How A Chef Finds Fresh Ingredients In The Literal Food Desert Of Las Vegas
Geno Bernardo gets his vegetables an hour away from the Las Vegas Strip
The chilaquiles at Herringbone. Photo by Maria Buck
Most seasoned foodies wouldn’t associate Las Vegas with agricultural bounty, but chef Geno Bernardo begs to differ.
Bernardo first forged his tight-knit relationships with local farmers during a seven-year stint at The Palms’ Nove Italiano, and now he’s leveraging them in a big way at the helm of Aria’s Herringbone—one of the newest installments in San Diego-based restaurateur Brian Malarkey’s growing “ocean-to-table” empire.
“I’m trying to make the impression here in Las Vegas that there are growers and farmers within a 50-mile radius that are really setting an amazing standard,” says Bernardo.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]All chefs in Las Vegas have the ability to order from the same California farms that every chef from San Diego to Napa uses, and we all do use them. But I like to take it one step further.[/quote]
Chief on Bernardo’s list is Desert Bloom Eco-Farm, located in the tiny nearby town of Pahrump (population: 36,441). From its blazing perch in the Mojave Desert, the 10-acre organic produce farm offers a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, and eggs. Case in point: their giant green emu eggs that look like something out of Willy Wonka’s world, courtesy of the emus that roam the property.
Chef Bernardo is flipping the concept of farm-to-table in Vegas. Photo by Jen Jones Donatelli
“They’re really hard to find because the emus hide them and they’re very territorial,” says Bernardo. Bernardo visits the farm at least once a week to peruse the wares and consult with co-owner and planting supervisor Claudia Andracki. “It can be scorching hot, but there are eggplant, squash, tomatoes, and certain types of kale and arugula that just thrive in the heat,” says Bernardo.
He credits Andracki’s “great compost” technique and the on-site indoor greenhouse that helps shield the crops from the harsh elements.
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]The eggs are really hard to find because the emus hide them and they’re very territorial.[/quote]
“The soil [Claudia] developed has really made an impact on what’s coming out of the land—the flavors keep getting better and better.”
It shows on Herringbone’s menu, which serves up dishes like a “Desert Bloom Farm Salad” featuring a mesclun mix of spicy greens, frisees, and arugula, along with cherry tomatoes and shaved vegetables from the farm. Desert Bloom supplies all of the restaurant’s chicken eggs, and the farm’s ingredients can also be tasted in many of the other dishes like the eggplant parmesan lunch special, bacon and egg ravioli, the Strawberry Fields salad, or one of Bernardo’s favorites—an off-menu emu egg frittata featuring Desert Bloom ingredients like squash, peppers, basil, and garlic.
The bacon and egg ravioli at Herringbone. Photo by Maria Buck
Bernardo also uses the farm’s edible flowers as garnishes for salads and shellfish platters, to add a “softness to the plate.” Bernardo’s approach is somewhat unique in Las Vegas—where farm-to-table cuisine is plentiful, but authentic locally sourced meals can be another story.
“All chefs in Las Vegas have the ability to order from the same [California] farms that every chef from San Diego to Napa uses, and we all do use them,” says Bernardo. “But I like to take it one step further.”
Bernardo has taken an increasingly active role with the small Desert Bloom team. Bernardo first met Andracki at the Pahrump Farmers Market in 2008, back when he was the chef at Nove Italiano. From there, “the relationship grew and grew,” says Bernardo. “They became my family out here as far as going out to the farm, hanging out, and helping them develop certain products that I feel work in the desert.”
[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]I’m trying to make the impression here in Las Vegas that there are growers and farmers within a 50-mile radius that are really setting an amazing standard.[/quote]
Bernardo eventually left Nove Italiano in 2012 for culinary posts in New York City and Cabo San Lucas, but he stayed in touch with Andracki. When he returned in 2015 to take on the job at Herringbone, the pair picked up where they left off.
“When we were doing our tastings [for Herringbone], I started bringing in Desert Bloom product again—doing more varieties of greens, heirloom tomatoes, eggplant, micro greens, herbs, corn, and strawberries,” he says. “We got a great response.”
Today, Bernardo can throw out terms like “cover crops” with ease and happily nerd out discussing other tricks for offering protection from desert climate extremes, like putting out full water and Gatorade bottles to absorb sunlight during the day and using them to keep the plants warm at night. Bernardo also takes the former part of Herringbone’s sustainable sourcing credo seriously, working with “small one-boat [fishing] operations” from Alaska to Rhode Island to Louisiana to secure delicious catch.
“Growing up, my family belonged to the oldest fishing club in Asbury Park, New Jersey; fishing off the piers was life for me as a kid,” remembers Bernardo. “Fishing is in my blood.”
For Bernardo, it all comes back to making good food, supporting worthy farmers, and keeping it local.
“If you truly want [to cook] farm-to-table, you have to go out there, search for it, and know your growers,” says Bernardo. “As a chef, I feel I’m part of their community. Building that bridge and working with them has been nothing but amazing for me.”