Las Vegas chefs are on the ball

By Rebecca Larsen, Contributor

LAS VEGAS -- Among the golf lovers you'll find in Las Vegas are chefs who operate some of the city's trendiest restaurants.

Entrepreneur/chef Richard Sandoval, who will soon open Isla Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar at Treasure Island, is one of the guys who can cook on a driving range as well as on a gas range. Sandoval owns five other "modern Mexican" restaurants, including Pampano and Maya in New York City.

"When you're having one of those tough, stressful kind of days, going out to golf can relax you," says Sandoval, "but it can also be very demanding if you don't practice."

Sandoval, who enjoys playing at Shadow Creek in Las Vegas, started golfing about 12 years ago when he was 25. "I was living in Acapulco and working for my father in the restaurant business," he says. "I used to play golf everyday from 2 to 6 p.m. That's when everybody else in Acapulco goes home and things close down because it's too hot. And the rates drop, too. I'd try to play nine holes everyday."

But he quit golfing for a few years when he moved to New York City. "Th

en I started again when my parents moved to Newport Beach," he says. "I love playing at Pelican Hill." He's also a fan of Pebble Beach in Northern California.

Sandoval, whose handicap is about 15, says his drives are the highlight of his game. "I can hit the ball about 260 to 270 yards and I usually hit it pretty straight. But I am not that good. I don't have much time to practice."

Chef Todd English, who operates Olives Las Vegas at the Bellagio, is also something of a golf addict. English, 43, began a meteoric rise through the culinary world with Olives in Charlestown, Mass. When the restaurant opened almost 20 years ago, it drew national acclaim for its rustic Mediterranean cuisine. His other restaurants now include Olives DC in Washington, Olives Aspen in Colorado, and Olives Tokyo.

His golfing career literally goes back 40 years to when he was only 3. "My grandfather was a scratch golfer, and his brother was a teaching pro. So I grew up with a golf club in my hand," English says. "There are a lot of childhood pictures of me hitting a ball."

But he never played high school golf; instead he played baseball. "But I played golf on weekends with my friends," he says, "and I played whenever I got a chance."

These days, his handicap is about 12. "I'm pretty disappointed in that to tell you the truth," he says. "I play in the mid-80s. I make a lot of stupid putts and miss a lot of greens."

He doesn't always hit the fairway either. "It's not that I slice," he says. "It's more that I tend to muscle the ball too much. Because I played too much baseball in high school, my swing has too much body movement. I move through the ball and push it right or left. But when I'm on, I can hit pretty well."

Although English can rattle off a list of courses he's played that's as long as the list of ingredients in a pot of bouillabaisse, he is especially fond of some of the top courses in Las Vegas: Shadow Creek, TPC Canyons, Red Rock, for example. "There are a lot of great courses there," he says. "And desert golf is fun to play even though you have to be very accurate and it can be frustrating at times. I like to play in the warmth of the desert."

A golfing friend of English, Roy Yamaguchi, who also likes Shadow Creek, operates two restaurants in the Las Vegas area, both carrying the trademark Hawaiian fusion cuisine he invented at his flagship Honolulu restaurant. "I always try to have my restaurants close to golf courses because golf and Roy's go together," Yamaguchi says. "One of my restaurants is in Summerlin, near the TPC Summerlin. And I have one at Pebble Beach."

Yamaguchi, now 47, first tried the game when he was 18, but got off to a rocky start. "I lived in an apartment overlooking a 9-hole course," he says, "and I used to go down to play a hole or two when I had a chance."

After about a year of playing, he went out to practice one day at a driving range in Los Angeles. "Somehow I got my club under the ball on the tee and popped it up. It hit me in the eye and seriously bruised my cornea. I didn't go blind, but I was all bandaged up for two and a half months. I couldn't work. I couldn't go outside or watch TV. So that was my little tragedy, and I never wanted to play golf again."

Then 10 years ago, he was invited to come to Pebble Beach to discuss opening a restaurant. The late John Chadwell, then president of the Pebble Beach Co., wanted him to open a Roy's at the Inn at Spanish Bay. "Every time I came to visit, he would leave a different club in my bedroom," Yamaguchi says. "First it was a driver, then the next time a putter, then a three-wood. And that's how I came to golf again."

His love for golf has since brought him in close contact with many of the big names on the PGA Tour who love his cuisine. "I've played Whisper Rock (Scottsdale) with Tim Herron," he says. "I recently played with Frank Lickliter at the Stadium Course at Sawgrass. In December I played in the Grand Slam Pro Am at Poipu Bay on Kauai with Jim Furyk."

Interested in dining at the Las Vegas restaurants of the golfing chefs?

Roy's Las Vegas is located at 620 E. Flamingo Road, Las Vegas. Phone: (702) 691-2053.

Roy's Summerlin is located at 8701 W. Charleston Blvd., Las Vegas. Phone: (702) 838-3620.

Olives Las Vegas is at the Bellagio Hotel, 3600 Las Vegas Blvd., S., Las Vegas (702) 693-8181.

The Isla Mexican Kitchen and Tequila Bar opens in June at Treasure Island, 3300 S. Las Vegas Blvd., Las Vegas. Phone: (702) 894-7111.

Rebecca LarsenRebecca Larsen, Contributor

Rebecca Larsen is a former features and assistant features editor for the Marin Independent Journal, a medium-sized daily paper located north of San Francisco. She has also worked for the Milwaukee Journal and for a Chicago public relations firm. She has a bachelor's in journalism from Northwestern University and a master's from the University of California at Berkeley.

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