Published Thursday, May 10, 2012 | 4:39 p.m.
Updated Thursday, May 10, 2012 | 9:21 p.m.
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Wolfgang Puck remembered how empty his Spago restaurant seemed when he opened it in the brand new Forum Shops in 1992.
For three weeks, it was anything but a hit.
"I used to have to drink to go to sleep," the award-winning chef joked Thursday at a lunch to commemorate his two decades in Caesars Palace. "I thought it was the biggest mistake of my life, coming to Las Vegas."
Then, a crowd came for Christmas. Another surge happened at New Year's. Suddenly, there were lines stretching out of the restaurant.
Soon after Puck ventured to Las Vegas, one of the most influential developers of the modern Las Vegas Strip was demanding better food and famous chefs.
"I still remember when Steve Wynn came into Spago's for the first time," Puck said of the developer who would build the Mirage, Bellagio and the hotel bearing the Wynn name. "We didn't have complicated food, but he said 'How come we don't have restaurants like that in our hotel?' I think he gives us credit as being the first to change the character of food in Las Vegas."
On Thursday, a crowd of celebrity chefs surrounded Puck as he used a saber to pop open a bottle of champagne with a flourish to kick off the sixth Vegas Uncork'd food festival. There are 50 top chefs participating this year, representing only a portion of the restaurants that make Las Vegas a foodie heaven.
"Nowadays, if you're a big-name chef, you have to be in Vegas, even if you're in Paris with Michelin stars," said Adam Rapoport, editor-in-chief of Bon Appetit magazine, which sponsors Uncork'd. "It wouldn't be that way, without Wolfgang Puck."
What sets Uncork'd apart from other food festivals is its emphasis on intimacy. It will draw about 5,000, compared to the tens of thousands in other cities, but that's by design. People buy tickets costing about the same as a Las Vegas show to sit in smaller groups and listen to the chefs and wine experts explain their delicacies. Officials say the crowd will pump more than $6.5 million into the Vegas economy over the next four days.
Puck put on a floor show at lunch, telling so many jokes that Rapoport quipped, "You're going to have to take up stand-up pretty soon."
The chef gave details of the three courses at lunch. Diners learned that the white asparagus in the salad only blooms for a few weeks each spring in such northern European countries as Belgium and Germany.
Puck said the salad exemplified something that has changed about Vegas over the past 20 years: its taste.
"I could not have served a dish with white asparagus, when I first came here," he said. "They would have asked me why it wasn't green."
Lunch also included grilled French sea bass served on a bed of fresh fennel, followed by strawberries and cream drizzled with aged balsamic.
David Robins, one of the managing partners at Spago, accompanied Puck from Los Angeles. Robins said it was Puck's tireless work ethic that made his restaurants last.
"I remember when I first went to work for him, I thought I was going to outwork Wolfgang Puck," Robins said. "I went in at 5 a.m. to make the bread, and Wolf had already been to the farmers' market. He looked at me and said, 'Where have you been?' "
Twenty years is forever in the Las Vegas restaurant business, where eating establishments can vanish seemingly as fast as a $100 bill at a craps table. Even Puck has seen a restaurant he opened at the Forum Shops fade away.
But entering its third decade, Spago is bustling.
"Restaurants come and go, relationships come and go, but we're still here," Puck said. "And we still have people here who were with me when I started."
Elsewhere at the festival, Thursday night’s Masters Dinners illustrated the intimacy of Uncork'd, including one featuring Food Network star chef Bobby Flay.
Set at three tables sitting 14 people each, the four-course dinner included Flay's trademark use of chili peppers. Even the pickled peaches and the chocolate ice cream packed a punch.
Flay said he spent took two days preparing the menu, including trying two different soups, from which he picked one, and changing the desert from the printed menu to his new spicy ice cream. He also lightened the kick of the ice cream at the last minute on the suggestion of his pastry chef, trying to make the ultimate experience for Vegas crowd.
"The thing I'd like to get more credit for, that I don't, is being in my restaurants," Flay said. "The thing about cable TV, is that they record something and then play it all the time. People can get the wrong idea about what I’d really doing. But my favorite place to be is in the kitchen of one of my restaurants."