Steve Wynn: Viva Las Vegan
How the casino magnate became an unlikely evangelist for healthy, no-splurge eating
Thu, Nov 4, 2010 (midnight)
Photo: Erik Kabik/Retna/www.erikkabikphoto.com
Steve Wynn is eating. He’s not merely eating, of course. Because Steve Wynn can’t just eat. He eats, and he opines. He eats, and he lectures. He eats, and while he eats he devours information about what he is eating. He digests this information, allowing it to course through his bloodstream until it permeates his brain. Then he shares this invaluable dietary intelligence, imparting his knowledge so persuasively you begin to believe if you don’t eat as Steve Wynn eats, you might well die before your time.
“The notion that you need animal food as protein is one of the great conspiracies of bullshit by the government,” he says, clinking a spoon hard against a china bowl steaming with steel-cut oatmeal. “Did we not all grow up saying we had to have four glasses of whole milk a day for healthy bones? It’s ridiculous. It’s liquid cholesterol.”
Wynn is speaking casually, freely, during breakfast at his villa at Wynn Las Vegas. His dogs, Tari and Damo, play fetch—retrieving and delivering a moist, well-gnawed rubber ball to the dining table. Outside the residence’s tall, sliding glass doors is the Wynn Country Club—an entirely appropriate postcard of lush green turf—and above loom the famous Picasso paintings “Nature Morte aux Tulipes” and “Le Reve,” for which Wynn nearly named this hotel and which he also famously blemished with an errant jab of an elbow five years ago.
The man who swapped his own “Wynn” for “Le Reve” as the name of the lavish Strip resort dips a spoon into a small cup of walnuts pulverized into a thick paste. Then, deliberately, he pours maple syrup into his oatmeal. Doesn’t spill a drop.
Yes, Steve Wynn is living a vegan diet. And he thinks you should, too.
“What happened to Gulu?”
There is the great “why” to address in Wynn’s latest lifestyle change. He’s 68 and turns the calendar again on January 27 as he edges inevitably toward 70, so there is a sense that he prefers to remain vigorous and youthful as a septuagenarian. He certainly looks closer to 50 than 70, his hair a lighter shade of brown and his skin smooth and radiant. But aging is inevitable for everyone, even billionaire resort magnates. Wynn sees it in his longtime friends, colleagues, mentors, anyone he’s known or conducted business with over the decades. He recalls seeing Kirk Kerkorian at last month’s Andre Agassi Grand Slam for Children and notes how his onetime doubles partner at Las Vegas Country Club has slowed with age.
“He’s not the Kerkorian who boxed and jogged, that I know,” Wynn says.
Wynn was in his mid-20s when he and Kerkorian swatted tennis balls, and he surely yearns to remain vibrant, if only to keep pace with his striking girlfriend, Andrea Hissom, who is 20 years his junior and terrifically fit. (Hissom has lost five pounds eating as a vegan, and it is unfathomable to figure out just whence that weight was shed.)
Wynn says he feels great, and his appearance bears that out. He doesn’t weigh himself, but he’s lean and glad to note his 32-inch waist. “Or it’s 33, depending on who makes the jeans.” His cholesterol, for years managed with the help of the prescription medication Lipitor, is at 140, down from 180 before he changed his diet.
“Another thing the government says is it should be under 200,” Wynn says. “You can go into cardiac arrest under 200. One-fifty is the number.”
Aside from his chronic eye condition retinitis pigmentosa, which significantly limits his peripheral and nighttime vision, Wynn is in good health.
But Steve Wynn, giving up meat, always and forever? Boy-howdy. This is a man whose hotel boasts a high-end steakhouse bearing his initials, a man so immersed in the culture of red-meat-eatin’ Old West culture that in his younger days he competed in steer wrestling competitions on the ranch of Ralph Lamb. Recently, he booked country music hero Garth Brooks into Encore Theatre, luring thousands of Brooks’ fans to Wynn’s Strip resorts.
And members of the international Brooks Brigade like their steaks thick and juicy, bleeding even.
Wynn’s vegan epiphany took hold on June 22, specifically. By the morning of June 23, Wynn and Hissom were Vegans for life. In a wedding-gown-white pantsuit, Hissom also sits in on the conversation, providing pertinent patchwork in the form of facts and elaboration.
The Wynn-Hissom life change unfolded as the couple was in St. Tropez, visiting heiress and socialite Carol Asher and her boyfriend, Bombay-born multimillionaire Gulu Lalvani, founder and chairman of Binatone, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of digital cordless phones. The foursome was to dine together when Asher showed up with a man Wynn did not readily recognize.
“I said, ‘Hey, she’s got a younger guy,’ ” Wynn recalls. “That’s not Gulu. This guy is 50 years old.” When asked how old Lalvani is, Hissom replies, “Let’s just say 70.”
“But he comes closer,” Wynn continues, “and it is Gulu, and Andrea says, ‘What happened to Gulu? Has he had work done or what?’ He’s lost 30 pounds, his eyes are all clear, he’s got a spring in his step and he’s lost 20 years. I thought, he’s been to a doctor.”
When the foursome sat down, Wynn asked, “Gulu? What is it, my man?” But Lalvani just laughed. Wynn pressed, “Well, who did you go to?”
“Nobody,” Lalvani responded. “I have a present for you.”
Lalvani reached into his pocked and pulled out the DVD Eating, the most recent installment of the dietary educational series directed by, and starring, medical researcher Mike Anderson, pioneer of the “rave” diet program.
“Promise me you’ll look at it,” Lalvani said to Wynn, who responded, “Okay, Gulu, okay.”
The DVD was not an instant hit.
“We started watching it, and after the first five minutes, I’m saying, ‘What is this about? A diet?’” Wynn says, laughing. “Then we watched the second five minutes, same thing … but a half-hour into it, I’m saying, ‘Jesus, I didn’t know that.’ Ninety minutes later, I shut off the TV. The next morning (claps hands) it was over. I never had another meat.”
The video extols the virtues of a vegan diet, or “rave” diet, which is a vegan diet (no animal-produced products or foodstuffs whatsoever) with a higher concentration of raw foods and a more stringent limit on processed fats and sugar. Wynn has essentially adopted a rigid vegan diet and is very nearly a true rave dieter, but does occasionally allow for a little olive oil in his food.
It helps, of course, that Wynn is a very wealthy man who employs some the best chefs in the world to prepare his meals.
“To be perfectly candid about this, it was very easy for us to do this because I called the chef on board the yacht in the morning and I said, ‘Katie, this is what we’re doing now.’ She said, ‘No problem, Mr. Wynn.’ She got a cookbook out and we were eating great, instantaneously. We had a walk-in cooler in the bottom of the boat that was full of steaks that I had bought for the trip. That went for naught. We gave it to our guests.”
And it wasn’t enough for Wynn to keep this pronounced lifestyle change to himself. He wanted the change to be immediate and far-reaching. Every Wynn employee was given a copy of the Eating DVD. “I’ve had 10,000 made, and I’ll make more,” he says. Wynn also called Andrew Pascal, president of Wynn Las Vegas, and said, “I think it would be great if we gave everybody a choice in the staff dining room.” Pascal raised his boss, saying, “What if we gave everybody a choice, period?”
So it is that today that all of Wynn’s restaurants offer vegan-friendly menus.
“Now, I’m not going to say there’s no more animal-based food in the staff dining room. I’m not closing SW (steakhouse) … you can still go to SW and order a New York or a porterhouse,” Wynn says. “What I am saying is that wherever you go in this hotel, there’s a vegan menu, in every single restaurant.”
At Le Staff Café (the fancy name of Wynn’s employee dining room, which Wynn brags is as nice as the coffee shop at Caesars Palace), you’ll find such offerings as zucchini lasagna and vegetable and tofu stir fry with brown rice. Even the Buffet at Wynn Las Vegas is vegan-friendly, with wok-seared tofu with black bean sauce and four-bean and brown rice enchiladas amid the options.
In all, 18 restaurants (in addition to the buffet and employee dining room) at Wynn and Encore are on board. At SW, you can order a melon duo, tofu salad and grilled royal trumpet mushrooms with polenta. At Sinatra, try the black lentil salad, couscous with poached veggies, pineapple carpaccio with pistachios and coconut ice cream. Tableau offers creamy corn soup, roasted beet salad, napoleon of savory tofu and almond or soy milk latte.
“And if you go to Wing Lei and order, just tell them you want Steve’s food. Our chef (Xian Ming Yu), has mastered summer rolls and various other dishes,” Wynn says, clearly energized about these summer rolls. “He is the king for having mastered this. All the chefs got very competitive, including Alex Stratta, and it’s all great. But Andrea and I are eating at (Wing Lei) three out of seven nights a week.”
As if on cue, Wynn gives his now-empty oatmeal bowl a final swipe with the spoon. “Clink!”
“Who had four operations on L-4 and L-5 last year?”
Though he says he was ultimately inspired by the apparent Fountain of Youth tapped by his buddy Gulu Lalvani, who “has beautiful gray hair” and “looks like he’s in GQ,” Wynn did experience a powerful, life-changing health crisis last winter.
Physically active for his entire life (he even worked as a ski instructor in Sun Valley, Idaho, in his late 20s and early 30s), Wynn has suffered chronic knee pain and weathered a series of surgeries on those joints. He has also experienced degenerative damage to his spine.
The back pain in particular also played into his decision to alter what he puts into his body, be it food, liquids or prescription medication.
“Listen. Who had four operations on L-4 and L-5 last year?” Wynn asks. Before he can answer himself, Hissom calls out, “You!”
“And I can’t understand why!” Wynn continues. “It turns out that one of the things that goes along with an animal-based diet is disc disease. … I had a very difficult winter. I had a disc giving me a lot of trouble, and I had four surgeries. Then I had a staph infection, so they had to open me up five times in four months. … It was in the bottom of my back, the same incision. They should have put a zipper on it.”
Four of those surgeries were conducted between December 18 and February 8. “I was getting a lot of pain, so I was prescribed (an adhesive) patch of Fentanyl, and then right after the surgery they gave me Dilaudid. Now, those are very heavy-duty painkillers.”
As Wynn notes, the physician who prescribed Fentanyl did not know he had been prescribed Dilaudid. “I thought you could take both,” Wynn says, disclosing a dangerously inaccurate assumption.
Las Vegas entertainment observers know of Dilaudid as a contributing factor in the death of Wynn’s friend and Encore headliner Danny Gans in May 2009. (Elvis Presley, too, was known to use the drug.) Fentanyl is highly addictive and particularly dangerous because the patient often doesn’t feel its numbing affects.
“I was addicted, but I didn’t know I was addicted because I didn’t feel high,” Wynn says. “So when Eddie Nathan, who is a local doctor, who I grew up with, took out my stitches, that night at 7 o’clock I went upstairs in the bedroom and said, ‘Great!’ and ripped the patch off and threw it in the toilet.
“I shouldn’t have done that.”
No, it was a bad idea, as Wynn had acted without consulting a physician. In an hour, he had buckled under the effects of severe chemical withdrawal.
“I was in hell,” he says. “It’s impossible to describe the feeling, but when you take a heroin junkie, and it’s either cold turkey or the alternative, you understand why they commit crimes.”
To combat his agonizing sweats and trembling, Wynn embarked on a routine of climbing into the shower, then returning to bed.
“You know that movie, Man With the Golden Arm? That’s what it was like,” Wynn says, referring to the 1955 film featuring Frank Sinatra’s famous heroin withdrawal scene. “The only way I could survive was to tell Andrea she should not stay with me, to go downstairs to the other bedroom and not touch me—but she wouldn’t do it. But I would get up every 45 minutes and go in and stand for 15 minutes under the hot shower, and that calmed me down and stopped the crazed, tumultuous feeling I had inside. Then I would be able to go sit in the bed or lay upright for 45 minutes, and then it would come back again.”
Wynn finally contacted a pain doctor, and told him he still had a Fentanyl patch in his possession. The doctor told him to cut the patch in half and put it on his shoulder, explaining with great urgency, “What you’re experiencing has just started. In the next 30 hours, this is going to get real serious.”
“Real serious? Are you kidding me? I’m ready to kill myself!”
It took Wynn three weeks and a physician’s assistance to get off the pain medication, and he is still detectably affected by the experience.
“I said to my surgeon, ‘If I ever have another operation, I don’t care what technique you use, I am never, ever going to take a pain pill again as long as I live.’”
Viva Las Vegan
There’s no question that when Steve Wynn makes such an abrupt lifestyle change, one that resonates through his entire resort empire, the world takes notice.
Twitter co-founders Biz Stone and Evan Williams are Wynn frequenters, and the two hosted a Twitterati event at Blush nightclub just last month.
“They’re friends with Andrew (Pascal), they’re about the same age as him, and they were having lunch together,” Wynn says, referring to a meal the group shared over the summer. Pascal excused himself to go try some new menu items, explaining, “Oh, well, Steve’s coming home tomorrow and he went vegan, and so did a bunch of others.” Among the “bunch” was Pascal, who tried the vegan diet for about a month.
Pascal also told Stone and Williams about the change in the menu in the employee dining room and the plans to add vegan items to every restaurant’s menu.
“So Evan says, ‘Steve Wynn went vegan? That’s big news!’” Wynn recounts, smiling. “And Andy says, ‘Why is that?’ And Evan says, “Because in the vegan movement, if there is a high-profile person who goes vegan, that’s big, big news.’ ”
The next day, Pascal met up with Stone.
The dietary world had changed.
Evan had tweeted about Wynn’s new diet and his resort’s vegan menus. The news, Wynn says, “was all over Twitter.” All over, indeed.
“My phone was blowing up,” Wynn Vice President of PR and Advertising Jenn Dunne says. “Every newsletter, publication and magazine that has anything to do with vegetarian or vegan wants to know about this.”
After an hour, breakfast is over. As Wynn walks to the villa’s entrance, he says, “I think it’s a good idea to talk about this, don’t you? I think I can help a lot of people.”
He’s spreading the word, is Steve Wynn, champion of the Strip and now of the meatless and dairy-free diet. For him, it’s a cakewalk—a vegan-friendly cakewalk, naturally.
Coincidentally, five days before Steve Wynn adopted his vegan diet, John Katsilometes also embraced the dietary lifestyle. From June 22 to September 23 (with a few relapses), he ate a strictly vegan diet. Read about his experiences, and his chat with Wynn about the process, in The Kats Report.
With world-class dining, shopping, spas, golf and entertainment, there's no shortage of things to do at Wynn. The resort’s aquatic acrobatic show, “Le Reve—The Dream,” a creation by Cirque Du Soleil veteran Franco Dragone and Steve Wynn, will leave guests wanting more with its breathtaking performances that conjure an imaginary world. The Wynn Esplanade offers a unique shopping experience with stores including Chanel, Manolo Blahnik, Christian Dior, Oscar de la Renta and many more. Tryst is its signature nightclub, offering a secluded lagoon inside the club and spacious dance floor. Blush, the Wynn’s ultra lounge, draws swanky party-goers. Tryst, Wynn’s signature nightclub, is situated along a private lagoon under a 90-foot waterfall and plays host to some of the world’s most renown DJs.