Long-lost friends reunite in Las Vegas—thanks to omelets
Thu, May 3, 2012 (midnight)
Photo: Penny De Los Santos
It's 8 on a Saturday morning at the Bellagio. Slot machines sit vacant and the blackjack pit resembles a ghost town. At this hour on this day the real action is a floor below, in the subterranean kitchen where thousands of room-service meals will be roasted, toasted, boiled and fried. Past the industrial-sized juice machine just north of the pizza ovens, the reigning hot zone is a football field of 12 flame-spewing burners and one griddle. This is the heart of Bellagio’s breakfast station, where 1,500 omelets get spun up and shipped out between 7 a.m. and noon.
Manning the pans and cracking eggs, short and springy Aaron Lanoz and his bigger-boned and more deliberate compatriot Jose de la Torre operate as tightly as any two-man act in town. They both wear spotless white aprons and Bellagio-logoed baseball hats that cover their neatly barbered hair. At the moment, Aaron makes omelets while Jose handles griddle duties, expedites orders and gives each finished platter the once-over before passing it on to a room-service waiter who’ll hustle the food upstairs to a hungry guest. The mustached teammates switch back and forth, gracefully going from griddle to stove, making as many as half-a-dozen omelets at a time, speaking in the kind of Spanish shorthand that comes from years of working together under high pressure and hot temperatures.
In their case, however, one other element is in play. Aaron and Jose had been boyhood friends, growing up together in the small, central Mexican village of Zacatecas Jerez, where Jose worked his family’s farm and Aaron helped mind his family’s grocery store. Separately, they made their way to America and fell into jobs as cooks in LA coffee shops. They fell out of touch for more than a decade. And then, 13 years ago, both wound up in Las Vegas.
Aaron was already working in the Bellagio’s room-service kitchen when his boss, unbeknownst to Aaron, reviewed Jose’s job application and wanted to hire him. He called Jose’s home and got his wife on the phone, but she spoke no English. So he summoned Aaron, to tell her in Spanish that Jose should come down to the Bellagio. “I asked Jose’s wife where he is from, and she told me Zacatecas Jerez,” he remembers. “Then she told me his last name and I realized that he is my long-lost buddy. I told the chef to hire Jose to make omelets with me. He came in, and it was a big, emotional moment. We shook hands. We hugged. We hadn’t seen each other for many years. Much had changed.”
As a printer spits out breakfast orders, Jose places them on a clip that runs above a counter separating cooks from waiters. Aaron has a workstation outfitted with refrigerated drawers that hold diced onions and tomatoes, cubes of ham, chopped asparagus, fresh spinach, four kinds of cheese and everything else you can imagine inside an omelet. He becomes a blur of industrious motion, gliding along the burners, making omelets, whipping scrambles and negotiating one order that’s half yellow and half white, then he turns to a pot filled with boiling liquid. He delicately scoops out a poached egg as if it’s a baby being lifted from the deep end of a swimming pool.
For a tomato, ham and mushroom omelet, Aaron throws the stuffing into one pan with a sizzle of clarified butter. As that works, he reaches for a five-inch Teflon pan. “The small-sized pan makes the three-egg omelet fat and fluffy,” Jose says, watching his pal in action and sounding proud of their system. Aaron spoons in another touch of clarified butter. He cracks three eggs, drops them in and uses a long fork with rubber tines and a crudely chopped-off handle to scramble for a few seconds (the handle accommodates Aaron’s short arms; Jose’s egg fork is completely intact). Then Aaron lets it cook for another 10 seconds or so before taking the egg pan off the fire and sticking it inside a small oven bolted just above. “Eggs cook evenly in there,” Aaron says. “We never need to flip them.”
Less than a minute later, the pan is out of the oven. A puffy, yellow sun takes up the entire surface, and Aaron gently coaxes the sautéed fillings onto one side of the omelet. Then, in a deft motion—so fast it’s like sleight of hand—he folds the omelet out of the pan and onto a plate. Jose finishes it off with a little mound of potatoes and a few strips of bacon. Finally, Jose gives the dish a quick inspection and sends it out. The entire process takes about three minutes. And at the same time, Aaron’s been dealing with four other omelets.
It’s a juggling act, but he’s confident. He knows his buddy has his back. “You don’t want to get anything returned,” Jose says. “I look at the omelet and make sure it’s the way the customer ordered it. If the egg is not right, if it’s over-medium instead of over-easy, I ask Aaron why he’s sending out this stuff, and we do it again. He does the same for me.”
The two men have the kind of relationship where they know that nothing is personal and that everything has to be perfect. When things get stressful—on New Year’s Day, for example, more than 3,000 omelets get produced by the Bellagio’s dynamic duo—Aaron tends to break into Mexican song or tell off-color jokes that are funniest in Spanish. It cuts the tension in what is essentially a glorified diner-style operation with eccentric twists (think: omelets stuffed with everything from $1,700 servings of Beluga caviar to whole lobsters to coffee grounds for a superstitious Middle Easterner) that accommodate guests who might be gambling for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It’s important to make sure their mornings start out right and that nothing happens to make them feel unlucky before they’ve bet their first $5,000 chip of the day.
In the midst of yet another round of omelets, Aaron says, “This is a team, like in football. We all know who has to throw and catch and who the coach is.” Then he turns to quarterback his six burners before folding a perfect three-egg omelet onto a room-service plate and handing it off to Jose.