Culinary Connection

by Robin Leach

They have become the powerhouse couple of the Las Vegas culinary scene — and from their Vegas headquarters, they rule a far-flung empire of 10 eateries stretching from New York’s famed Rainbow Room, to Vancouver’s new Parq Hotel. Here, though, they are loved for four restaurants ranging from suburban Andiron Steak & Sea in the Downtown Summerlin complex, to Buddy “Cake Boss” Valastro’s palaces of pleasure in The Venetian | The Palazzo.

Little wonder then that our very own culinary king and queen, Elizabeth Blau and Kim Canteenwalla, have a Las Vegas home that fully reflects their culinary careers. It’s also the ingredient that binds them in life, love and romance.

“I think we found the perfect recipe for our life together,” said Blau. “It’s definitely a beautifully full kitchen — very rich.”

“I was in New York City,” Blau recalled about when she met Canteenwalla. “Kim and Grant MacPherson were colleagues and great friends. They all worked together at the Four Seasons in Toronto when they were young cooks.

“Grant and I were looking for an executive chef for the Beau Rivage Hotel in Louisiana and for Treasure Island in Las Vegas. We had flown Kim over from Dubai, where he was working, to New York City where Grant and I were because he’d been nominated for a James Beard Award. So the first time I met Kim, he saw me in my black-tie gala regalia going to the awards show 18 years ago.”

So the boss hires the executive chef, and they end up getting married? Who’s the boss in the Blau-Canteenwalla household?

I actually didn’t hire him. The president of the Beau Rivage hired him, but I did bring him to the table. I think that we share our hats as the boss. I certainly take care of the house, and the family, and that kind of thing, but you know my husband has a very strong personality, so I would be very hesitant to say that I could really be the boss of anything with him.

How does the relationship work in terms of it’s your restaurants, and he’s the chef?

First it’s our restaurants. The great thing about Kim is that he’s so much more than a chef. Kim is the CEO of operations in both front and back of the house, and I am more the CEO of development, strategy and marketing. Then we kind of cross over on the concept side, but when it comes to menus, we have the same palate.

Kim has a chef’s palate and a foodie palate. He has a very distinct style. Mine is much more what you see in Honey Salt: the comfort food, the simplicity. I’m passionate about the desserts, but Kim is really the operations genius in the details and that consistency, the day-to-day. I love doing many different things.

Who picks the menus at home for the two of you having a romantic meal at home or the family getting together?

During the week, I’m the one who’s at Whole Foods, so that’s definitely me. And I’m always trying to get Kim to eat healthier. But when we entertain, have a weekend barbecue or do something, Kim takes over and that’s his domain. Even on Sunday night, if I’m cooking something, oftentimes, he’ll come and take over. It’s a team relationship both in and out of the kitchen.

OK. Who brings who breakfast in bed?

I can’t remember the time anyone got breakfast in bed. The last time I got breakfast in bed was last year on Mother’s Day, and that was our son, Cole. Cole made breakfast.

What have the two of you brought to each other that make you stronger together than individually?

The combination of what we do. Kim has got extraordinary attention to detail and that laser focus on consistency, which is what makes a restaurant and building a team successful. Kim has an extremely clear focus on the day-to-day operations. I think my business acumen and my focus on the development side allows us to have a clearer big-picture focus.

Is your house built for the two of you or mainly for the chef?

Our house is built for the two of us. There are three of us and two golden retrievers, but it’s a very comfortable space with a focus on the kitchen. We have floor to ceiling cookbooks. That was the interesting thing of our marriage, combining probably thousands of cookbooks.

With the restaurant business really being 24/7, how do you put order into life to make a partnership like yours work?

If anything, my influence on Kim was the life-work balance thing and the priority of family, taking vacations and making Sunday’s family time. We have a great team of people, so Kim isn’t cooking on a day-to-day basis. He’s been able to morph into a more global role, and I think that owning our own business gives that flexibility. It’s just important to designate those times, and we both are completely on the same page that family is a priority, and Cole is a priority. I think that I would like to think of myself as a good influence in helping to push that agenda.

Did Kim have any problems in coming to Las Vegas?

Kim didn’t come to Vegas. He had two opportunities because of the executive chef position in Biloxi, Mississippi, and the executive chef position at Treasure Island. I think most chefs would have said, ‘Okay, I’m coming to Las Vegas.” It was a mature property, a great salary right in the heart of the Strip, but Kim looked at it differently.

He loved the Beau Rivage, and he had never worked in the United States, so the idea of New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, and access to the seafood and produce down there was very appealing. So, his first mission was at Beau Rivage.

It was later, when Gamal Aziz was president of MGM, and he needed an executive chef that (he) brought Kim to Las Vegas to take that executive position.

So it wasn’t love that brought Kim here?

I’m sure both Kim and Gamal had some hints of that. But no, it was the job opportunity.

Was moving here the best decision for both of you?

Pretty much up until a couple of years ago, people still asked me, “Oh, do you live in a hotel?” There was this confusion about Las Vegas being this strip of hotels and that there wasn’t a community here. We didn’t have a reputation for food at first when I moved here, but the fact that I’m still here 20 years later, my friends and family in New York have probably given up on when I’m coming back. They don’t ask the question any more!

What does your empire now include?

We own Honey Salt and Andiron. We have a partnership with (The) Howard Hughes (Corp.) and with Buddy Valastro on the two Buddy V’s. We have two more Buddy V’s in development in Texas right now. We have a management contract with Paragon Gaming, Scott Menke and Diana Bennett, and we will be opening five new restaurants with them at the end of September, one of which is Honey Salt. All five will be in their Parq resort in Vancouver (Canada).

We’re global. We’re following a dream. I had been working for Sirio Maccioni and the family, and he was the one who initially made that introduction to Steve Wynn at the Bellagio. I spent a year on that side of the fence, of the operations, working the deal to do Le Cirque and Circo out here.

Steve offered me the job to come and work for him, but, originally, the whole idea of Bellagio was only going to be Le Cirque and Circo. There was not going to be any other outside operators, so between the Bellagio opportunity, and the MGM opportunity, and the Wynn opportunity, and all the things that Kerry Simon and I did, it was an incredible journey.

I’m so blessed and fortunate because I love what I do, and Kim and I love what we do together, and so while it is 24/7, there’s something to be said about doing what you love and being recognized for what you love doing.

The important thing to note is becoming a part of the community. I’ve lived in Las Vegas as long as I’ve lived anywhere, and I really feel part of the fabric of the community. Obviously, you know all the philanthropic things that I do, and I think that we convey those ideals to the people who work for us, and get our restaurants involved in all these charitable events and fundraising. So that’s something I’m incredibly proud of.

Las Vegas is definitely home. It’s not just a career opportunity at this point. It might have started out that way, but it’s certainly become something much more than that.

What have you taught each other in terms of personal and professional life?

Kim has taught me to slow down. Kim is a thinker, and I can move at warp speed, so I think he’s really taught me to stop and think, and analyze things.

I think I’ve taught Kim to kind of see a bigger picture from his role as executive chef when we met. Kim does have a very strong business mind, so I think that he’s made that successful transition from seeing things from a chef’s perspective, to helping be my partner and growing this global company.

We’ve really created a great team together, and I think that, oftentimes, I go to him on a question or an issue, and I really appreciate the different perspective that he gives things.

I think that the way we approach things is different, so I think that helps us both to grow personally and also professionally.

So where do you and Kim go from here?

I think that I would say that both of our priorities is life-work balance, so maybe choosing things wisely where the financial reward equals the amount of time put in; that we are able to sit back and be more selective on our consulting sides; more selective on doing restaurant projects. We’ve gotten to a point in our careers where that’s really important.

I think having five great restaurants, having a phenomenal partner like Buddy Valastro, and being able to do something that’s just really simple and approachable, but doing it with great quality and style — we’re really happy where we are.

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