July 1, 2010 -- For nationally-acclaimed Chef David Walzog, being successful is all about having a good time. "You have to love throwing that party, not every Sunday, not every other Sunday, but every single night in a restaurant."
The in-demand chef and author of "The New American Steakhouse Cookbook," executive chef at SW Steakhouse in Las Vegas and soon to open Lakeside Grill (both at Wynn Las Vegas), definitely knows how to throw a party.
Known for his killer grilling techniques and innovative approach to steakhouse cuisine, Walzog's philosophy is to make the restaurant experience a positive one not only for the guest, but also for his team of kitchen crew and waitstaff. "It's not just a plate of food that comes before a guest," he said. "It's the spirit of the room, the energy of the room, it's the upbeat tempo of dining. It's the fun that people are having."
It certainly helps that the restaurant is located in a town known for having a good time. "You're just feeding that frenzy, that fun time, those good times for them," he said. "So you're buying fantastic ingredients, the best of the best, the rarest of the rare and putting it on a plate. People are there to have great experiences, wonderful hospitality, and a great time, so it makes our job very, very exciting."
It seems that Walzog has always been able to bring a fun and enthusiastic attitude into cooking. "I've been cooking for 28 years and having fun every single day," he said.
As a teenager, the Baltimore native worked restaurants in the summertime to pay the bills. It was there he discovered the team environment really appealed to him. "I likened it to an athletic team," he said. "I really just kind of liked the spirit and camaraderie of being in a kitchen, and food and ingredients and that stuff. So I definitely took a liking to those and the team part of it."
He tried a few years of college in Baltimore, focusing on marketing, but he continued to cook on the side and eventually completed some courses at culinary school. "I liked cooking. It kind of takes a hold of you and you want to be there more, and you want to do more, and you want to learn more, and when you're young, if it speaks to you, you've got to get in on it."
His interest in cooking grew even more when he moved to New York, living cheaply with a friend in a rent-controlled apartment he obtained through his sister. "We were able to eat when Jean-Georges was first at the Drake Hotel and all around at Le Cirque, wherever else, and could somewhat afford it," he recalled. "We were line cooks and just riding our bike everywhere and having a good old time in the city. That's how it began," he said.
Walzog moved to New York City to begin his career in cuisine at Lola restaurant. After Lola, he moved on to a coveted position working under Gotham Bar and Grill's legendary chef, Alfred Portale, whom he said had a major influence on him. "Watching how he mentored and coached and counseled and drove us to work really hard, and to never lower the bar," Walzog said, adding that it didn't matter the number of people they were serving, Portale's dedication was obvious, and that enthusiasm was contagious. "Whatever it was, we were so absolutely dedicated to everything he wanted and wanted to do," Walzog said.
Portale's continual coaching was instrumental in shaping him and the other younger chefs. "That was a great dynamic to learn and kind of understand at that point in my career that worked really well," he said.
Walzog said that as he was growing in the business, he didn't really have a set goal in mind. "The only goal and kind of things I set before me was making my way in an industry, paying the bills, and loving to go to work everyday," he said.
At 24, Walzog was able to further sharpen his skills as opening chef under Chef Mark Miller at Red Sage in Washington, D.C., another potent classic chef. "He's wonderfully passionate, hugely educated, he was a wealth of information and he's just a resource and a really great guy," he said. Miller showed Walzog the art of developing a menu and determining the way a restaurant would behave. Walzog said his position under Miller was incredibly fortunate, and he admits, "was probably above my head and above my years of experience," but Walzog made the most of it. "I was kind of his right hand in that opening. You talk about just… second to none kind of experience, especially in a young career, was just fantastic…to learn from him, that's where a huge amount of ingredient passion and food passion and development passion and kitchen, all that stuff was great."
He returned to New York as Executive Chef at Arizona 206, again an incredible opportunity for his age. "I was 24, 25 years old and helming what was in the mid-80's and late-80's the hottest thing kind of going," he said. "They had three-star review after three-star review, it was very contemporary, stylish, slick, fun, -- a tequila-driven, Southwestern cuisine restaurant that was really cool," he said.
Walzog credits his past experiences for helping him land the gig. "Working with and for Mark Miller and doing that whole development… it was a master's program in southwestern flavors, ingredients, developing levels of flavors and plates, and 'why's?' and 'how comes?' No question about it. I think that I went and had a great experience at Gotham with Alfred, and I went and had a great experience, doing a whole other curriculum at Red Sage," he said.
It was during his tenure there that his Southwestern menu caught the attention of the New York Times (he was awarded three stars), and his flair for lively tastes translated to steak house cuisine garnered him much attention.
Walzog became the corporate executive chef at the Glazier Group in New York City, putting him in charge of the city's legendary The Steakhouse at Monkey Bar, Michael Jordan's The Steak House NYC, for whom he developed their brand steak sauce, and three Strip House restaurants.
Walzog was recruited to Vegas in 2005 to head the staff at SW Steakhouse. "Although it's very rewarding to cook in New York, I think it's even more so rewarding to cook in Las Vegas because guests are there to have nothing but a great time," he said.
Although he enjoys his work, Walzog said that balancing his life away from work has its challenges. He attributes his ability to juggle his career and personal life to being able to count on the people around him. "You have to have everybody on the same page, working really hard to do the same thing and then it doesn't become so daunting," he said. Walzog said that as a manager, he operates in 'overdrive,' putting in plenty of hours on top of a diligent system of the kitchen setup, menu and operating methods. But he doesn't let work rule his life, he said. "It's business and it's got to work for you as much as you work for it. "
Walzog draws heavily from that sense of teamwork that initially drew him to a career in food. "These days you have to understand all dynamics to restaurants to be successful," he said, adding that he felt fortunate to have had mentors early in his career. "I worked for a guy in a kitchen who was a superstar when it came to food, but also really had a deft hand at working with the staff and kind of pulling out the best of them and inspiring them to move on," he said. Walzog said he continues to draw from those kitchen management skills to this day. "You have to look back on your past experiences… because you've learned a lot. Your past experiences, they mold your thought process. So you want to use those to really round out yourself," he said.
Walzog also draws on past experiences to make his business successful as well and said he paid attention to business and money management in addition to learning about guests and hospitality. "Quite frankly a restaurant doesn't necessarily turn huge amounts of profit," he said, listing off the numerous things one needs to consider: staff, ingredient costs, surrounding costs, labor, payroll, all while ensuring the personalities of the staff in the kitchen and the dining room work to meet the standard for the number one priority, the guest. Ultimately, he said, "you're working for the best interest of the guests in having a great time and a great meal and a great experience... You have to work all those things at all different angles to ultimately do all things to all people and still make money."
Walzog admits the pace can be exhausting. "The consistency, the relentlessness of it, is the tiring part, but again you've got to mentally separate at times... Because when you're there, you're really piling it on 110 percent if not more," he said. Walzog said it's critical for he and his staff to take a break every now and then so when they return to work, they're ready to give their all. "When the lights are on... it's a Broadway kind of thing. Lights are on for four hours. You're on stage," he said. He said he instructs the staff, "The motors have got to be in fifth gear - going hard, having fun, smile on your face... that's the relentless part. So if you don't check yourself for a couple hours, you'll not have enough or you won't be in the right place to give it for five and a half. "
Walzog spends his free time with his wife and two daughters, ages 15 and 8. Although they cook at home, it's more about spending time together. "These days things are moving constantly, so when you're [away from work], you're chilled out or by the pool." As a family, their approach is to "have fun with food instead of making it ceremonial and making it an absolute. 'Let's cook, let's have fun, let's eat and dine together. That's the most important.' You kind of forget the pomp and circumstance of it, for a little bit." He said his family understands the demands the restaurant makes on him, but they try to be together as much as possible. "It works in our world," he said. "There's things that you miss, but there's also, 'you better make time for it,' because that's important. That's the end game…Having a very sound, happy, successful family. My wife and I work really hard at parenting our children to make sure that they have some of those core principles and beliefs that it's hard work, its passion, but ultimately it's honesty. It's being real and forthright and kind of nice."
He may preach and fully understand the importance of time off, but at the end of the day, Walzog loves his work. "I talk a lot about how it never ends, but I also kind of love that it never ends," he said. "It's always coming back tomorrow, but it's also kind of reinventing ourselves every day, every week, every month, and so on, and through seasons." Walzog said this reinvention is a continual driving force of inspiration. "You've got to be in tune with those ebbs and flows of ingredients and guests wants and needs and changes in appetite and dining styles and things like that. "
He said he enjoys the challenge of keeping up with the changes and factoring in what may happen next. "The operating ways of a restaurant and how we run it have strict rules and ways of doing things and understanding... so you know there's not a ton of adlibbing. But, the ways that we operate have to evolve and have... you're shooting at a moving target," he said.
According to Walzog, the nature of a Las Vegas location is that the crowd varies so much, it's difficult to get a feel for what to expect. "So really getting a handle on exactly who they are, what their dining styles are, needs, things like that is always the moving target, but that's a fun part. And you're never going to figure it out so don't try. Try to be as gracious and fun and welcoming and putting out great food. It seems like it's working at our establishment. "
As for reviews, Walzog doesn't put too much emphasis on them. He said a friend once advised him, "Whether it be one star, two stars, three stars, four stars, whatever it may be. You're either working to prove the review right or working to prove the review wrong. It's never not hard work, and it's never not putting your head down and kind of killing yourself. You're either proving the guy right or you're proving the guy wrong... They're the same."
"I'm a big believer that things happen for a reason, and things come to you for a reason…if you work really hard, it pays dividends," he said. Walzog credits his parents for his hard-working spirit. "Their 'dividend' was not necessarily huge amounts of cash at the end of the day, but they built and created a really sound family. There was something to be proud with that," he said. "So you put your head down and work really hard. You work with purpose and good spirits about it… something will happen for sure."