Chef Insider: Julian Serrano

Meet one of Las Vegas' original celebrity chefs 

Seventeen years ago, Spanish-born chef Julian Serrano got an offer he couldn’t refuse—a call from the head of MGM Resorts International in Las Vegas, asking him to leave his position as chef at San Francisco’s famed Masa’s Restaurant to head up the Bellagio Resort & Casino’s first restaurant, Picasso. At the time, there wasn’t much of a culinary scene in Vegas, and Serrano saw an opportunity to create an experience visitors were desperately seeking: memorable dining. 

Fast-forward to today, and Serrano is considered one of the pioneers of the Las Vegas culinary revolution. A 14-time recipient of the AAA Five Diamond Award (among other awards), he is currently serving as executive chef of three acclaimed restaurants on the Strip: Picasso, Julian Serrano at the ARIA and the Bellagio’s Lago by Julian Serrano, his latest venture, which opened this past April and focuses on savoury Italian small plates and creative cocktails.

What was the inspiration for Lago? 

Bellagio is an Italian name, so I saw a need to have an Italian restaurant [on the property]. But I wanted to do Italian in a different way, with tapas-style portions. The people who come to Vegas [tend to] like this kind of food. 

Why do you think tapas-style dining has become so popular?  

First, because you can try different items. Second, it’s an easy conversation-starter. When you share food, you share conversation, you share laughter, you share a lot of things. It’s easy to get along with a person you’re sharing food with. 

What is one of your favourite items on the Lago menu?

We have something called a 7 & 7, which is potato gnocchi and lobster knuckles. [Lobster] knuckles are very important. For me, it’s the best part of the meat. The juices and the sweetness are perfect, but people normally don’t eat it because it’s very difficult to get at. 

Tell us a bit about your creative cocktail menu.

I had it in my mind that [we should] treat the cocktails like we do the food. When you’re cooking something, you put in some mayonnaise, some potatoes, whatever you want. I wanted to put a little garnish in the cocktails, too. [For example,] we make a Negroni and I decided to add in a slice of chorizo. Not only are the cocktails [at Lago] good, but they also give a little extra something else, something different. 

Why do you think you’ve been successful in Las Vegas for so long? 

I think because I’ve been with a company [MGM Resorts International] that believes in me, I feel that it’s my responsibility to do the best I can. Trust is important. I work hard, I’m very dedicated and I have passion.  

Julian Serrano Recipe: Roasted turkey breast stuffed with chestnuts and truffle with Marsala and pearl onions

Ingredients: (makes about 10)

  • ½ of a turkey breast (approx. 3 lbs.)
  • 12 oz. turkey grounds
  • 1 butternut squash (approx. 2 lbs.)
  • 6 oz. peeled blanched chestnuts
  • 3 oz. diced black truffle (canned or frozen)
  • 3 oz. grated parmesan cheese
  • 4 oz. butter
  • Sage
  • 2 baskets of pearl onions, peeled
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 2 cups chicken stock

Method:

-       Preheat oven to 375ºF.

-       Bake butternut squash until tender, remove skin and roughly chop (save 1 cup for gnocchi).

-       In a bowl, combine equal parts turkey ground and baked butternut squash, chestnuts, truffle, parmesan cheese and 2 oz. brown butter with sage. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Mix well. 

-       Make an incision in turkey breast (from collarbone to tip) through half of its thickness. Slice open breast to butterfly; season with salt and pepper, cover with plastic and flatten breast further with meat tenderizer. 

-       Spread stuffing on breast, then roll tightly, tie with twine firmly, put turkey in roasting pan with remaining butter and dry-roast in oven for 30 minutes (ensure roast is nicely browned on all sides before proceeding to next step). 

-       Add onions, more sage and white wine and return to oven. Bake for an additional 30-40 minutes, periodically check and add chicken stock so gravy doesn’t burn. 

-       Remove turkey from pan and let rest on a platter, add cream to gravy and simmer until it thickens (add to gravy juices drained from roast).

-       Cut roast in half-inch-thick slices, put a couple of slices on a plate and spoon sauce with pearl onions over turkey. If available, shave fresh black truffle on top.