by Alex Palmer | November 12, 2012
Bobby Flay is making his presence known at the Mohegan Sun

Incentive groups visiting gaming destinations have a growing number of ways to enjoy their food-and-beverage events with a celebrity twist. With new celebrity chef restaurants and hotels opening, and a wide range of culinary speakers and demos available, attendees have more options than ever to taste the work of "Top Chefs," "Iron Chefs," "Master Chefs," and more.

Booking a Chef
Of course, hiring a celebrity chef to take part in an incentive event can get expensive. Booking site Chef2Chef puts its minimum celebrity chef fee at $10,000, and booking a chef like Emeril Lagasse or Mario Batali could eat up the entire budget for an incentive trip several times over. But planners can incorporate winners and contestants of hit shows like "Iron Chef America" and "Chopped" to give attendees a taste of the programs they know without breaking the bank.

"You may not have Tom Colicchio, but there are several restaurants in Vegas where 'Top Chef' contestants from various seasons do work and offer cooking demonstrations and interactions," says Stephanie Arone, president and general manager of Las Vegas-based DMC Activity Planners.

Arone adds that the openings of two Gordon Ramsay restaurants in Las Vegas has created the possibility that contestants and winners of "Hell's Kitchen," if not the host himself, may be available for events and demos for incentive groups.

Another way to defray costs is to seek out celebrity chefs based near the gaming destination where the event will be held. Arone recommends Las Vegas native Rick Moonen, the force behind RM Seafood and r bar caf� at Mandalay Bay, who has a particular interest in educating groups about sustainable seafood and environmental responsibility in general.

Incentive planners looking to secure a celebrity chef for an in-person appearance at a gaming destination can consider reaching out to speakers bureaus such as All American Entertainment (AAE) and IMG Speakers. AAE's roster of celebrity chefs includes Marcus Samuelsson, Rick Bayless, and Rocco DiSpirito.

"We encourage our clients to be creative when planning their events," says Margo Sarlo, senior booking agent for AAE. "For example, one celebrity chef recently hosted an interactive farm-to-table-themed event which included an indoor farmer's market and a cooking demonstration."

AAE has also worked with its roster of chefs to provide cooking demos, moderated conversations, keynote speeches, cooking camps, and meet and greets. Sarlo believes gaming destinations are a particularly good fit for this. "In places like Las Vegas or Atlantic City, it is important to stand out from the crowd, so whether your goal is to generate traffic to a trade show, sell tickets, raise awareness, or generate excitement among your employees or customers, a key component is understanding the target demographic and what your group is trying to accomplish," says Sarlo.

Alex Alton, vice president of IMG Speakers, agrees that gaming destinations make fitting destinations for incorporating celebrity chefs, adding that they also have a built-in take-home gift.

"A signed cookbook offers a functional and personal takeaway," she says. "Chefs can also speak on a variety of subject matters, including key business points such as entrepreneurialism, branding, management, leadership, and operations."

Las Vegas Options
Over the last decade, through a concerted effort to attract the world's top restaurateurs and bolster its culinary offerings, Las Vegas has built itself into a true dining destination. This has only accelerated in the past year, with new celebrity chef restaurants - and even a chef-branded hotel - opening or slated to open soon.

The Nobu Hotel Caesars Palace, a boutique property of 81 rooms including 18 luxury suites and a massive Nobu Restaurant on the ground floor, is inspired by the design aesthetic of sushi chef Nobuyuki Matsuhisa's numerous restaurants. The entire property is ideal for incentive groups looking to live, eat, and even sleep high-end dining experiences.

Another high-profile celebrity chef offering in the city is the new Gordon Ramsay Steak from the "Hell's Kitchen" star, which opened earlier this year at Paris Las Vegas Hotel & Casino, with 274 seats and an expansive bar area. Christina Wilson, winner of the show's 10th season, serves as head chef. The famously ill-tempered chef will also be opening Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill at the Caesars Palace Coliseum at the end of the year.

"He's one of the most recognized chefs, especially with a show on mainstream network TV beyond even just the Food Network," says Arone. "Wolfgang Puck properties are also highly successful with groups, and now you're starting to see more of the elite chefs making their presence felt here."

In addition to the new offerings in Las Vegas, celebrity chef mainstays are also getting a revamp. MGM Grand, home to high-end offerings that include Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak, Wolfgang Puck's Bar & Grill, and AAA-Five-Diamond and Michelin-three-star restaurant Joel Robuchon, completed its $160-million renovation of 3,570 rooms and 647 suites at the end of September. Last year, the Tropicana secured Rao's former executive chef Carla Pellegrino to create Italian restaurant Bacio as part of its $180-million renovation. It has since proven to be a hit with corporate groups. 

Beyond The Strip
Celebrity chefs are invading smaller gaming destinations as well. In September, MGM Grand in Detroit announced that it would be introducing two new restaurants from Wolfgang Puck. At MGM Grand at Foxwoods in Mashantucket, CT, incentive groups can build a celebrity chef dine around with Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak, Michael Scholw's Alta Strada, and David Burke's Prime.

At Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT, groups can now enjoy multiple offerings from Food Network staple Bobby Flay, including the upscale Bar Americain and more casual  Bobby's Burger Palace.

Atlantic City Celebrity Cuisine
Atlantic City offers a wealth of celebrity chef choices. "Atlantic City has really seen the value in trying to attract visitors who have been enthralled by the surge in the Food Network and other foodie shows on TV," says Karen Martin, media relations manager for the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority.

Groups might consider timing their incentive event to coincide with Atlantic City's annual Food & Wine Festival, hosted each summer by Caesars Entertainment, throughout its properties. Tour and group sales are available for a number of experiences with celebrity chefs. Last year, these included a lunch with Food Network personality Anne Burrell at The Reserve at Ballys Atlantic City, a southern dinner with Paula Deen at Showboat Atlantic City, and a baking demo with Buddy Valastro from TLC's "Cake Boss."

Year-round, a favorite interactive venue for Atlantic City visitors is the Viking Cooking School. Headquartered in Harrah's Resort Atlantic City, the school offers a hands-on kitchen that allows groups to try their luck at preparing a meal, making it an ideal location for cooking demos or celebrity chef events. The school also offers an extensive retail store of Viking cookware, cutlery, and countertop electrics that could make for excellent incentive gifts for attendees.

Atlantic City also has a vast number of celebrity chef restaurants. Among the offerings at the newly opened Revel Atlantic City are local favorite Luke Palladino's new Luke's Kitchen & Marketplace, as well as Iron Chef Marc Forgione's American Cut steakhouse, and the Mediterranean offerings of Azure by Allegretti, from chef Alain Allegretti. At the Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, visitors can dine at Bobby Flay Steak, the "Throwdown! With Bobby Flay" host's first steakhouse, as well as the Wolfgang Puck American Grill.

"The Borgata was probably the first [in Atlantic City] to bring in the celebrity chefs," says Martin. "From 2006 to when Revel opened, the presence of these chefs on TV has exploded, so it's really the new standard for restaurants now."