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November 23, 2014

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The Land of More: a venture into the kitchen of the Rio’s Carnival World Buffet

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Beverly Poppe

Carnival World Buffet at the Rio

As my friends and relatives will tell you, I’m a little buffet-obsessed. Have been ever since I moved to the Las Vegas Valley in fall 2007. It’s not that I’m a binge eater who can’t be sated by normal restaurant portions—although, to be fair, I’m far from the most profitable customer for any all-you-can-eat affair. It’s that Vegas is the Emerald City of buffets, an enchanted land of slow-cooked meats and gooey mac ’n’ cheeses that stretch in long lines down giant dining rooms. There are more than 60 full-service spreads in the Valley, and I’ve sampled a good number of ’em, from budget breakfasts to champagne brunches. I never set out to be a buffet connoisseur, but it’s a mantle I carry proudly.

Carnival World Buffet at the Rio

Carnival World Buffet at the Rio Launch slideshow »

One of my favorite haunts also happens to be the largest—the Carnival World Buffet at the Rio. Each day starting at 8 a.m. it serves thousands of ravenous diners—“covers” in restaurant-speak. The buffet line, a panoply of more than 200 dishes and countless flavors, spans the length of a football field.

At the 30-yard line is a teppanyaki station where you can choose from dozens of Asian ingredients to be cooked on the spot by a smiling grill master. At the 60-yard line is a Mexican station that includes a vast selection of taco ingredients, menudo soup and house-made mole. The 50-yard line is a bar. On busy days, as many as 6,000 people will pay the cashier, file past the host and grab one of the dining room’s 733 seats before blowing their daily caloric quota in one glorious, gluttonous binge.

It’s a Vegas ritual I celebrate perhaps a little too frequently. But I’ve often wondered: How do they pull it off? What kind of crazy hysterics are involved in serving more than $45,000 worth of food every day while making it look so effortless? The Rio was kind enough to give me a peek behind the spring-loaded door. What I observed was surprising, but not in the way you might expect.

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Carnival World Buffet at the Rio

Steve Morgan, an Army vet who helps supervise the buffet’s 57 professionally trained cooks, acknowledges the grueling pace of behind-the-scenes buffet work. He rises each day before dawn to be at the Rio by 5 a.m., when he begins prepping for the onslaught to come. Hundreds of eggs must be cracked and gallons of sauce must be made. Unlike at a normal restaurant, there is no relaxing round of cocktails before a first course, nor a comfortable break between dinner and dessert. The buffet is a beast that needs to be constantly fed—14 hours a day, seven days a week. Table game dealers, he says, have high-pressure, high-profile jobs, “but they should become a buffet chef—then they’d really be stressed out.”

But the scene backstage doesn’t exactly bear this out. The kitchen is remarkably calm as a handful of white-coated chefs break down racks of pork ribs and prepare 500-pound batches of mashed potatoes. There’s no yelling and no profanity, only careful knife strokes and assured mixing of precise proportions. Surprising buffet revelation No. 1: They’ve got this. What should be the most chaotic kitchen in Nevada is, in fact, a well-oiled, only-in-Vegas machine.

After the eerie calm, the next thing you’ll notice about a Las Vegas buffet kitchen is the equipment: Flat-top griddles the size of New York City bedrooms, walk-in convection ovens, factory-size spits with rotating racks that can accommodate 30 delicious prime rib busts at a time. Out front, where many dishes are completed in view of customers at live cooking stations, there’s a rotisserie roaster that can simultaneously cook 42 chickens, although on this day, maybe 20 are browning. The ginormous pizza oven, made by the Wood Stone Corporation of Bellingham, Washington, is seeing a lot of action at the 10-yard line. It’s churning out pepperoni pie after pepperoni pie, along with a few pesto shrimp pizzas. Mmm-mmm.

Breakdown

• Length of buffet: 100 yards
• Frequency of menu changes: Every 3 months
• Pounds of crab legs daily: 1,200
• Number of cooks: 57
• Number of waitstaff: 105
• Eggs used daily: 1,250
• Pounds of mashed potatoes served daily: 750
• Countries represented in buffet dishes: 10
• Ingredient shipped the farthest: Jasmine rice (from Thailand)
• Price: Breakfast, $15.99; lunch, $17.99; dinner, $24.99
• Price of “Buffet of Buffets” (24-hour access to all seven buffets at Caesars Entertainment resorts): $44.99

Carnival World Executive Chef Chai Puckdee pats his belly and gazes at the buffet in front of him. “Not bad, huh?” he says, gesturing to the lasagna, breaded fish, sandwiches and hamburgers. Revelation No. 2: The rear door of the Rio buffet kitchen leads here, to a second, smaller buffet line. This is a spread the public never sees—part of the Rio’s employee dining room. It’s offered seven days a week, and it’s free to the hotel’s 3,700 workers. “Typically,” Morgan says, “they’re supposed to get one break, but I see the same faces in here over and over. ... I personally gained 20 pounds, lost 18. It’s a constant battle.” A fluctuating waistline—one of the hazards, no doubt, of working for a Vegas buffet.

As I get to know Puckdee and Morgan, more secrets come out. The perfectly mounded gelato display that looks like a Super Mario Bros. world in miniature? Actually, lard. Lard and shortening, to be precise. “A lot of people want to eat that,” Morgan says. “But you’d be in for a real surprise.” Another buffet secret, Puckdee says, is that the hot dishes must be able to withstand prolonged 180-degree heat on the buffet line, a consideration that limits what they can reasonably serve. But apparently not too much—Puckdee couldn’t name a single dish he hasn’t been able to adapt.

Ben Erickson, the buffet’s general manager, directs a team of 130 who work the front of the house—seating guests, filling drinks and clearing plates. At any given time, the buffet has about 25 servers, 10 hosts and five bussers on duty, not to mention the two workers whose sole job it is to walk the field from end to end, making sure no one has dropped a roll or spilled a drink. Chatting with me in the dining room’s VIP area, Erickson marvels at how “the whole city has changed as far as food and beverage goes.” Pausing, he delivers another revelation: “We’re obviously the busiest restaurant in the Rio. And ... one of the most profitable.”

Boston clam chowder, buffet style

Yield: 45 gallons, or 1,440 4 oz. portions

25 lbs. butter

3 lbs. salted pork

30 lbs. diced celery

30 lbs diced onion

6 lbs. clam base

2 cups chopped-clam juice

15 bay leaves

50 lbs. diced potatoes

25 lbs. flour

Melt butter in kettle. Add ground salt pork and sautée till tender. Add all diced vegetables and stir till translucent. Add bay leaf. Add chopped clam with juice and white pepper. Add potato and bring to boil. Add salt to taste. Add roux and stir until mixed well. Bring to boil and simmer for 15 minutes.

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