandmother was a great southern cook. I was always around her in the kitchen at home. On the opposite side, I really loved to eat so I went out. I was intrigued on how the food got to the table and where it came from.
What was your first culinary “aha!” moment, when you decided to pursue a career as a chef?
I watched Emeril on The Food Network as it was just getting started. I started dining out more and saw on The Food Network there was a whole different side of the food world. Seeing these chefs that have been in the kitchen for decades and how they ran their kitchen was intriguing to me.
What brought you through the doors of the Emeril Lagasse organization?
I got this job by accident. I was on a trip from California. At the time I was working at the Playboy Mansion. The Venetian had just opened, and it was one of the only restaurants open at the time. I stopped in to look at the restaurant and my wife suggested I fill out an application. The Chef came out to talk with me and offered me the job right then and there. A week later I was living in Vegas. I was working the line, it was so much different than I was used to at the Playboy Mansion. After service I looked in the mirror and thought, I just made the biggest mistake of my life. I will never be able to keep up, then I said to myself, you just moved, I must make this work. I moved my whole life out here. Within a year I was promoted to Sous Chef. Now, 20 years later, I am still trying to figure out if I can do it.
Behind every great master in the hospitality industry there stand many teachers and mentors. For Chef Emeril Lagasse, the late Ella Brennan, Grand Dame of haute Louisiana Creole Cuisine and proprietor of Commander’s Palace, played a pivotal role in his development as a chef. What mentors have propelled your culinary career and what is the most important advice that you have received from Emeril?
Unfortunately, I never had the chance to meet her, but I have a big sense of what we do stems from Emeril’s time with her. There are parts of our service that we use today that has carried on, that’s where it all started. The feeling is there, and we are still carrying that torch. My Grandmother inspired me. Her attention to detail and wanting to create a dish that will leave a lasting memory. Emeril gives me allot of creative freedom with what I am going here. When I want to buy truffles, I buy truffles.
What do you think are some of the key ingredients to Delmonico’s ongoing success?
If you look at the stats (a great majority of restaurants close within the first year), I shouldn’t be here, Delmonico shouldn’t be here. I have been here 20 years and we have staff that have been here that long as well. It’s a tribute to the people and the organization.
You have been in the Emeril organization for many years in Las Vegas. What are some of the greatest changes have you seen at Delmonico’s as far as culinary trends and guest’s tastes?
When you are around for 20 years, some things change. We haven’t changed our philosophy of food, service, and the way we do things. But the way we present that is very different now, even from just 5 years ago. The bar program today is big, making hand crafted cocktails with fresh ingredients is what guests expect. Tableside service has always been around, but now it’s tableside salads, tableside steak presentation as well as tableside cocktails.
Twenty years of menu creation while continuing to be at the forefront of the hospitality industry is a feat to be celebrated. What menu items have stood the test of time and continue to be sought after by the guests?
Yes, Emeril’s BBQ shrimp, truffle Parmesan chips, the tableside Caesar and the chateaubriand has been here from Day One, of course with some subtle tweaks. Dry-aging beef is a trend these days but we have been dry-aging USDA prime beef here from day one.
What are some of the things in the Las Vegas culinary world that excite you?
Off the Strip dining is exciting. That’s one of the biggest things I have seen from 20 years ago to now. Knowing how tough the business is, I have a tremendous amount of respect for those who have taken that leap.
The culinary arts sound so lovely, but it is an arena that is filled with a great deal of hard work, long hours, and repetitive tasks. What advice do you give to newcomers that enter the ranks of this demanding profession?
Nothing worthwhile comes easy anywhere. Success doesn’t come right way; it takes hard work and passion.
After these many years as a professional chef, what inspires you and continues to fuel your culinary passion?
Time off, which is rare. I am a parent, when I do travel, I travel to cities where I can dine and expose my kids to different kinds of food. The dining part which is what I did first to inspire me as a chef, it sparks me and keeps things refreshed in my mind.