If you’ve dined at any of the most celebrated restaurants in Las Vegas, chances are you’ve experienced the vision of Elizabeth Blau. From the French precision of the Michelin-starred Le Cirque at Bellagio to the fresh-seafood concept at Wynn’s Costa di Mare and the comfort-driven Italian menu at Buddy V’s Ristorante at The Venetian® Resort Las Vegas’ Grand Canal Shoppes, perhaps no one has been more integral than Blau in the transformation of Las Vegas into a city praised for its culinary mix and roster of internationally known chefs.
Blau arrived in Las Vegas in 1997, just prior to the opening of the Bellagio. Recruiting both chef Michael Mina and legendary restaurateur Sirio Maccioni—with whom Blau started her career after receiving her M.S. in Hotel Administration from Cornell University—instantly elevated the culinary scene in Las Vegas. Twenty-four years later, as president of the Las Vegas-based restaurant development company Blau & Associates, her impact continues to be felt both in and out of professional kitchens around the U.S., but it’s clear that shaping the Las Vegas landscape continues to draw her focus. “We have evolved into a true culinary destination,” she says. “That’s evident not only in all the Strip and tourist-driven offerings, but also in the next generation of chefs who have opened restaurants off the Strip. A true local restaurant community exists here.”
Those off-Strip offerings include Honey Salt, the popular farm-to-table restaurant Blau runs with her husband, chef Kim Canteenwalla. But that personal endeavor doesn’t keep her from adding additional flavors to the city’s restaurant scene. Grand Canal Shoppes’ Buddy V’s, with celebrity chef Buddy Valastro at the helm, is a perfect example—a family-driven space featuring faithful Italian dishes, which Blau and Valastro designed to feel more relaxed than the high-concept spaces previously introduced throughout the Strip.
“Great Italian restaurants were already present at Grand Canal Shoppes, but what was really game-changing when we opened Buddy V’s is that he came with 20 million fans across all of his platforms,” Blau notes. “Buddy has more social-media followers versus most celebrity chefs combined. It’s really exciting to have that built-in audience, but that also means you have to live up to very high expectations.”
Her knowledge of a professional kitchen’s inner workings has served Blau well over the years, and she recently decided to pay that experience forward with an innovative program designed to elevate women in the culinary industry. Together with a group of female industry veterans, Blau co-founded the Women’s Hospitality Initiative in early 2020 to promote gender equity via classes, mentoring, and networking, with an end goal of leveling the playing field for women seeking to achieve executive-chef positions or run their own restaurants. Blau cites a key statistic as an example of why the program is needed: While roughly 50 percent of culinary-school graduates are women, less than seven percent of restaurants are owned by women or helmed by a woman as executive chef.
Blau says she was inspired by the 2019 documentary “A Fine Line,” conceptualized by filmmaker Joanna James to put a spotlight on the inequity of women in professional kitchens. “Joanna sent me the documentary and asked if we could do a premiere in Las Vegas,” Blau recalls. “When I watched it, it felt like a bit of a gut punch. I thought about the tremendous opportunities I’ve had, and how the women coming up behind me were looking at me as a mentor. I realized that there was a lot more I could be doing.”
The launch of the Women’s Hospitality Initiative coincided with the Las Vegas premiere of “A Fine Line” at the University of Nevada Las Vegas in February 2020, but that was only the beginning of UNLV’s involvement. This past fall the university’s Harrah College of Hospitality partnered with the Culinary Institute of America to present “From the Classroom to the Boardroom: Leadership for Women in Hospitality.” The academic course of guest speakers included Blau and James, as well as executive chef Jennifer Murphy, who oversees restaurant operations at Caesar’s Palace, and other industry experts who offered practical advice on how to succeed in an industry that has historically been dominated by men.
“We wanted to offer real-world experience in a collegiate setting,” Blau says. “Not only are these women getting real-world advice, they’re also hearing the stories and journeys from all these women they can look up to as mentors.” For Spring 2021, the course has been added to Florida International University’s Chaplin School of Hospitality and Tourism Management in Miami, while Blau anticipates that the program will be expanded to additional schools in the coming months.
Yet even as the Women’s Hospitality Initiative’s inaugural course was in its planning stages, the COVID-19 pandemic caused another shift in Blau’s priorities. “As a tourist destination we quickly had one of the highest unemployment rates in the U.S., so we needed to activate where help was needed the most,” she explains. Honey Salt soon partnered with three other restaurants and a catering company in Las Vegas to create Delivering with Dignity, which in the past 12 months has worked with a volunteer network to provide more than a quarter-million meals to the city’s most vulnerable residents.
“Las Vegas has been significantly impacted the past year—for example, the entire convention business, which is one of the main drivers of the city’s economy, just evaporated, so everyone has to stick together for survival,” Blau says. “This is the time when partnerships matter. We’ll see things get back to normal in Las Vegas, but we’ll also be using the lessons we’ve learned since last March to move the industry forward in increasingly positive ways.”
Ultimately that balance of assisting the community and highlighting opportunities for women in the culinary industry, while also keeping an eye on the next great restaurant opportunity in Las Vegas, will remain integral to Blau’s vision for the city. “[The past year has] been tough in many ways,” she adds. “But I’m confident that we should be excited about the future.”