Taste Trends: Eric Vaughn, Director of Banquet Culinary Operations, Caesars Forum and Las Vegas Region
He's worked alongside some of the world’s top chefs, but Eric Vaughn’s fondest culinary memories are of his childhood, creating delicious Sunday meals with his parents and sister and learning how to bake with his grandmother.
“It was our family tradition, and we learned a lot, especially how much fun we were having together discovering new dishes and ingredients,” he said. “It was the start of my fascination with food, touching it and seeing how it was affected by heat, and working with some of the most unique things I had ever seen food-wise—cooking things like chicken strudel with phyllo dough or baking things like zucchini bread with my grandmother using vegetables straight from her garden.”
His passion for food grew with each new ingredient he stumbled upon and each dish his family mastered. At the age of 15, he landed his first job in the kitchen of a small resort on Lake Michigan, and cooking has been the only profession he’s had ever since.
Vaughn earned a Culinary Certification Degree from Washburn Culinary Institute in Chicago and worked under visionary chef Charlie Trotter at his eponymous restaurant in the city, as well as at some of Chicago’s other renowned dining destinations.
He’s been with Caesars Entertainment since 2001, with his first roles in the company at Harrah’s Joliet and on a culinary task force that opened Harrah’s Southern California and Harrah’s Bossier City. He then went on to successfully open and operate celebrity chef restaurants for the company, including Gordon Ramsay and Steve Martorano, and serve as director of culinary operations for Paris Las Vegas, Bally’s Las Vegas and Planet Hollywood.
Nowadays, he oversees banquet and culinary operations for all Caesars Entertainment properties in the Las Vegas region, leading teams in the creation of everything from intimate group meals to culinary experiences for events of up to tens of thousands of people.
We had the pleasure of catching up with Vaughn to get his insights on food trends and budget tips, discover what has most inspired him throughout his career and find out what his three favorite restaurants in Vegas are right now.
What are the biggest and most exciting culinary trends that you’re seeing?
There is a big push for sustainable packaging, especially with the growing concerns about how climate change is affecting our planet. Many of our clients are asking if our packaging is compostable because they want to ensure that it's good for the environment. In some instances, the packaging can even be edible in itself. As far as food, there’s a really big push for mushrooms because people have learned about so many of its health benefits, especially with immune support. The same thing is happening with things like algae and seaweed, which are edible and super easy and sustainable to grow. All of these are making their way onto plates more often, and I try to incorporate them into menus as much as possible.
Prior to COVID, dietary-conscious menus (such as gluten-free, keto, vegan and vegetarian) were a growing trend. Is this still true, and if so, do you foresee this accelerating in the future?
Yes, and planning for those special dietary needs prior to the event is important, especially if you have a group of say 10,000 people. We have to really think about having those items on hand for special requests and even preparing those meals beforehand. I think in the past, a lot of people with special dietary requests, such as vegan or vegetarian, felt alienated because they were just served things like mixed vegetables on a plate. That’s not what I ever did. I want it to be very thought out and composed in a way that it would be just as exciting as the meal of the person sitting next to them.
Many event planners are working with tighter budgets now. What are your top tips for overcoming this obstacle while still providing delicious fare for attendees?
The first thing is learning to be flexible. For example, instead of having filet mignon, understanding that you can have alternatives that are just as delicious but much less expensive. The second is menu streamlining if you are doing a custom menu. Instead of coming in with a lofty goal of having a large menu, which oftentimes leads to food waste, a menu with fewer items can be just as impressive and also cut down on cost.
What are some of the overarching things you are doing to address food waste?
For several years, we have divided all trash from events so that we’re separating what is recyclable, compostable, etc., and working as much as possible to not contribute to landfills. We also have a fantastic place here in Las Vegas called Three Square, a nonprofit [that distributes millions of meals to the community]. When we have extra meals from hotels and banquet operations, we donate them to Three Square.
What do you like most about working in the culinary arts?
That's a funny question because for me, it's the love of cooking. I just can’t say enough about touching, tasting and experiencing food. It's a really important thing to me, and it always has been. The second is the people. At a certain point in my career, I started to realize how nice it was to have all these great people in the kitchen working toward a common goal. It really made me see the good in people, and I love that part of it. There are some fantastic people we have working here, who also happen to be very talented.
Who or what has most inspired you throughout your career?
The people that I admired over the years were some of the more famous celebrity chefs like Charlie Trotter, who was my absolute favorite. But there are so many people I worked with who weren’t famous but were just as special and were an inspiration to me, especially early on. And what really inspires me is the food itself. It's always exciting to experiment with the next new ingredient or dish. That's really what drew me to it when I was a kid, cooking new dishes with my family. Nowadays, whatever I can find that's interesting and new really inspires me to get out there and do something with it.
What are three of your favorite dining experiences in Vegas right now and why?
One of the more interesting places right now is The Black Sheep. It has a small menu, but the chef has really exciting food that is creative and inspired by fantastic ingredients. I also love Sparrow + Wolf, a neighborhood spot that seems like it would be in a high-end hotel on the Strip. They have a superb tasting menu that is very affordable. Another favorite is Monta, a local ramen shop that's just outstanding for its big bowls of noodles—definitely great comfort food.
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