March 2010

Reaching New Heights in Las Vegas

By: Richard Carleton Hacker
photos by the author
Women set the standard for service at the new CityCenter.

Opened less than four months ago, CityCenter rises from the neon-studded necklace of the Las Vegas Strip like a glistening, multi-spired electronic jewel. Sprawled across 67 acres between Bellagio and Monte Carlo, this modernistic, ecologically-certified tribute to luxurious dining and drinking confirms the philosophy that “If you build it, they will come.” Even in a recession.

 

Aria pulsates with gambling, cocktails, 17 restaurants, nine bars and limos that run on compressed natural gas; it is the world’s largest Gold LEEDS-certified structure.

An $8.5 billion joint venture between MGM Mirage and Dubai World, CityCenter includes three lofty hotels comprising almost 6,000 rooms: the non-gaming Mandarin Oriental, the sedately elegant (and also non-gaming) Vdara, and a brief walk away, the vibrant, pulsating Aria Resort & Casino. Both Vdara and Aria are MGM-operated properties personified by exemplary service and family-like friendliness.

Although CityCenter was conceived in a period of economic excess, it was completed during the worst downturn in recent history. But it thrives, in part, because of the employees who populate its bars and restaurants; customers find their upbeat attitude contagious and, for that, management is to thank. Here’s our look at a couple of women who set the standard for service at CityCenter.

Christina Clifton is F&B VP, Aria Resort & Casino. “It’s great to be part of the launch of a brand new hotel in Las Vegas that doesn’t have a single theme. There are so many different styles in the hotel, including some of our partner restaurants, like Jean-Georges Steakhouse and American Fish by Michael Mina, who are known for great service and great food. When I was hired, I was chosen, in part, for my Four Seasons background. You live and breathe all those Five Diamond, Five Star services on a daily basis. It’s in your blood.”  
 
With 17 restaurants, nine public bars, and in-room dining for 4,004 suites all under her auspices, Christina Clifton , Vice President of Food & Beverage for Aria Resort & Casino came from a background that included 14 years with Four Season Hotels & Resorts and six years at The Mirage as Vice President, Food & Beverage, before creating Aria’s extensive F&B program.

Clifton is also Chairwoman of the philanthropic Epicurean Charitable Foundation, which offers scholarships for students interested in the hospitality and culinary industries. Ironically, Clifton’s Bachelor’s degree in Music Education from the University of Arizona indirectly led her to Aria.

“My last semester in school, I started hostessing in a restaurant just in case things didn’t go well with my degree in music,” she recalls. “But I enjoyed it so much I decided not to teach music but stayed in the hospitality industry. Plus, back then they didn’t want women teaching high school, so that was a fight for me. Yet I still ended up in a male-dominated industry. And I’m still in education, because I teach food and beverage techniques every day to the line staff and managers."

Clifton’s musical training also helped her individualize Aria’s thematic restaurants. Standing in an empty restaurant, she would look at the décor and the menu and envision the background music needed.

“We use different music for each restaurant because each has a distinctive style,” she says. “I wanted the music to match the designer’s style and the food style, so I had each chef talk to our music programmer, to give an idea of how the food played and what the chef wanted his customers to experience. For example, in the Asian-inspired Blossom restaurant, I wanted a classical yet modern Chinese flavor with a Zen feel to it. On the other hand, Sage is very American, very hip, but working with Chef Shawn McClain, we toned it down to a cool mellowness.”

 

Working as a bartender while earning her Bachelor’s Degree in Behavioral Health at the University of New Mexico, Heidi Hinkle found her interest in psychology led her to the F&B industry.

With experience at The Mirage, Bellagio and House of Blues at Mandalay Bay, she is now Director of Beverage for Aria, where she oversees 500 employees working at Aria’s 33 bars, including 16 back-of-the-house service areas and seven pump rooms. In addition, she is personally involved with all staff hiring and training, a daunting task that took over a year and resulted in only one out of every five applicants being accepted.

 
Heidi Hinkle, Director of Beverage Aria Resort & Casino. “I want bar chefs who have a passion. You get behind a bar and you own that part of the bar, so it should be treated like your business. You should be very proud to be there, and want to make the most amazing, visually pleasing cocktails possible. Just as every chef must taste his food, every bartender should do a straw test on their drinks.” 

“Each of our bars has an individual cocktail list, “says Hinkle. “So I took extra time to find bar chefs , rather than bartenders. The difference, for me, is somebody who is knowledgeable about spirits and who understands how to put them together. Plus, I’m really big on getting the staff involved, so I’m doing an annual cocktail competition; the winners will get their drinks on the menus. At pre-opening, I had an on-line competition and sent e-mails to all the new employees and bartenders asking for input on drink menus. We received over 30 recipe submissions. One winner, the Mystic, is served in the View Bar and is made with Leblon cachaça, fresh blackberries, orgeat syrup and pineapple juice, shaken and served in a highball glass over ice."

In addition, Hinkle has created a Signature Sips menu, showcasing specialized cocktails like the Prickly Pear Pisco Sour (made with prickly pear purée), served at all Aria bars. With a dictum for fresh ingredients and adherence to measured pour recipes, her managers conduct bar checks daily, and she is not above creating cocktails alongside her bar chefs, just to make sure they’re doing it right.

Indeed, at CityCenter, the people behind the pour make the difference.

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