Las Vegas Sun

October 25, 2014

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Flashy first day

Hell’s Kitchen’ winner opens new restaurant at Green Valley Ranch

About Chef Rock

Hometown: Spotsylvania, Va.

Age: 30

Education: Degree in culinary arts from Johnson and Wales University. Harper says he learned to cook when he spent summers with his grandmother in Tappahannock , Va., and continued learning at home from his mother.

Previous job: Executive chef at B. Smith's Restaurant in Union Station in Washington, D.C., which specialized in nouveau soul cuisine.

Signature dish on "Hell's Kitchen:" Fried chicken with crab cakes

Notable: As the head chef, Harper is an apprentice to Terra Verde Executive Chef Massimiliano "Max" Campanari, who came to Green Valley Ranch from Wynn Las Vegas' Bartolotta Ristorante di Mare. Campanari was born and raised in Genova, Italy, and went to culinary school at the Nino Bergese Institute in Italy.

Most new chefs don't spend their first day on the job mingling with patrons, taking poolside photos, or slicing and dicing for a TV crew.

But this isn't a regular chef, and it's not a normal first day.

Rahman "Rock" Harper, 30, started Monday as head chef at Terra Verde at Green Valley Ranch. He earned his job by beating 11 other contestants and surviving the spite and scorn of taskmaster Gordon Ramsay on the Fox reality show "Hell's Kitchen."

The restaurant is banking on the show's appeal to draw customers, and Station Casinos knows the formula works. Last year's "Hell's Kitchen" winner, Heather West, is senior chef at Terra Rossa at the Red Rock Resort, where , the company touted , fans could see West "in action in the restaurant's open kitchen."

Seeing Harper was certainly the main draw for most of the diners at Terra Verde. Station officials said they received more than 1,000 calls for information after the show announced Harper would make his way to Green Valley Ranch. There were more than 200 reservations for the opening, double what the entire resort usually receives for a Monday night.

So, as could be expected, he was working the room, signing autographs and taking snapshots with fans between interviews and photo ops, all while a large contingent of family members dined nearby.

It was a hectic first day, but Harper knew it was part of the deal that netted him a one-year contract worth $250,000.

"How can you make it smooth?" he said. "It's not like a regular job."

While he relished the chance to shake some hands and meet his new customers, he eyed doing what he does best. "I'm cool. I was made for this," he said. "I just can't wait to get back to the kitchen. That's my sanctuary."

On this first night, however, there wasn't much kitchen time, and it wasn't much of a sanctuary. At the behest of a local news crew, he used his knife skills on a few veggies while the camera rolled. That was about it. His fans beckoned out in the dining room.

Some, such as Rochelle Chambers, even hoped to follow in his footsteps. Chambers went to culinary school in Pasadena, Calif., in 1985, but found other work to take care of her family. She works with the Customs and Border Protection office in Las Vegas. Hooked on "Hell's Kitchen" and inspired by Harper, she auditioned for the next season and received a callback for the second round of auditions.

Harper was the favorite in her house, where she watched each week with her young grandson, whom she brought to the restaurant. "My whole house was screaming when he won," she said. And after meeting him, and hearing his words of encouragement on her tryout, she was beaming. "He was just as genuine as I thought he'd be," she said.

Amie Jo , a local radio personality, along with her daughters Katrina and Angela Greer , finished their appetizers as Harper made his way to their table for a few minutes.

"She started us all watching 'Hell's Kitchen' and we all got addicted," Amie Jo said, pointing at Katrina. "That chef (Ramsay) is so mean. I'd quit."

They made reservations the day after Harper won, and weren't disappointed. "He's so down-to-Earth, approachable and friendly," Amie Jo said.

He's also confident and eager to check out the formidable competition in the Vegas dining scene.

"I'm ready to eat, to see what they've got. I want to really taste some of the great chefs in Las Vegas. I'm also ready to take away some of their customers."

And on the first night, at least, he did. James and Joyce Martin , visiting from El Cajon, Calif., were excited to find that Harper's arrival coincided with their annual anniversary celebration in Las Vegas.

"We usually go to Delmonico's, Emeril's place, for the last five years," he said.

After becoming big fans of the show this season, Joyce Martin discovered that Harper's first day on the job was their 20th anniversary. "We thought it'd be the perfect celebration," she said.

They took home an autographed menu and took photos with the chef.

Harper was still working the room when a reporter told him that the Martins had chosen Terra Verde over Lagasse's highly regarded restaurant at the Venetian. He backtracked to their table.

"You picked me over Emeril?" he said. "Good. He needs a break. He's got enough money." He laughed, patting his hip pocket.

All the attention on the new guy didn't go unnoticed by the staff. As Harper's boss, Executive Chef Massimiliano "Max" Campanari, talked to another media type, a server offered some reassuring words, perhaps remembering where his garlic bread was buttered.

"You're still my favorite chef," he said.