Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s face lights up when asked to tell the story behind his “Yes, Chef” cocktail, made with pineapple juice, ginger beer and vodka and served at his restaurant, Marcus, inside the new MGM National Harbor resort and casino.
In 2009, Samuelsson explains, he oversaw the Obamas’ first state dinner at the White House. Afterward, President Barack Obama greeted Samuelsson’s culinary team.
“He was so kind to wait around, him and the first lady,” he says, “and he talked to all my cooks. Chef Michael [one of Samuelsson’s cooks], was so nervous… so the President shook his hand and Michael just screamed out, ‘Yes, chef!’ I knew right then, that’s something we have to use.”
That presidential tale made it into the title of Samuelsson’s 2012 memoir, and onto the menu at Marcus — one of several celebrity-chef driven restaurants putting a D.C. spin on the Vegas-style casino restaurant.
MGM National Harbor opened this past December in Maryland, just a few minutes outside of Washington. The property sits on a hill overlooking the Potomac River, with a view of the nation’s capital in the background. Over the past decade, the National Harbor waterfront area has been developed into a residential, retail and entertainment center, which MGM saw as an ideal location for its new resort.
It’s truly a bit of Las Vegas grazing the Beltway, with a 125,000-square-foot casino, a 3,000-seat entertainment venue, the National Market food hall and new restaurants from celebrity chefs Samuelsson, Jose Andres and brothers Bryan and Michael Voltaggio.
The chefs all incorporate local flavors and ingredients, drawing from the culinary history of the area. MGM hopes these local flavors will appeal to area residents, as well as the tourists and business people who flock to the region.
Most of the employees were hired from the greater District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia region, with about 45% from Prince George’s County, where the resort is located. MGM refurbished a vacant elementary school nearby, turning it into a dealer training school and employment center to help promote unique job opportunities.
“Our commitment to the community has always been twofold,” says general manager Bill Boasberg. “To offer an exceptional luxury resort experience while also creating new opportunities for local residents and business owners.”
The restaurants are all located outside the casino area, meaning that gambling, while still a huge draw, is not the only focus. The resort was designed to attract guests who might not be interested in playing craps or blackjack to come for the many food, beverage and entertainment options.
For those particularly drawn to the gourmet fare, here are the highlights:
Marcus Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia, but raised and trained in Sweden before coming to the United States in the early 1990s.
Since then, he has worked as executive chef at New York City’s Aquavit, opened Red Rooster in Harlem and several other restaurants in the United States, Bermuda, Sweden and Norway, written cookbooks and a memoir and appeared on numerous culinary television programs.
At his new namesake restaurant, Samuelsson combines the flavors of his birthplace, his childhood home of Sweden and the comfort food of the American South.
“One of the great things about being here… is that it’s extremely diverse,” he says. “You go into D.C., where you have embassies from all over the world, and also ethnic food from all over the world. So we use Ethiopian food like berbere and injera … I just think it’s a fabulous way of making an exciting food menu.”
Samuelsson is also in charge of the in-room dining experience at MGM National Harbor. Room service may not typically be known for its nuance, but Samuelsson approached this as a challenge, figuring out ways to infuse his culinary personality in dishes being served from a cart.
“We want to curate experiences throughout, whether you’re on the floor gaming … or you’re in [your] room,” he says. “The party shouldn’t stop. To be able to have a crab boil… in your room is something that we take a lot of pride in.”
Voltaggio Brothers Steak House
No casino is complete without a good steakhouse.
Brothers Bryan and Michael Voltaggio, who rose to fame on “Top Chef” before opening several successful restaurants, including Ink and Volt, have returned to their home state to collaborate for the first time on their new restaurant, Steak House.
The concept here is as much about home as it is about meat. The design is reminiscent of a family dining room, and dishes are served family style.
“What we’re trying to provide,” says Bryan, “is the experience that we had at our family table growing up. The food hit the center of the table, and we’d pass it around.”
“The word ‘house’ is as important as the word ‘steak’ [here],” adds Michael. “We didn’t just want to be a meat factory.”
According to Michael, MGM envisioned working with chefs from the area from the outset. Since he and Bryan were born and raised in Prince George’s County, it was a natural fit. “This is our first restaurant together and there is no other place we should have done it than Maryland,” says Bryan.
In addition to classic cuts of meat such as filet mignon, porterhouse and bone-in rib eye, the Voltaggio brothers have put together some interesting condiments and sauces that you probably won’t find in a typical steakhouse.
These include a sea bean chimichurri, a play on béarnaise called beer-naise and a fois gras eel sauce. The side dishes are also inspired, such as the take on creamed spinach called Bloomsdale Spinach that is topped with aerated white cheddar and crispy shallots.
“We didn’t have to cut any corners here,” says Michael, referring to the resources that come with operating under the MGM umbrella. “We have a saying in this restaurant: The only reason we haven’t done something here is because we didn’t think of it.”
Fish By José Andrés
Fish By José Andrés is an almost entirely seafood-focused effort from the celebrated Spanish chef and restaurateur. He operates several acclaimed eateries in the D.C. area, as well as Las Vegas, so Andrés is no stranger to the casino environment.
“The people that go to the casino — yes, they are gamblers, but they are foodies. They all know what they like,” he says. “They expect nothing but the best that money can buy. So I love to be in partnership with casinos.”
Andrés has partnered up with seafood purveyors from the surrounding area to utilize the rich bounty of local catch.
He believes that some of the best oysters come from Maryland and Virginia, and has turned to suppliers such as Rappahannock Oyster Company to stock the restaurant’s raw bar. The restaurant also uses oysters from MGM’s own private line of sustainably farmed oysters, a collaboration with True Chesapeake Oyster Co. The shells from all the oysters eaten here will be collected and recycled to help grow new sanctuaries.
Andrés sees commonalities between Spanish and American cuisine, particularly from the American South.
“We love paella in Spain,” he says. “But then you go to New Orleans and they have jambalaya, right? It might seem [like] two very different dishes… but it’s almost the same thing.”
Another bit of fusion that Andrés explores at Fish is the Maryland Fry Bar, a counter with just a few seats within the restaurant, where seafood is dipped in a tempura batter before being fried to crispy perfection.
According to Andrés, the concept of tempura actually came to Japan via Jesuits from Portugal and Spain in the 1700s.
“It’s my role to push forward flavor so you really understand what the seafood that we get from the bounty of American shores is all about,” says Andrés in his typically exuberant style. “That’s the biggest challenge, to keep pushing the envelope.”