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Casino Cuisine Beyond The Bland Buffet

TONY COX, host:

When you hear the words casino food, what do you think of? Mass quantities of crowd-friendly cuisine? Well, that might be the casino food of yesteryear, because increasingly, casinos across the U.S. are looking to provide evermore sophisticated palates with the kind of fare normally associated with the finest of dining experiences.

And now a cookbook is bringing the food of world-class casino restaurants to your kitchen table. "The Seven Stars Cookbook" features delectable regional treats from Harrah's Casinos from all across the country. Joining me now to talk about the art of feeding those willing to take a gamble on just about anything are two chefs: Raymond Carter, the chef de cuisine at Harrah's Tunica, Mississippi roadhouse, a casino near Memphis. Also with me is Kevin Goodwin, the executive chef of Harrah's Casino New Orleans. Welcome to both of you.

Mr. RAYMOND CARTER (Chef de Cuisine, Harrah's Tunica Roadhouse): Thank you.

Mr. KEVIN GOODWIN (Executive Chef, Harrah's Casino New Orleans): Thank you.

COX: As I said earlier, fine dining isn't normally the first thought when someone says casino food, okay. We can be honest about that. But this cookbook makes me rethink that notion. Chef Raymond, beginning with you. You've worked in a number of casinos. What is the casino dining experience now?

Mr. CARTER: The casino dining experience actually caters to the general public in a various number of ways. Of course, we're a Southern cuisine, so we try to grasp those members of our gaming industry that are wanting those down-home meals, but yet somewhat elegant. And we try to enhance our meals to just suit that.

COX: You know, of course, buffets, Chef Kevin, are still featured pretty prominently in many casinos around the country. Is there any trick to choosing which foods work best in a buffet?

Mr. GOODWIN: Well, we try to find things that hold well, that keeps the quality up. In New Orleans, we have - that kind of works to our favor. We've got a lot of pot cooking, is a New Orleans style. So we have a lot of things kind of hold real well on a buffet and really produce a great quality for us.

COX: One of the things that you find when you go to these buffets is, you know, it's like traveling around the globe to different continents in terms of the cuisine that's there. Is there a template, a formula for what should and should not, Chef Raymond, be included in a buffet at a casino?

Mr. CARTER: When you're housing buffets, the general conception would be that you get a variety of people from different places that come into your venues. So what we try to do is we house what we call theme nights. And those theme nights explore things from Southern cuisine, Italian, Mexican, and we just generally toss it up into a rotation menu.

COX: Well, you know, every casino I've ever been in with a buffet, they've got chicken. They've got ham. They've got roast beef, maybe prime rib. And then after that, it gets to be a little dicey in terms of what might be there. Is it difficult to pick the kinds of meats that you would have to have for a buffet?

Mr. CARTER: The general conception is to stick with your basic proteins, which would be that of chicken, of course, pork, ham and turkeys, and just try to put a twitch on them in order to fulfill the customers' needs.

COX: This might be a good time to ask both of you, as a matter of fact, how you became interested in the restaurant industry in the first place. Chef Raymond, why don't you start? Tell us, how'd you get into this?

Mr. CARTER: Believe or not, my first line of work would've been psychology. It was my chosen career field. Unfortunately, I had to take a tour of duty through the first tour of Iraq. I came home and decided that I wanted to work at the casinos, got started. My mentor, actually, Chef Marc Silverberg, saw something in me, grasped me and brought me into the kitchen, and I found it to be a delight and it interested me. And so I dwelled on trying to make the best of it.

COX: Wow, that's a great story. Chef Kevin, how about you? Tell us about your culinary provenance.

Mr. GOODWIN: Well, actually, it was kind of similar. I started off in the computer science world way back when, and all I could do was envision myself getting stuck in a little cubicle somewhere behind a screen, and I couldn't picture that. I'm originally from California, and I went - I ended up then going back to San Francisco, went to the Culinary Academy in San Francisco. I grew up just eating great food, and just loved to eat. And so to be able to supply my bad habit, I had to expand my horizons there. So...

COX: All right. If you're just joining us, by the way, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Tony Cox, sitting in for Michel Martin. And we are talking about the fine art of casino food. That's not an oxymoron anymore. Let's talk about this book, gentlemen. There are some interesting recipes and great photographs, and it's a very slick coffee table-looking book.

Chef Raymond, I'm looking, as a matter of fact, at something: fried Portobello mushrooms. It sounds interesting, and it even looks interesting. Talk to me about this recipe and how it highlights your style as a chef.

Mr. CARTER: Mushrooms are very, very earthy and real flavorful if handled right. I wanted to do something that would bring a Southern style and both elegant, of course. Portobellos would be great for that. You get them in caps. You peel the caps, and you clean the gills. You can make a nice dredging flour and you deep fry them, and you get this real nice, moist flavor. You get that earthiness, and it's just wonderful.

COX: Chef Kevin, New Orleans, for many, is a food mecca of sorts. I put myself in that category. And Harrah's New Orleans is represented in this book with something called barbecue shrimp. How does this dish give folks a taste of New Orleans?

Mr. GOODWIN: Barbecue shrimp has been around for New Orleans forever, and it's kind of like meatloaf across the country. Everybody does it a little bit different, and everybody thinks theirs is the best. We have one. We sell a lot of it. We go through just a ton of shrimp on a regular basis, and right now the shrimp are running huge and beautiful. They are just fantastic.

It holds real good on the buffet, and the best thing about it is all the butter and all the flavor and the juice. And a hunk of French bread and sopping up the juice is some of the lagniappe part of that meal. So it's a great dish.

COX: The picture in this book looks great, as a matter of fact. But I need to ask you this, because of what has been happening in the Gulf with the oil spill and everything and concern about the quality and the safety of the seafood: Have you had to make any dramatic changes to your menu because of that, and are you serving Gulf shrimp?

Mr. GOODWIN: Absolutely. The shrimp really haven't been affected too much. The shrimp, actually, have been great right now. The oysters have really taken the biggest hit on them. We're still getting them. There's a lot of oyster beds that are still being harvested. So we'll hopefully, as things get going, those oyster beds will come back in full strength. But the shrimp are coming in strong. It's a beautiful, beautiful product.

COX: Now, we've been talking about buffet casino food. Let's talk more about some of the restaurants, the higher-end ones that are popping up in these casinos all around the country. And I have a question for both of you about the people who come in. Presumably, between meals, you know, these folks, they're gambling. So my question is: Can you tell the difference between someone who's on a winning streak and maybe someone who's not doing so well when they come into your restaurant to eat? Raymond, what about you?

Mr. CARTER: Oh, definitely. The dining experience for someone that is winning and somebody that may not be winning and having a bad day out there on the gaming floor, is definitely visible to anyone. But they come in, and you try to bring a different side to them and make their food presentable. You give them a feel of comfort and letting them know that meal that they're about to receive probably contains their luck for them.

COX: Both of you work for Harrah's, and, Kevin, I think you're in New Orleans and, Raymond, you're in Mississippi, in Tunica. Set aside your corporate and company allegiances, even your geographic allegiances just for a moment, if you can. What cities do you think have the best casino foods?

Mr. GOODWIN: New Orleans.

COX: I knew you would say that. But, you know, it's hard to argue with New Orleans being right up there. What about you, Raymond?

Mr. CARTER: Well, I feel like our Tunica-based area has come a long ways. There's a lot of wonderful chefs that, they're not just home-based there, but they come from different areas. And they make the products that they bring to us a part of their cultures. But we've come a long way, and it's not just all about Southern styles anymore in the South. There's a lot of Asian flair. There's a lot of Mexican. And we even - still a little bit away from New Orleans.

COX: Now, final thing is this: It's one thing to be a chef working in a restaurant or a buffet. It's another to be associated with the casinos. And I'm wondering, in the hierarchy of the chef world, is working at a place like where both of you work, is that considered - what's the word I'm looking for -prestigious? Raymond?

Mr. CARTER: Yes, it is definitely becoming a bit prestigious, and the cookbook proves that. We're not just jaw-jacking around. We're here and we're performing. People are noticing it, and people are appreciating our craft here.

COX: So, Kevin, you're proud to be a chef at a casino now, then, I take it.

Mr. GOODWIN: Absolutely. Especially here in New Orleans, I mean, I'm great. I'm very happy to be back. I was here before, and left after Katrina. And Harrah's just recently, fortunately, brought me back to town. This is a great place for food. It's one of great food cities of the country. And people come in expecting that experience in the food, whether it's a casino or a free-standing restaurant, it does not differentiate that. So being in a casino or being anywhere else, it's just the pride of the position, a pride of the food and the quality of the food, and that's what it's all about. New Orleans is a food town, and we take that full-fledged in the casino. We take it very seriously.

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COX: Chef Kevin Goodwin is the executive chef of Harrah's Casino New Orleans. Chef Raymond Carter is the chef de cuisine at Harrah's Tunica Roadhouse, a casino on the Mississippi River in the Memphis area. Recipes from their casinos are featured in "The Seven Stars Cookbook: Recipes from World-Class Casino Restaurants." Gentlemen, thank you both very much, and bon appetit.

Mr. CARTER: Thank you.

Mr. GOODWIN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.