Golden Nugget Lake Charles
Chef Spotlight • By Karla Wall
For Michael Elliot, property executive chef at Golden Nugget Lake Charles, cooking is more than a vocation.
“Cooking is my passion,” he says.
Elliot began cooking at age 13, helping out with his family’s catering business. When his parents divorced, he found that cooking and staying busy helped him deal with the stress of the situation.
And he discovered he was good at it.
“Some people are natural athletes. I found my talent in the kitchen,” he says. “I found that people enjoyed what I made. They talked about it at work and at school.”
His mother, he says, encouraged him and took photos of his food, “back in the Kodak film days.” He began having dinner parties for family and friends. He bought a set of cookbooks and began working on perfecting techniques. He also watched a lot of Food Network back in the network’s educational days.
“I loved watching Emeril Lagasse,” he says. “He was so expressive. People just lightened up and brightened up when they were watching him.”
By the time Elliot was in high school, he knew that cooking would be his career. He enrolled in the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute and, despite not having a fondness for classroom work, made the dean’s list while he was there.
His work after graduating from the school in 2000 included stints at Italian restaurants, fine dining clubs and hotels in the Kentucky/Pennsylvania/Ohio region.
In 2006, he joined the staff of Presque Isle Downs and Casino in Erie, Penn., as a broiler cook. He worked his way up to room chef and chef de cuisine.
He found his niche in the gaming industry. The Presque Isle job was followed by a move to Charles Town, W.V., to work for Penn Gaming’s Hollywood Casino. He started as a sous chef and handled a couple of openings for company-owned casinos in other areas.
“I found that working in the casino industry, you’d better have a sharp knife … to open boxes. You do a lot of openings in different areas.”
He went to St. Louis to handle the opening of a Harrah’s Casino there, as it was converted to a Hollywood Casino. From there, he moved to Reno, Nev.
“I moved with my wife as she moved up the corporate ladder in the company,” he says. “She was in human resources.”
But that was reversed in 2015 when he was the one offered the better position at Golden Nugget. “She moved with me this time,” he says. The Elliots came to Lake Charles.
And Elliot says he loves it here.
“It’s been fantastic,” he says. “I love the hospitality and the welcoming atmosphere here.”
And, of course, there’s the food.
“Everyone here cooks,” Elliot says. “This is a place that’s focused on food. There are so many food events.”
Elliot says one of the perks of having moved around the country was that he had the opportunity to sample and cook many different cuisines.
“I’ve learned something in every region I’ve lived in,” he says. “I have a background in Spanish cuisine, with its peppers and sauces.”
But the Creole and Cajun food of SWLA has captured his heart.
“Everything is so flavorful,” he says, “with the aromatics, the spices. It’s just so flavorful. I never thought I’d taste gumbo with such depth of flavor. I’ve learned so much here about flavoring and using spices to enhance food.”
He’s also learned to love eating and cooking rice.
“We eat potatoes in Pennsylvania. We eat potatoes with everything,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to work with rice.”
Elliot says he loves the unique opportunities that working for a casino provides. “I love the excitement. There’s always something going on,” he says.
He also enjoys the “natural marketing flow” a casino provides. “People come in continuously due to the marketing efforts of the casino,” he says. “I don’t have to market a restaurant.”
He also enjoys the fact that he sees his customers regularly over a period of days. “People stay here for days, and eat at different restaurants in the casino,” he says. “I get to feed the same people over and over.”
Asked what else he enjoys about the job, Elliot says he loves making his customers happy and knowing they enjoy his food.
But to Elliot, his team members (he doesn’t call them employees) are family, and their happiness and contentment in their jobs, and in their lives, is what’s perhaps most important to him.
“My co-workers are family,” he says. “We see each other probably more than we see our families. And I love to see team members move up. I love seeing them want to grow and take classes and get the training they need to move up,” he says. “They’re growing not just for themselves, but for their families and their future.”
So Elliot teaches at every opportunity. He recently taught several team members how to make pasta from scratch.
“Some of the team members had never made pasta. They loved it. They made all kinds of pasta and took it home to their families, proud of what they’d done. That’s knowledge they have now.”
And Elliot is as passionate about helping the community as he is his team. He’s worked with the Calcasieu Association for Retarded Citizens, United Way, Goodwill and other agencies to hire team members with special needs. There are currently 25 special-needs team members working with Elliot.
“I want to bring in as many people with special needs as I can,” he says. “I want to make them part of the experience. They so often just need a little attention or training. They want to be part of a team. And they’re so eager for praise.”
He relates the story of one special-needs teammate who had gotten his first paycheck. “I told him not to forget that Mother’s Day was coming up,” Elliot recalls. “He wanted to spend the whole paycheck on a Mother’s Day gift. I told him ‘no, you can’t do that.’”
Elliot says special-needs co-workers are given tasks that work around their needs and skills — wrapping silverware, for instance. And they stick to that job.
“We want to make them comfortable through repetition,” he says.
He’s also worked with local high schools and Sowela to provide internships for students interested in the culinary field. There are currently five Sowela students interning at Golden Nugget, working while they earn their culinary degree.
“They do all of their training at the casino,” Elliot says. “And attend Sowela for a couple of classroom courses.”
He proudly tells of a girl who interned at Golden Nugget while finishing Sowela — in her senior year of high school. “She actually got her degree from Sowela a few days before she got her high school diploma from Barbe,” Elliot says.
Being a chef is “mentally and physical tough,” Elliot says.
“There are a lot of pieces on the chess board to move around,” he says. “You don’t want guests to see any ‘hiccups,’ so when you’re having trouble with transporting items because of work on 210 or I-10, you have to find a way to re-source everything so that your guests experience no delay or disappointment.”
But he loves the job. And he loves where he is. He has no plans to leave.
“My wife and I recently bought a house here,” he says. “We’d never done that before. We’d always rented, assuming we’d be moving on. This is different. We want to develop ties to this area.”