Julian Serrano

F&W Star Chef

Chef: Julian Serrano

Restaurants: Julian Serrano at the ARIA Resort & Casino, Picasso at the Bellagio (Las Vegas)

Experience: Masa (San Francisco)

EDUCATION: Escuela Gastronomie P.P.O. (Marbella, Spain)

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
The Christmas after I went to culinary school, I asked my mother to let me cook the Christmas dinner. I made red snapper with olive oil and herbs in a clay pot, but it was the last time I cooked there, because I made a big mess.

For a beginner, I won’t say make any one dish, but whatever you make, do it many times. Choose something you like to eat, and then practice.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
My favorite is Modernist Cuisine by Nathan Myhrvold. It’s fantastic. I haven’t had time to read the whole thing, but he did an incredible job. He didn’t do it for fame or money. He did it for passion. I’ve known Nathan for 30 years. He’s always had such great passion.

What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
You need passion. If you don’t have that, forget it. Cooking is demanding, whether or not you’re the boss. And there’s constant pressure. It’s not like being a rock and roll singer where you can make a good album every seven years. In cooking, you’re only as good as your last meal.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
All of them. In life, in everything you do, you always have to improve every day.

What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how do you use it?
One of my favorite dishes uses three bang-for-the-buck ingredients: chorizo with potatoes and eggs. It’s inexpensive and delightful. It’s good all the time—in the morning, at night, in the afternoon.

What is your current food obsession?
Tapas, because you can try different dishes without spending a lot of time or money. Tapas encourages sharing food and company. It’s very important. It’s how I grew up in Spain, sharing food and conversation.

Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
I think Spain. There are still a lot of areas that are undiscovered, with cheap, great quality food. Go to the tavernas, which are small bars with only one cook who does five dishes, and they’re excellent. It’s true everywhere in Spain.

What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
I like to bring spices back. I went to a market in Jerez de la Frontera, a medieval market town, and I came back with spices and snails. I bought 16 different spices. With spices, you don’t have to deal with customs.

What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
I think I’m a good father. My daughter is 27 and she lives in Brooklyn. I always try to be consistent at work, to have a good energy. I’m a good tennis player too. I don’t know how to sit still.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
It would be a tapas restaurant, accessible to everybody, whether they have five minutes or two hours, $10 or $1000, they will all be welcomed the same. I’d do it in Las Vegas. It’s a good place to have a restaurant.

If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, whom would you choose, and where would you eat?
I’d take Mario and bring him to Julian Serrano, and we’d have a meal together. I’d make him tapas.

If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
I would take non-perishable food, so dry pasta, water, a pan, olive oil and salt. With this I can be in the desert for a few days.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
It’s hard to say. Trendy ingredients are funny. Kale— ten years ago, no one used it, maybe a little in soup, but raw kale? You give it to someone and they’d say no. My daughter was the one who taught me about kale.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
I eat plain yogurt, any brand.

My favorite snack is Marcona almonds and any sour onion potato chips, which are my enemy. I start and I cannot stop.

Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
It’s not new, but without salt, food is nothing. I like raw salt, which is lighter. As I get older, I’ve been using less salt. I do love sea salt, which lightens my food.

Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?
When I arrive at the restaurant, I say hi to every cook and shake hands. I do that every day. It makes everyone feel good.

If the night has been hard and people have been working very well, I go and say “great job.” It makes them feel good and makes me feel good too.