Getting the freshest ingredients for restaurants in large cities can often be a challenge for chefs. This becomes doubly hard when your restaurant happens to be in the middle of a desert. Yet, Las Vegas has been making huge inroads into becoming a premier restaurant destination, where diners can expect exceptional meals made from the freshest ingredients available.
It takes a great deal of time, effort and relationship building to make it happen, says Roy Ellamar, executive chef of Harvest, an award-winning market-inspired restaurant at the Bellagio. It helps that there are actually farms near Las Vegas (who knew?) — from small, traditional family farms to cutting-edge indoor urban growers — with even more moving to the area.
“I’m a big advocate of using local agriculture and having strong relationships with our farmers and producers,” says Ellamar. “We’re in the desert, so a lot of things are flown or trucked in and the quality of ingredients isn’t as great as it could be. It’s not what I want to work with.”
Ellamar works with a variety of farmers around Nevada, including Herbs by Diane in Boulder City, 30 miles outside of Las Vegas, where he is able to get “boutique ingredients.” Herbs by Diane, an organic farm owned and operated by Diane Greene, has been around for over a decade. She hand-harvests her produce on two acres, using homemade compost and lots of mulch to combat the sandy soil and arid desert climate, she says. Greene has been working with Ellamar since she started the farm and has a close working relationship with him. “He frequently texts me when he needs something special, and I let him know when I have something different,” she says. “He has been here several times and brought some of his family here.” Besides Harvest, Greene provides everything from microgreens to edible flowers to a dozen other Las Vegas restaurants.
Small farms can only produce so much food, and with close to 40 million visitors to Las Vegas each year, there are large-scale, cutting-edge indoor farms moving to the area to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by the city. James Beard Award–winning chef Shawn McClain, the chef behind Libertine Social at Mandalay Bay and Sage and Five50 Pizza Bar at Aria, believes that Las Vegas is the perfect test market for indoor vertical farms because the city has “demanding world-class chefs” who want good produce that’s grown as locally as possible.
Last year, Oasis Biotech, one of the largest indoor hydroponic vertical-farming facilities in the United States, began operations. Among the factors that drew the Chinese-backed start-up to Las Vegas was the city’s reputation as a “food mecca and tourist destination,” says Michelle Howell, the company’s sales and marketing manager. Another factor was (strangely) the climate. “If we can make this concept work in the middle of a desert that reaches 100-plus-degree temperatures most of the year, we can make it work anywhere,” says Howell.
The 215,000-square-foot facility can produce 1,500 pounds of pesticide- and herbicide-free microgreens and lettuce a day using 90 percent less water than a traditional farm. Its LED lighting also uses 50 percent less energy than high-pressure sodium lights. Oasis Biotech is selling its produce under the brand name Evercress, with delivery times that range from 24 to 48 hours from harvest to plate, according to the company. It’s working with Get Fresh, a Las Vegas food distribution company that services many of the local restaurants and casinos.
Las Vegas chefs are discerning and demand “as close to perfect as you can get in the produce world,” says Andy Hamilton, vice-president of sales for Get Fresh. “If the folks at Oasis Biotech can figure it out here, they should be able to apply it anywhere,” he says. “The company is starting with one of the most challenging and discerning markets, and we’re optimistic that it will be successful.”
Get Fresh is also working with another indoor vertical-farming company, Green Sense Farms, that’s breaking ground in Henderson, a Las Vegas suburb, and plans to be up and running by next June. The facility will be approximately 20,000 square feet, with an estimated yearly output of one million heads of lettuce and one million herb plants, says Robert Colangelo, the company’s founding farmer and CEO. The company plans to grow a variety of lettuces, herbs and baby greens, such as arugula, kale and cress.
Green Sense Farms, based in Indiana, was approached by a large casino on the strip to dedicate the entire farm production to its operations, says Colangelo. The company’s facility will also include a retail outlet and an education and outreach center where visitors can take a self-guided walking tour to learn how the company grows food, he says.
The arrival of large urban farms to Las Vegas doesn’t mean that smaller, traditional farms will necessarily lose out, says Geno Bernardo, executive chef at The Summit Club, a private luxury golf community in Las Vegas. “There’s enough room for both urban farms and beautiful, rural mom-and-pop farms,” he says.