Photo courtesy of TREVI
Since he was 14 years old, Jose Navarro has worked in kitchens. He stumbled into the career by happenchance. His sister’s friend’s family had an opening at their restaurant for help. Eventually he learned some of the basics before making the jump to Gold Coast at age 16. It wasn’t until two years later in 1997, when he got a job at Caesars Palace and eventually realized there was more to a cooking career and that he had found his true path. He’s helmed Trevi at the Forum Shops at Caesars the past three years, after spending four years at Grotto restaurant in the Golden Nugget on Fremont Street. His career has led him through all sorts of cuisines and restaurants, and vegetarian-centric ideas.
At one point you went from Fremont Street back to the Strip. How are they alike and how are they different?
Downtown seems to be more rooted in tradition. People come to Fremont and want to see more of the Old Vegas, and it’s not that they don’t care about seasonality, but they’re not as interested in the forefront of cuisine. They want to see old school veal parmesan, chicken marsala. Again, not that they don’t care about quality, they’re just not as focused on it. On the Strip, people don’t want to get overwhelmed, but they want to know where things are sourced from. They’ll definitely frown if you’re still running a butternut squash ravioli in the summer or in the winter having a watermelon salad. Downtown and Strip, they both want top quality ingredients, it’s just the approach that changes.
What’s your favorite dish to cook?
It changes from season to season and even week to week. The dishes I’m enjoying the most are the ones that I’m in touch with the vendors and purveyors, something I haven’t seen in a long time, or something I haven’t seen before. For Bastille Day, we brought in escargot. They are part of the Italian cuisine, but not something you see in every Italian restaurant, so we brought it in, got some looks, made a dish. Everyone who tried it commented on how delicious it was. That was my favorite that week.
Escargot was recent, but any new ingredients you’re playing with, or find challenging?
Not really. The biggest challenge we have here, is every ingredient we get, we’re gonna keep it as simple as possible to showcase it rather than manipulate it into something it’s not. No one here had seen escargot in a while or ever in Trevi history, so snails? The biggest hurdle is getting people to try it once it hits the table. If they don’t like it, that’s fine. I cannot make someone who doesn’t like carrots love carrots, I cannot do that, but I can definitely cook carrots in a way, if you’re willing to give them a try, you’ll like them.
How do you keep an Italian restaurant fresh and new?
We do two big overhauls a year, right before spring and fall. I will never get away with not having caprese salad, but the approach we take, I look at classic things people are used to having for the core menu and we change it up a little so it’s not the same. Fall is butternut squash, but we’ll do it a little different, maybe sweet potato and fall squash ravioli. They’ll still think butternut squash, but it won’t be the same as at every other Italian restaurant; I feel that’s the way you almost trick people to try something they normally wouldn’t, but not lying. It’s not that they are weird and we’re not reinventing the wheel; the rounder the better.
Where’s your favorite place to eat in
I eat depending on what we feel like. We gravitate toward the steakhouses whenever we go out for date night. We gravitate toward them, but the steak is not the center of the dinner. We’re there for the oysters, the appetizers. We like the ones that keep it fresh. Andiron, they change the menu and keep it light. They like to keep the cuisine light and crisp, and we like that so you enjoy a few more dishes and leave without being too full. And of course we have steak.
Best tip to find good food while traveling?
When I first check in somewhere, I like to sit at the bar, order some things and ask where to eat. They always try to send me to the resort, and I tell them they’re not coming here on their day off. Then you get to the nitty-gritty of it. They point you in the right direction.