Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Farm to Strip DinnerChef Sam DeMarco’s Farm to Strip Dinners are held at First Food & Bar in the Shoppes at the Palazzo. Tickets cost $48, and a $21 beverage pairing is available. Call 792-8932 for reservations.
Sam DeMarco stood inside the old bus depot in downtown Las Vegas on a recent Friday morning, inhaled deeply and smiled.
He walked the aisles, surveying the fresh berries, watermelon and artichokes.
Like most chefs, DeMarco, known as "Chef Sammy D," can think up recipes in his head, then go searching for the ingredients needed to make them. But to him, that’s not the true art of cooking.
“I like to do the reverse,” DeMarco said. “You find what’s available and let that create the food.”
That’s exactly what DeMarco did at the farmers market. He scoured the farmers’ booths looking for inspiration for his next Farm to Strip Dinner, which he prepares the first Friday of every month. Diners sit family style at tables of 10 for meals based on a single theme. The dinners regularly sell out.
DeMarco moved through the market, greeting strangers like they were family. He squeezed tomatoes and tapped melons, sampled food and noted to his executive chef, Mike Gregson, ingredients that caught his eye. Vendors who saw him coming in his white chef jacket handed him stalks of corn and berries to sample.
“Bite into this strawberry,” vendor Kerry Clasby said, pushing a strawberry toward DeMarco’s mouth.
She pulled back just as he bit into it, so he took only half. She showed him the ruby red middle.
“The ones you buy from the store are white inside,” Clasby said. “This is how they’re supposed to be. That’s how a strawberry should taste.”
DeMarco pulled Gregson over.
“We could do something as a dessert with all these fresh berries,” he said.
Next, DeMarco stopped by a nut stand, where he stood to taste samples. Candied walnuts could mix with the berries for dessert, he thought aloud.
A bin of fresh artichokes caught his eye. His plan: mix them with chickpeas, lemon and tahini to make a hummus appetizer.
“Dips, like hummus, are very popular right now,” DeMarco said. “You put in the artichokes for flavor, but you try to get that same consistency people are used to with hummus. No more powdered French onion soup and sour cream. Remember that?”
Down the market, DeMarco tasted samples of bread on toothpicks offered by a baker. Grilled flatbread would be perfect for dipping into hummus, DeMarco said.
He rubbed a watermelon and considered its possibilities. Maybe a cocktail to go with the dinner?
Some other time, he decided. He had included watermelon in his last dinner. He wanted something different.
DeMarco’s menu is limited only by what’s in season, he said.
“It’s like a musician who writes about what’s around him,” he said.
The chef bit into a juicy heirloom tomato and grabbed Gregson.
“Gazpacho,” he whispered.
His eyes darted toward bins of sweet peppers and avocados.
“We could even do a two-color gazpacho: yellow on one side, green on the other,” DeMarco said. “We could add a dip with avocados and throw some shrimp in there.”
DeMarco ran his fingers through baby heirloom green beans sitting across the aisle. Those, mixed with bell peppers and potatoes, could become a side dish for the main course — a Mediterranean-spiced roasted whole lamb bought from RC Farms in North Las Vegas.
“The big thing is you’re cooking the whole animal, the whole fish, the whole vegetable,” DeMarco said.
DeMarco hopes eventually to include the farm to Strip concept in his regular menu. But the volume of customers he serves and the advanced preparation he needs to keep the dishes rolling out make that difficult, for now.
“What this dinner really represents is how you would cook at home,” DeMarco said. “You go to the market, you see what you like, you come back, you cook it.”