ANDRE ROCHAT — THE CITY’S FOREFATHER OF FRENCH CUISINE PRESERVES OLD SCHOOL STYLE IN A MODERN WORLD
The following article originally appeared in the August issue of Luxury LV magazine, and is reprinted here with their permission. If you’d like to see it with photos, pick up a print edition of the magazine, or click here.
Andre Rochat is something of an enigma. Three decades ago he made the radical decision to bring the gourmet cuisine of his native France to Las Vegas with the opening of Andre’s downtown. Today, on the other hand, he’s seen by fans and critics alike as something of an anachronism — one of the most traditional French chefs in a town that’s now packed with fine French dining. His menus at Alize at the top of the Palms and Andre’s in the Monte Carlo (the original Andre’s closed its doors at the end of 2008) tend to eschew flavor-of-the-moment ingredients and techniques in favor of classics like green peppercorn-crusted filet, Dover sole in meunière sauce, and lobster thermidor.
Rochat’s dining rooms retain a classic elegance, showcasing opulent stemware and china, chandeliers and candlelit white linen tables. His restaurant in the Monte Carlo remains one of the few places in town where patrons can enjoy a good smoke and fine brandy after their meal, thanks to its upstairs cigar bar and Rochat’s unparalleled collection of cognac and Armagnac.
Yet if a visit to Alize or Andre’s can sometimes feel like a trip backward in time, the chef’s eyes clearly remain fixed on the future. When the downtown economy was faltering, he made a business decision to shutter the original Andre’s to concentrate his attention on his more modern casino locales. He immediately recognized that his celebrity clientele at the Palms were more suited to a la carte dining than his longtime local customers, and changed that menu accordingly. And through the years he’s nurtured some of the best young chefs in Las Vegas, teaching them his prized classic techniques while encouraging them to experiment with their own ideas.
To understand the many contradictions of Andre Rochat, Luxury recently spent a few days with him and his staff.
THE EARLY YEARS
Like so many great French chefs, Rochat has food in his bloodline. His family owned a charcuterie in the village of La Rochette in the French Alps, where he began working at the age of five. He left home at the age of 14 to apprentice at Michelin two-star Leon de Lyon. In 1965, the 21-year-old left France for Boston with only $5 and a set of knives to his name.
Six years later, Rochat headed west to Las Vegas to work at the Tropicana. While fine French dining and French chefs are fairly ubiquitous on the Strip today, things were very different then. Each of the casinos operated a single gourmet room, most of which offered American favorites like veal Oscar and chateaubriand to customers whose meals were often included as part of their junkets. It was a huge departure from the cuisine Rochat had been trained to prepare.
“One of my first [employers] in Boston told me ‘Andre, here you’re an American, so you do like Americans do’.” Rochat recalls being instructed. “It’s not what you know. It’s not what you want to do. But you do what people want. You do what sells.”
After nearly a decade spent doing what Americans wanted at the Tropicana, the Sands, his own Savoy French Bakery, and even a brewery, Rochat finally decided to show Americans his style of cooking. The original Andre’s opened downtown in 1980. It featured two prix fixe menus, priced at $14.95 and $18.95, that were packed with unfamiliar dishes like veal kidneys. The chef’s goal was to showcase such ingredients using the techniques he’d learned in Lyon.
“Lyon is the central culinary area of France,” Rochat explains. “And I stayed true to that style of cooking, and still do today. It’s all about the ingredient, the freshness of the ingredient, and being able to deliver the true taste of the ingredient on the plate. Having a nice dish with a lot of foo-foos around, well sure it’s a beautiful plate but if you can’t taste what you eat, then to me it’s no good. And that’s what I’m trying to do.”
“It was the first restaurant of its type in town,” the chef continues proudly. “We got busy right away, and I expanded in the second year.”
CONQUERING THE CASINOS
Over the next two decades, Andre’s continued to grow in popularity. But the dining landscape was changing as well. In the ‘90s, sparked by the successes of Wolfgang Puck and Emeril Lagasse (who arrived in town more than a decade after Andre’s opened), casinos had begun to see the value of true world-class dining. Not to be outdone by newcomers to his longtime home, Rochat began to expand his empire — with varying degrees of success. In 1997, the second Andre’s opened at Monte Carlo. When the Palms became Las Vegas’ newest hotspot in 2001, Alize was its crowning jewel. Both have been successful since they opened their doors, although 2004’s Mistral at the old Las Vegas Hilton proved to be short lived.
Rochat clearly understands that each of his projects has to target a different clientele. Tourists anxious to catch a show or gamble will want to spend less time at dinner than locals whose meal is their entire night out. And customers in different resorts expect different price points. Nonetheless, he’s always remained adamant that unlike certain celebrity chefs who experiment with completely different concepts at different restaurants, the food served in all of his dining rooms should remain basically the same.
“A chef sets up a kind of trademark,” he continues. “And if he changes too many times along the way, people are gonna say ‘No, no!’”
To assure the level of consistency he wants, Rochat is an almost constant presence in his restaurants. According to Alize’s Chef de Cuisine Mark Purdy, Rochat visits at least one of his kitchens “literally every single day,” except for those rare occasions when he’s out of town. Moreover, Purdy says his boss makes sure he’s on hand when longtime customers visit, “to cook them dishes that haven’t been on the menu for ten or 15 years.”
OLD SCHOOL STYLE IN A MODERN WORLD
Rochat’s constant presence, combined with his dedication to delivering the same classic French cuisine he’s been offering for over 30 years, makes Rochat more reluctant than some of his contemporaries to turn over the reins to the younger chefs in his kitchen. Purdy, who moved to Las Vegas to open Mistral, admits that was a little difficult at first.
“When I started working with Andre I was much more into what was considered new at that time,” he explains. “I was with Charlie Palmer for ten years, so whatever you’d call that — progressive American. But Andre doesn’t even like to use microgreens, or dust or dots. Forget about molecular [gastronomy]! For me it was a complete return to the fundamentals.”
Ask Rochat about modern technique and molecular gastronomy, and he almost sounds bored. “There is a time and a place for everything,” he explains. “In the classics, we have dishes with foam. In the classics, we have dishes with gelles, and aspics. The sad thing is some big name starts to do it, and all of a sudden everybody’s making that foam everywhere. First of all, foam is an emulsion. And when it’s well done, it’s good. But it’s well done maybe two times out of ten. And the rest of the time you have this tasteless foam that has no place there, that’s no good, that doesn’t do anything. But you have foam — big deal! That I don’t agree with.”
After eight years, Purdy has clearly become a convert.
“Over time you really realize that the best thing that you can do with Dover sole is meunière sauce, brown butter sauce, which he’s been doing for 25 years, I’ve tried to do things differently, and it’s not better. It really isn’t.
“And the escargot, we do with the parsley and garlic butter, it’s actually his mom’s recipe. It’s almost like all these years he’s put in the kitchen, which is 50-something years ever since he was a kid, he’s got some items and recipes and dishes down to their atomic level. Like you can’t break it down anymore, it’s already done. Escargot with parsley and garlic butter is as good as escargot can get.”
In the meantime, Andre’s Chef de Cuisine Chris Bulen (who began working for Rochat as an intern at Alize), seems just as happy to be making Rochat’s classics. “Some people say that our food is slightly dated, sometimes with old-school presentation,” he admits before adding, “If you want to go to a trendy place, go to a trendy place. If you want to come here and get the good quality tasting food you want, this is where you’re gonna get it.”
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Later in the conversation, Bulen will say of his boss, “This is his world, and I’m just happy to learn from him.” By that point in our conversation, that simple fact had become obvious. But it had also become obvious that this isn’t a one-man show.
In a city where restaurant employees jump from job to job at lightning speed, Rochat seems to have inspired an uncharacteristic level of loyalty. And his team feels like a family. As an example of that, you need no further proof than to know that before Purdy and Rochat’s pastry chef Tammy Alana got engaged, Purdy asked Rochat for her hand in marriage.
“Andre is more of a father to her,” the chef explains. “And we met working here. So I felt that it was appropriate in that sense alone. Not to mention that our situation is very unusual. Our entire life revolves around these restaurants, literally. We’re here, easily, six days a week. Sometimes more. And we’re very involved with Andre on a daily basis.”
Rochat seems to feel the same about nearly all of his employees. When asked about his current chefs, he’s quick to talk about the great ideas he’s gotten from them over the years. When the topic of past employees came up, he immediately pulled out his Blackberry to show off a note he’d received that day from Greg Englehardt, former head chef at Andre’s downtown. (The chef is now living in the Caribbean, and had just sent his former mentor a note to check in, see how he was doing and thank him for his support.) Similarly, Rochat brags about how well-educated his servers are, and beams with pride when talking about how the staff of Alize voluntarily sacrificed shifts for their Andre’s co-workers when renovations at the Monte Carlo lasted longer than expected.
“I’m very fortunate to have the best people working for me,” he says, “and we work together 100 percent.”