It seems like Terence Fong has worked in every kitchen in Las Vegas. The Honolulu native came to town in 1979 to study at UNLV and has played a prominent yet quiet role in the development of the local dining scene.
After many years spent developing and maintaining restaurants on and off the Strip, Fong took control of Island Sushi, now with locations in Henderson and Downtown, and just this month opened Zenshin, an Asian restaurant at the South Point. Fong chatted with the Weekly about his career and newest culinary project.
- South Point, 797-8075.
- Sunday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 11 a.m.-1 a.m.
What was your first restaurant job in Las Vegas? It was a part-time job at a place called Hibachi Hut on Maryland Parkway, in the old Maryland Square across from Boulevard Mall. It was a small Japanese restaurant, a lot of home cooking. But at the same time I was there I started as a runner at Caesars Palace. I rode my 10-speed bike from that area to the Strip every day.
You worked at many different restaurants at Caesars, right? Almost all of them. I started at Bacchanal, the seven-course Roman feast. I was just 18 years old and I had to put away and organize loads of food every day. I was fast so I got promoted to cook. I did room service, the coffee shop, everything except a place called Ah So which is where Hyakumi is now. My mainstay was Palace Court. I stayed there 12 years, starting at the vegetable station. We used to make pommes soufflé, a very well-known dish. Then I moved to fry cook, broiler, saucier, and then sous chef. From there I went back to Bacchanal for a while, then I left in early 1995 and went Downtown to work at Andre’s. I was there for eight months then got a call to take over Charlie Trotter’s old space at MGM Grand, Gatsby’s. I maintained the executive chef position there for five years, and the first two it was named the gourmet room of the year. It was the best-kept secret in Las Vegas at that time.
You left your mark in some of our neighborhood restaurants, too. Yes, I was a partner with Osaka in Summerlin, then went on to help design and open Malibu Chan’s, which used to be on West Sahara. Then probably a year and a half into that, I got the call from Chinois. That was Wolfgang Puck’s Asian restaurant in the Forum Shops. I had a great experience there for three years.
How did you come to operate Island Sushi? I fell into an opportunity making our doughnuts, malasadas. It started out as a retail operation out of the Island Sushi on Eastern Avenue, and we’ve expanded to supply 7-Eleven stores in Hawaii. We make them frozen and ship them to the Big Island. During that development, the owners of Island Sushi decided they wanted to sell the restaurant, so we bought it about four and a half years ago. We opened our second location at the Plaza, called Island Sushi and Hawaiian Grill, about a year and a half ago.
How different is the cuisine at your new restaurant, Zenshin, from Island Sushi? Very different. There are not as many Hawaiian dishes, though we do have the poke and mini malasadas for dessert. It’s basic Japanese, but a little more modern. We’re doing pork belly marinated in miso, ribs, the miso black cod, and what we’re calling modern sashimi, which has a little more emphasis on sauce and garnish. Everything is nice and clean and very refreshing, and the pricing is very affordable.
Asian food, and specifically Japanese, seems to be very hot right now in Las Vegas. People are getting more involved with healthy food and I think for most people, Asian food falls under that category. People are watching their cholesterol and we know the oil in fish is very good for that purpose. A lot of people have switched over to brown rice and we offer that alternative.
What has been your experience working at casino restaurants compared to working off the Strip? What I’ve found is that working with any big corporation, it ends up being more about the numbers and not as personal. In our business, I like running my own because it’s all about hospitality, taking care of our guests. Now with [South Point owner] Michael Gaughan, in just a short period of time, it’s very homey. That’s how Mr. Gaughan runs his hotel, and I love the partnership. It’s kind of like going back to the old school.
Zenshin is kind of in the back corner of the casino. Were you worried about people finding you? I was worried but then I realized there are a lot of people touring this casino. And right next door is the Grandview, a timeshare resort with 2,200 rooms, and everybody comes over from Grandview. We’re the first restaurant they hit coming in. And when we were first being courted to come in, I came to the South Point at all different hours and was a little surprised how many Asian customers that come in. Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, they all patronize this hotel. Once I saw that happening, and knowing how strong this place is with locals, I knew it would be a good location, and so far it has been a great scenario.