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April 18, 2014

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Barbecue secrets in a hidden corner of the Bellagio

Inside Tuscany Kitchen, cuisine and education meet with delicious results

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Sarah Feldberg

Bellagio executive chef Edmund Wong’s char siu pork.

To find Tuscany Kitchen at the Bellagio you need to know it exists. You will not stumble upon it or wander in enticed by its charms. In fact, when I ask an employee on the casino floor how to get there, he gives the most preliminary directions and a stare that says, “You’ll never make it.”

But I do. Past the gallery of fine art, the shops and the ballrooms, there is Tuscany Kitchen—a fully equipped demonstration kitchen where a chef can cook for TV cameras or a live audience with all the action in view. Today, Bellagio Executive Chef Edmund Wong is at center stage for the third annual Beer & Barbecue Secrets Lunch, a feast of smoked meat, cold brews and good humor that's part of the resort's Epicurean Epicenter series and seems as much about having a laugh as teaching slow-cooked secrets.

Before the cooking begins in earnest—and this is TV-style cooking; no sooner does the gorgeous sockeye salmon hit the smoker than our portions arrive—chef Wong opens a refrigerated drawer and pulls out a chilled black cowboy hat. “It gets really hot up here,” he says to a round of laughter.

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Cold-smoked sockeye salmon with Chinese sausage and red thumb potatoes.

The sound is soon replaced with mouth-happy murmuring. Our cold-smoked salmon has been brined, then smoked at low heat for hours so as not to cook the bright red fish and finally served with Chinese lap chong sausage and red thumb potatoes cooked in “high-falutin’ bacon fat.” It's barbecue elevated to extreme heights, but it still packs the hearty satisfaction of a simpler dish. Wong quizes us on the different species of salmon (one is the appealingly named chum) and answers question about artificial coloring versus natural hues while we nibble the fish and swig its sudsy accompaniment—Ayinger Brau-Weisse German wheat beer selected by Master Sommelier and Bellagio Director of Wine Jason Smith that's just the right counterpoint to all that smoke and fat.

And Wong is just getting started now. With sous chef in tow, he gives us a Cliffs Notes lesson on three more barbecue treats: Asian-style char siu pork that cooks in a special oven at 600 degrees, beef tenderloin rubbed with a spice mixture invoking the powers of paprika, chipotle, espresso powder and brown sugar, and Portland, Oregon-born kielbasa from boutique charcuterie shop Olympic Provisions. Olympic’s Elias Cairo takes the mic to tell us about his shop and restaurant where locally raised Oregon pork becomes chorizo, salchicón and the thick slices of kielbasa that he’s brought with him today. It’s 80 percent fat, he says, pausing for effect, as we giggle in admiration and fear.

As the beers flow—Spanish Estrella Damm Daura lager and Firestone Double Jack IPA with the three-part meat plate—the crowd loosens. Suddenly, chef Wong is telling us about his time as a Chuck E. Cheese dough boy, and we’re devouring meat, biscuits and truffle mac and cheese as if there weren’t still cherry pie, ice cream bars and caramel popcorn to come. It’s been an educational afternoon to be sure, but more than that it’s been a delicious excuse to drink beer before 5 p.m., gorge on slow-cooked pork and beef and enjoy some good company. This is what Bellagio’s Tuscany Kitchen is all about. I can’t believe I didn’t find it sooner.

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