Culinary Career Options: Casinos


Working in Casinos: What are the jobs, the requirements, the pros and cons. What next?

For the most part, casinos are hotels with their own purpose.

Like all food service operations, they come in various shapes and sizes from the lavish Atlantic City and Las Vegas properties to tribally  operated card rooms and halls of slot machines. Obviously the skills and rewards for their employees vary widely.
The classic casino used to receive most of its income from gambling, and purposes its restaurants to keep patrons on the floor or in the building. Buffets and bar food are writ large. All have a three meal restaurant. “High end” properties in the past were usually steak or surf and turf based, while most also had a Chinese restaurant to attract a very desirable, high rolling Asian clientele.

With the re thinking of the casino in Las Vegas a couple of decades ago, the focus of the casino center properties shifted from just gambling, which still occupies the top spot in their income, to a combination of destination resort, conference center, entertainment center and restaurant collection. The basic casino footprint was scaled up to include some properties with the size and complexity of small towns. As casinos became destination locations for families beginning with Circus Circus, and their campuses small town, the function of the chef expanded from creating buffets and managing steak and pancake operations to presiding over the food service operations for up to a dozen or more restaurants, pool outlets, events and room service, making him or her more a sort of culinary CEO. Being the Executive Chef of a major casino is to being a restaurant chef of even a high volume restaurant as piloting the Queen Mary is to rowing a dinghy – an entirely different animal.

Compensation for the upper management positions in the mega casinos is among the top in the industry, reaching a few hundred thousand dollars, commensurate with the responsibilities and knowledge required. Nearly all of the larger casinos offer 401K plans, excellent benefits and excellent perk packages. Lower level staff on the whole earn well and are given good packages. As in hotels, many casino chefs also enjoy “points”, that is a bonus structure based on the banquet income achieved.

Those hotels with outside units such as Olives, Wolfgang Puck and Picasso have leased their space to celebrity operators under the standards and labor arrangements of the property. Employees of these units answer to the owners, whether Emeril or Puck and are generally hired by them, but are also responsible for keeping the policies of the property, which may provide some of the services for the units.

Even, however, with many of the food outlets leased out, the mega casino chef is usually responsible for multiple restaurants, room service, events including major conventions with thousands of attendees, and multiple outlets for pools, tennis courts, etc. That includes menus, hiring, training, oversight of staffs of several hundred. Most have assistants who deal with a good part but not all of the administrative tasks of a kitchen. Executive Sous Chefs often have greater responsibility than chefs of some larger hotels. The actual burner time of these executive chefs is just about zero, while the next positions down require more kitchen time.

The food focus of any casino plays to its audience, which even with the top luxury locations is not as food oriented as the customers of destination fine dining restaurants. This applies not only to the casino operated restaurants but to the celebrity owned restaurants as well, which attract a less sophisticated and adventurous clientele than their mother restaurants in places like San Francisco or New York. Many aspiring chefs accepting positions in these locations find this disappointing, but in general the professional aspect of the locations is the same as the original restaurants, and they are good career building options. In the larger casinos finding good subordinates is somewhat more challenging than it is in major urban hotels.

Casino culinary management is held to the highest food safety standards for obvious reasons. Executives and some subordinates must have HAACP training and all employees are food safety certified. This is becoming the standard in all food and beverage operations.
All casinos are highly policy driven, partially because they are under the scrutiny of several federal agencies. Anyone wishing to work in a casino should be comfortable working in a highly regulated environment. With the exception of tribal casinos, most are unionized.

Tribally operated casinos, riverboats with gambling, single one off casinos outside of Las Vegas, Atlantic City or Biloxi and independent card rooms are another matter entirely. Their main purpose is attracting gamblers, and their clientele is as likely to come in a bus as by air. Most of them have one to three outlets: The buffet plus possibly the bar, intended to keep gamblers on the floor, a “fine dining restaurant” which generally features steak or surf and turf but may be Chinese and a three meal restaurant. The main focus is rarely the creation of food but the management. Food cost tends to be less important in these casinos, as the main income stream is gambling.

Chefs at these properties are responsible for training and finding staff, often a challenge, developing menus suitable for a generally middle America style palate and for the smooth operation of the property. The compensation for these positions is much lower than that of the glamorous mega casinos, and we have found some of these positions to pay well below industry standards. With only one or two restaurants, they are more likely to be hands on. The locations are generally away from major population areas, which means that the cost of living is low while the standard if living is usually higher than in urban centers. It also means that training unskilled staff is part of the chef’s job, and that the chef needs to be able to develop an organized delivery system, as vendors may only come once or twice a week.

Tribally operated casinos have a few unique characteristics. Since they are on tribal property, they are subject to tribal and not federal law. They have in the past effectively resisted union organization. Some of these properties are managed by the tribe themselves, which may mean that upper management is not profoundly experienced in the food and beverage industry, while others are managed as franchises of the major casino corporations, which means that the corporation will be of assistance in staff recruiting and will set its policies. Where upper management positions are not filled with proven professionals their chefs frequently complain of arbitrary decision making. In the case of labor disputes some casino employees report frustrating dealings with the management. Some have also noted in the past that a high degree of political savvy is helpful in operating their food service successfully.

Those well managed and well staffed, however, provide satisfying and rewarding employment.

How do you get into casinos? Casino food service involves a high degree of organization, understanding of volume production requirements, exceptional staff organizational, supervisory and staff development abilities, the ability to juggle multiple balls at the same time and rock solid culinary knowledge. Chefs are recruited from major hotels, often from the executive sous chef slot, or they are brought up in the casino system and promoted through the ranks. Anyone wishing to be part of these systems is wise to direct their career to volume and production early. The enormity of the large properties means that casinos offer a variety of career directions and positions such as true garde manager not common outside this part of the industry.

All casino employees must have a gaming license, which takes up to three months to acquire, so hiring a management employee can be a drawn out process. The gaming license requires that the individual have no criminal record, no record of drug use, no DUI arrests. Once a professional has this certification he is attractive to other casinos. Once he loses it, he cannot work in a casino again.

The gambling license will not put the chef of a river boat into a management position at Bellagio, but it will make him more attractive for a subordinate position. Entering the less prestigious casinos may require no more than a chef job in a larger restaurant, or the casino may require a volume production, multi-unit background.
Where do you go from here: Casinos are enough like hotels that the transition between the two can be seamless. Casino employed chefs rarely go back to restaurants, but unit chefs of the celebrity properties are highly desired. For culinary graduates a position in one of these locations is a good way to begin your career with high standards while being able to pay down your student loan.

Most food and beverage management employees once in casinos chooses to stay, excepting the challenge of the limitations of the locations. Reasons for leaving are frequently personal – a fiancé does not want to live in Las Vegas, for instance. The smaller casino chefs have fewer opportunities outside the genre, which often include sports arenas, occasionally smaller conference centers, industrial food service, or some nor urban restaurants.

Why not aspire to casino chef or manager
: Casinos are great places to work and provide the satisfaction of meeting multiple challenges at many levels, but they are not for everyone. For one thing, they are highly disciplined environments with the limitations on creativity and entrepreneurial spirit or impetuous behavior of the best hotels. The main casino requires great food and a creative mind, but most have no need or aspiration to cutting edge product. Independent restaurants within the property are a different matter. They require professionalism and maturity.

Food is rarely the attraction of any casino, even those which promote their gourmet meals.
Casinos have shown themselves not be recession proof. Las Vegas and Atlantic City chefs may have felt the downturn more than any other group, as profits dropped as much as 70%. While they offer stability within reason, this is their Achilles heel.

The various state laws of the United States limit the locations. Casinos are where they are. If this is your career, you have to be ready to live there. Fortunately most of them are fairly nice places.

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