The Unsung Heroes Of The Kitchen
Oftentimes the unsung heroes of a restaurant are the leaders of the kitchen, who are toiling behind the scenes to provide a pleasurable dining experience for the eatery’s patrons.
In this series we shine a spotlight on talented, creative and unique individuals who have or are becoming the culinary superheroes of our city and what paths they have taken to establish themselves as rising and established gastronomic stars. We examine their unique attributes and what has helped to make them become the best of the best, and salute these culinary stars of which ranks include celebrity chefs, small business chef/owners and executive chefs.
Luke Palladino—Will Cook for Food
First Culinary Lessons
Luke Palladino was born in Bethpage, on Long Island, New York in 1969. Growing up in a large family of Italian immigrants his initial culinary education was seeing how food brings people together. He remembers family gatherings on Sundays and holidays that revolved around dinner with more than 20 people that began at 1 p.m. and continued late into the evening.
In 1974 Luke and most of his family moved to Florida. His single mom could only afford to give him a weekly allowance of 25 cents, so he was motivated to work to earn spending money. At the young age of 13, Luke lied about his age and got his first job, like many future chefs, doing grunt work as a dishwasher. It was at Strawberry Mansion, an upscale restaurant in Melbourne Beach, Florida, set in a historic Victorian home built in 1905.
As time went on, when cooks called in sick or quit or didn’t show up, Luke was called on to help in the kitchen doing prep work and eventually moved into permanent positions doing butcher work and cooking on weekends.
Chef Training at the CIA
The Strawberry Mansion executive chef Pete Wynkoop saw Luke’s work ethic and hunger for learning and liked what he saw. Chef Wynkoop was himself a Culinary Institute of America (CIA) graduate and was an influence and inspiration to Luke to attend the storied institution as well. After visiting the Hyde Park CIA in his senior year, he took out loans and describing his time in the prestigious culinary school says, “It was wonderland. I loved it and never missed a day or class.” He would graduate in 1989, was voted by his classmates as “Most Likely to Succeed” and was ready to conquer the food world.
Early Restaurant Experiences
After earning his Associates Degree in 1989, Chef Luke saw New Orleans as the culinary hot spot at the time, and decided to move there. He landed a position at Commander’s Palace as a line cook for Emeril Lagasse. This was before Emeril had attained notoriety as a world-famous chef, but the restaurant was humming along. “We were doing 900 covers a night,” says Luke. “The restaurant was so hot inside you were dripping wet, and when it rained it would pour all over my prep area. There you either worked hard and earned Emeril’s respect or you were out.” Emeril was impressed by Luke’s hard work and he was promoted to Lead Cook.
Luke would eventually move with his girlfriend to Cape Cod, where he worked as a sous chef at Cranberry Moose, a well-respected restaurant that earned 3 stars from the Boston Globe. He also worked as a sous chef at Rocco’s in Boston, but it was his hunger for learning that led him to further his education far, far away.
Will Work for Food
In the early 90s fusion cuisine was becoming the thing and chefs were beginning to cross cultural lines. Chef Luke recalls, “At that time I was trying to find my voice as a chef, but felt the very best chefs always pursued their culture and mine was Italian.” Chef Luke did just that, and after working two jobs and 12 hours a day, saved up enough money and packed his bags and moved to Italy. He started off in Rome, and although he didn’t speak Italian, he struggled to get by with a language book. Over a span of five years, he worked at no less than 22 restaurants across Italy, including Rome, Venice and Sicily, and his pay at all of them was simply free room and board. Some of the accommodations were rather primitive, of which he describes, “There was no electricity and I read by candlelight. In the middle of the room was just a cot, no hot water in the bathroom, just a tub with a spigot, no toilet seat.” During this time, he would periodically come back to the US briefly to make money and then return to Italy to soak up more culinary lessons and experience.
Wynn Comes Calling
After returning to the US, Chef Luke began attaining executive positions at restaurants such as Rose Tattoo in Philadelphia from 1993-1994, and at others in Boston and San Francisco. After returning to Italy in 1997 he became executive chef and a partner at the renowned Ristorante al Covo, the highest rated fish restaurant in Venice and one of the most revered in Italy.
After again returning to the US and while in New York, in 1998 he got the attention of a Las Vegas casino owner that was just starting to build his empire: Steve Wynn. The casino mogul convinced Chef Luke to fly with him in his private jet to Las Vegas. He recalls, “At first I wanted nothing to do with going to Las Vegas, it’s a desert, I have no interest. But I’d never been on a private jet so why the hell not. I get on the plane before he arrives and there’s gold everywhere, gold fixtures and sinks and a king-sized bed. So, Steve gets on the plane and we take off and he spoke to me for five hours straight, the most fascinating story teller I’d ever met.”
After Wynn convinced him to work for him in Las Vegas, Chef Luke was asked to work with another legendary chef, Todd English at his Olives Mediterranean restaurant at the Bellagio. Soon after, Wynn pegged Luke to open Onda at The Mirage, which was perhaps the first high-end Italian restaurant on the Vegas Strip. While there he would become an early mentor to another future culinary legend, James Trees, who at the time was assigned to do his externship at Onda while attending the CIA.
Career as a Restaurant Designer
Chef Luke would go on to create, own, and manage concepts with prestigious hospitality partners including The Borgata Hotel Atlantic City, Caesars Entertainment, Harrah’s, Revel Casino, Isle of Capri Biloxi and Pompano Beach; and in Las Vegas with Clique Hospitality, Red Rock Casino and Wynn Resorts. To list all the restaurants he managed, developed, branded or owned would take more space than this entire article, but we’d be amiss if we didn’t include some highlights. There was the self-named Luke Palladino, a 220-seat upscale Italian restaurant in Harrah’s in Atlantic City, which he developed, designed and operated from 2010-2015. At Valley Forge Casino Resort in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania in 2014-2016 he conceptualized, developed, designed and branded LP Steak, an upscale 240- seat steakhouse as well as Fianco, featuring a modern Italian-American menu. From 2001-2016 he was Chef/President of Luke Palladino Hospitality Group and owned, consulted, operated and managed restaurant concepts of various styles including the 125-seat upscale Italian restaurant Luke Palladino Seasonal Italian Cooking in Linwood, NJ; off-site catering company Luke Palladino Catering in NJ/Philadelphia; and Palladino’s, 100-seat regional Italian steakhouse and bar in Philadelphia.
After so many years in the industry and forging his way to the forefront as one of our nation’s most accomplished and talented chefs to the point of being recognized as legendary, in 2018 Chef Luke developed Meta-Hospitality. The company consults on and partners with and opens restaurant projects. To date they have worked on 18 concepts, with more currently in the works. When asked how long he works with a restaurant once it’s been developed, Chef Luke says, “It’s ongoing. We typically do a year of oversight and then ask if they are happy with us, want to keep us on, and our clients hire us continuously over and over again.”
Laguna Pool House & Kitchen
The latest Meta-Hospitality project is right here in Las Vegas, the Laguna Pool House & Kitchen at Palms Place, which is a bit of a departure for Chef Luke, as it features more global cuisine with some Italian influences thrown in. As it’s the only restaurant in the high-rise condominium, it offers room service, a pool menu, lunch, dinner and weekend brunch. The well-rounded menu Chef Luke designed includes the likes of NY-style pizza (with a softer chewy crust), pastas, Marcona Almond Hummus, Grilled Branzino, Shrimp Tacos, Korean Fried Chicken Sandwich and creative brunch offerings like frosted flakes-crusted Challah French Toast and Spanish Omelet with roasted piquillo pepper and Manchego cheese. The menu shows Chef Luke is up to the task to provide a variety of pleasant surprises that bring the wow factor, like Fruity Pebble Cheesecake with the popular cereal mixed into the batter; the thick-cut fries soaked overnight in water, steamed for five minutes, fried at low temperature for eight minutes and then frozen before finally being fried before serving (the extra time and care are evident in the taste); and the ½ pound Classic Burger—a blend of brisket, short rib and chuck topped with a slightly spicy pimento cheese spread and American cheese served with those house-made fries.
When He’s Not Working
In his down time Chef Luke is an avid reader and estimates he reads 35-40 books a year. He especially likes exploring the subject of psychology, self-development and inner development. Another pastime is collecting wine, a hobby he is well-suited for as he is a WSET Certified Sommelier. In addition to adding to his collection he enjoys traveling to wine regions.
Another project he engages in away from his day jobs is his The Future of Hospitality Podcast, in which he strives to learn from key players in the hospitality arena. His guests are chefs, restaurateurs, food writers, food critics and other personas, discussing their accomplishments, failures, lessons they’ve learned, and their businesses. Notable interviewees have been Chef Marc Vetri (chef/owner of Vetri Cucina in Philadelphia and Las Vegas) and rising star native Las Vegan Chef James Trees (chef/owner of Esther’s Kitchen, Al Solita Posto and Ada’s Kitchen and fellow CIA graduate), of whom he says, “James and I are old friends and I love him as a brother. He is so open, raw, with no filter.”
In addition to the podcast, Chef Luke shares several of his recipes and cooking videos in the Chef Life section of his website in which he demonstrates simple tips and techniques. In the videos and recipes Chef Luke’s philosophy of cooking is clearly seen, of which he describes as “my recipes are the culmination of my experiences, some of which were with family. I love simplicity, using the best quality ingredients in season. Italian cooking is not dressed up.”
After reading this you will undoubtedly come away with the realization that Chef Luke Palladino is a true culinary rock star and also a storied chef who is willing to share his talents and creativity with others. And after spending a truly remarkable and enjoyable hour learning his story, I came away impressed with how down to earth he is and what a great storyteller he is. If you’re lucky, you’ll find him at the Laguna Pool House & Kitchen and snag an earful of his captivating experiences and insights.
- Luke Palladino at the table with NEFT product by Jeff Drollinger
- All other photos courtesy of Luke Palladino
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Bob Barnes began his food and beverage writing career in 1998 as Regional Correspondent for Celebrator Beer News and wrote the Nevada Beer Nuggets column from 1998-2019. He was Editorial Director of The Las Vegas Food & Beverage Professional from 2012-2021 and has covered Las Vegas for Gayot since 2010. He continues to contribute to Gayot, writing the Gayot Las Vegas Restaurant News, features on new restaurants, and beer and spirit reviews. He also writes regularly for Off The Strip, The Vegas Voice, Neon Feast, and Las Vegas Magazine.