Dining with the Old Masters: Great Artwork, Great Food, Great Concept
Dynamic, stimulating, vivid colors—a palette to please the eye. This could very well be a critic’s choice words for a well-known and highly acclaimed hotel restaurant: Picasso at the Bellagio in Las Vegas. I recently had the pleasure of experiencing this unique and aesthetically divine establishment on a secondary reconnaissance trip on behalf of a client who has great aspirations to incorporate a similar venue within his new boutique hotel. Since we are still within our development stage plans and waiting for approval on a zoning variance (related to the restaurant facility), I felt it would be prudent to personally revisit Picasso and see how it has fared since its opening in 1998 when I first visited the establishment.
Before my second visit, I went on my usual Internet search for reviews and comments (from the Bellagio's own press releases and sites such as TripAdvisor, Frommers, and Gayot) to read up on current commentary.
Throughout my evaluation process, I worked with various criteria that we needed to implement in our own hotel-restaurant project and found ample opportunities existed for our version of a Picasso-styled eatery à la façon du Bellagio. We found there were consistent choices we could implement in the front of the house as well as the kitchen, and it merely required a stage manager. Fortunately, I have a theatrical background and sought to encourage an expedient program to design and integrate various techniques to create a provocative style, theme, and the type of culinary performers who would be equally enthusiastic about our own production.
Our business plan and budget have been modified to assume seasonal décor and significant menu changes to create a “traveling exhibit” format (similar to museum runs). We feel this will create sufficient hype and interest for the dining and art patrons who reside in our area. Our proposed location is in a warm resort region in Florida and in close proximity to a world-renowned museum. Of particular interest to our plans is also the accessibility of an influential school of art and design and for which we will establish a student scholarship program with the proviso that they produce certain works of art specifically for our restaurant and the hotel common areas. This will benefit us as much as the students who will be able to identify their works in their professional portfolios. We will also establish a special student dining rate (with certain restrictions on days and times for use). We recognize the area is home to a local state-run university as well as several colleges, and we feel this particular demographic will bring us a respectable source of revenue.The Demographics and Location
We benefit from our placement within a resort town and enjoy a mix of international dining patrons (tourists, seasonal visitors, full-time residents) as well as an increase in young business professionals who, by preference, appreciate the selectivity of multiple dining choices providing mix-and-match meal assemblages, and who (most importantly) contribute to a hefty liquor tab. It’s a good mix for us and, yes, it’s VERY expensive to operate a trendy business oriented to the masses. This is the price you pay for location, location, location. As a realtor, I am fully aware of what’s going on in town, so we benefit from my research and negotiating skills.The Competition and Cost
Although there are a few relatively new entrants in this region (two major hotels having recently completed renovations and additions to their own on-site restaurants), we welcome the opportunity to introduce our own signature restaurant as part of our boutique hotel complex. Aside from the portion-control menu presentation at Picasso’s, we will attempt to re-create a similar menu plan with our proposed restaurant. It is truly a cavalier tasting extravaganza and one that we have tested on a recent focus group, where we found an eager audience asking for more.
As for our meal pricing, while our forecast does not approximate that of Picasso’s on select items, we are applying varying degrees of degustatory menu plans to accommodate private-room setups and specialty catering arrangements for the hotel and outside parties.
All in all, you should still be prepared to leave a lot of green behind in order to attest to this unique and one-of-a-kind experience. There is a need; there is a want.
We feel competition is good for the economy as it makes us strive to stand out and outperform our challengers. If it works in Las Vegas, we asked ourselves, “What can we do to make it work in a small, cougar-style town on the southwest coast of sunny Florida?” After all, as stated by Charles Caleb Colton, "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery." We hope so, and we will strive to do so.Theory of Interplay
Now to interpret why I’m bringing DaVinci and Rembrandt into the restaurant (picture). I have a theory that the creation of Picasso at the Bellagio and its evolving success is more about theatrics, setting the stage, and the artful use of props. The extended use of imagery, graphics and visual appeal, plating (food arts/composition), as well as using every sensory exaltation culminates with the chef de cuisine’s masterful use of nouveau and trendy recipes that become the composition of his meal preparation. It is as much an interpretative art form as it is appropriate for this particular restaurant. The palette is the chef’s creations and is sustained through his expansive repertoire of tapas-style meals as well as the more decadent and degustatory five-course meal which is also being planned for our restaurant.
Las Vegas is all about show, show-stoppers, feeding the masses, and standing out above the rest. It’s also about money, and this venture is unkind to the wallet. However, those who seek the experience of dining in our restaurant might very well be capable of returning as often as they have their priorities in check. It’s also the best form of PR when reviews and feature articles carry the weight which this type of dining experience commands. As I whisper to my colleagues and clients in typical rhetorical fashion, “Wouldn’t you like to be in this enviable position?” Let’s get started.Chiaroscuro
When the Great Masters like DaVinci and Rembrandt painted their subjects, they were very cognizant of how light and shadow patterns affect the illusion of depth. This quality is also known as claire-obscure [from Italian, from chiaro (clear, light) + oscuro (obscure, dark)]. This technique also allows for dramatic effect, and I would impart its use for creating your own unique restaurant theme: highlighting the architectural integrity of the interiors with artwork that reflects your image and the style of dining you wish to convey in a non-verbal fashion. The introduction of appropriate accessories to the tablescape become your accents to complement the palette, while a simple white or appropriately understated charger/service plate may contain a petite image or logo on its border or center. The painter would not have purposefully left his creation to a blank canvas and neither should your signature-style table settings. You are basically creating an image that represents you (the restaurant) and the caliber of your upcoming performance. It’s also about the impression you are leaving your dining patrons and well worth your staff monitoring for consistency and placement. Of course, this is an ideal setup designed for a high-end and exclusive dining experience. Others need not mind.Our Plan
- Step One: Our Challenges:We don’t have enough Picassos to hang on the walls.
- Step One: Our Fix: Commission some artwork (slight restrictions may apply) from students at the nearby Ringling School of Art and Design and compensate them with credit for their chosen art that will be featured at the restaurant. They can then incorporate this arrangement as part of their portfolio and perhaps gain certain momentum in the real world for their revered interpretations of art.
- Step Two: Our Challenges: We don’t feel we have the gravitas to pull off the high-priced menu choices. We are not Las Vegas.
- Step Two: Our Fix: It’s not about “gravitas” or feeling undeserved to serve the masses; it’s about understanding your market, the demographics, and the region where your restaurant is located. Most importantly, it’s about the professional ambitions you create with your kitchen personnel and the strength of your oversight to ensure high standards in food preparations and prompt maintenance of your best workers. In order to maintain your best workers, you need to be able to manage your best workers. Remove apathy, tardiness, and debilitating attitudes from your kitchen and demand respect and professional monikers. Become a decision-maker, not the truant officer— your culinary team will thrive. This is when micromanaging becomes a good word; it reinstates the appropriate protocol in your kitchen and demands respect.
Another part of the fix is to envision your optimum food arts presentation: skills, plating, and accessorizing for visual impact within the theme of your dining facility. Ensure your prep team can maintain consistent plate presentations and that you have not wavered in menu preparation (alas, truth in menu). Your dining patrons will be the first to notice, and you cannot afford a complaint that can be avoided by being diligent in your line of duty.
As for food purchasing commitments, perhaps this may be a good time to review your current food vendor contracts, your relationships with the reps, and fine-tuning your budget line items. This may involve terminating certain long-term contracts that may or may not involve damages or dispute resolutions. This may require an outright change in the [restaurant’s] business model requiring a change/termination. Once your food vendor learns that you are considering terminating and/or altering a long-term contract and if you have enjoyed particularly good service from the company, it may be prudent to re-negotiate your contract, stipulating your requirements for better cuts of meat at better prices for an extended contract period. There may be opportunity for both you and your vendor to effectuate a contract that actually is mutually self-serving. [Note: We recommend having your food vendor contracts reviewed by your lawyer to determine possible options and avoid litigating circumstances.] Also, reference your restaurant’s contract termination liquidated damages cost-recovery decision matrix as well as your documents log for other areas to renegotiate with house vendors. The restaurant owner may need to support the decision on contract issues with a new business plan model that will identify improvements to the working facility and its operations.
Additionally, if your current vendor supplies you with meats that are inferior to your level of service, have your chef age the meats on premises according to CIA-grade, best practices methods rather than purchasing aged meats from the vendor at a higher price. Your choice.The Road Taken
I must thank Robert Frost for my professional dilemma:
“…Two roads diverged in a wood,
And I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”