John Courtney Chef Block 16
Photo by Anthony Mair
John Courtney spent more than a decade as a banker before deciding it was time to live out his dream in the kitchen.
Courtney now leads The Cosmopolitan’s new Block 16 collection, following several years as the culinary director of Simon Hospitality Group, which included time at Carson Kitchen. He came to Las Vegas in 2009 to work with Rick Moonen at RM Seafood, before going on to become an opening specialist of sorts, helping launch Born & Raised, DB Brasserie and Yardbird.
Now at his favorite hotel on the Strip, he doesn’t see himself leaving until he and his wife can retire to a mountain town, providing him the opportunity to open a breakfast joint.
When did you start cooking?
My family always cooked. They weren’t chefs, but cooked everything from scratch. As a kid, with my parents both at work, I’d tend to get things ready for dinner and this was at a time I could call my mom at her desk and she’d answer and walk me through recipes.
How’d you go from banking to kitchen?
I was in banking for 12 years at Wells Fargo and for many years I had wanted to leave that industry, always wanted to cook. I went to a restaurant owned by a family friend and he thought I had a very large resume, was too old and had too much real world work experience. So I worked for free for six months and if I could work for free, it has to be the job I really wanted. If you don’t love what you do, you wouldn’t do that. I didn’t want to work in a French bistro my whole life, so I went to culinary school. I’d get up at 6 a.m. and work until midnight for 18 months. Then I got an apprenticeship for a two-star Michelin restaurant in France and that changed everything in my opinion of food and the approach I take to a menu. It made me focus on who I am today. Then I went from the French Alps to the ocean in California.
What was that switch like, banking to cooking?
At the time, my son was five or six. It was something for me to show him; you can do anything. If you want to be a doctor at 45, you can do whatever you want in this world. It might cost a lot and take a lot of time schooling, but you can do it. He could see that you can take one career path and turn it to another.
Was there anything translatable from banking?
Managing a bank isn’t anything special. From one bank to the next, there may be different services, but it’s pretty vanilla. What I learned was that the finance piece (of overseeing a restaurant) is huge. Food costs you can get better hitting the mark you want to be at, the percentage ownership is looking for. That translated really well and makes it a lot more beneficial.
You were doing a lot of openings, was Block 16 just the next evolution?
I’d never done six. Openings are already crazy, why not get crazier? It’s a property I’ve always liked. I always found myself coming to Cosmo on my days off, so why not work here?
Is managing six restaurants at one time difficult?
It’s six pared down versions of existing restaurants. Thankfully the Cosmo is great with resources and the team around us or the management, front of house, media support, everyone in this hotel bands together well. It really didn’t seem as daunting of a task to open six. It really shows when my boss is on the line with me. But opening six at once was a great way to learn six styles of food and how six operators put lightning in a bottle in different ways.
Is it tough to switch between the six?
I wouldn’t say difficult to switch but the expectations set forth by that brand, so when something goes awry it can be a little difficult, but there’s nothing we can’t seem to overcome. The cuisine is the easiest part of it. Logistics of moving supplies from one part of the building in 10 minutes is challenging, but it’s an arrow for the quiver in the future.
Going from a 9-to-5 to restaurant hours, how do you balance life?
I don’t stop to look at crazy to not crazy. My son now, he’s never had food off the shelf. He’s in the kitchen with me. He’s not even two and can identify foods and get stuff I need to help make it. But I’d hate for him to be a chef, I’d rather he be an architect and build restaurants, whatever makes him happy.
But my motto is cook good food and go home.