Haute Dining: Shawn McClain Cooks Outside the Box

Cooking without a net explains Chef Shawn McClain’s style. In 2004, he opened Green Zebra in Chicago, a vanguard concept that put vegetables in the center of the plate as the main focus. McClain has also opened Spring, which featured seafood, and Custom House, his interpretation of the classic steakhouse with artisan meats and classic sides. Now as the executive chef of Sage in the Aria, he expands New American cuisine in the cutting-edge metropolis of CityCenter. McClain’s menu blends the two coasts and Midwest regions. Raised in San Diego, he taps the freshness of California cuisine and blends it with the hearty style of Chicago, where he trained and made his mark as a celebrated chef. He then adds a Mediterranean flavor to create a unique dining experience. Specialties and signature dishes at Sage include roasted scallops with braised oxtail and wild mushrooms, foie gras custard Brule topped with crusted caramelized citrus and cocoa nibs and charred baby octopus caponata. In 2006, McClain was honored with the Best Chef Midwest award from the James Beard Foundation.

Haute Living: Why did you become a chef?

Shawn McClain: It wasn’t a great drive. I grew up in a family that didn’t like to cook, ironically, and we spent a lot of time dining in restaurants as kids and I think it was something that got into my blood that way. I attended Miami (college) in Ohio and I worked in restaurants while in college and I just realized very quickly that I was enjoying driving to restaurants and learning the craft and really wanted to pursue it. It was a day-by-day thing, no master plan, just a lot of hard work and some good breaks that came my way.

HL: Your menu is considered New American cuisine. How would you explain this new fare?

SM: New American cuisine is always evolving and chefs have their own stake in that evolvement. As in many professions and crafts, things progress to new ideas and levels and I think I am just one of many who interpret traditional and classic cooking into new ways and put new signatures and styles on classic combinations and ideas.

HL: You were raised in the West, received your training and opened your first restaurants in the Midwest. How do you combine the two regions into your cooking?

SM: In the Midwest, our focus there is getting as much of the local products that we can possibly get. Of course, seafood comes from the east and west but in the Midwest, there is a great source of farmers markets, great farmers and local producers. That is our drive out here to develop those same connections. It might be a few local farmers around Las Vegas and using all of the great things coming out of California, especially Southern California. It is marrying the ideas, still keeping signature styles and finding new people to supply those products.

HL: Why open a restaurant in Las Vegas?

SM: I’ve been so fortunate to have achieved many of my goals in Chicago, an amazing city and great restaurant town.  I have always aimed high, seeking new challenges. Aria at CityCenter is such an awe-inspiring development; I am thrilled to be among the chefs and restaurateurs included in the project.

HL: How did you personally feel to be opening Sage in a mega-resort, the first one to open in more than a year, with such intense media attention?

SM: I was thrilled and humbled to be a part of what CityCenter is, what it stands for and to be next some of the great chefs that are in this building. But I focus on my kitchen, my restaurant and my service to pare it all down to a singular experience that I need to focus on every day. I know that we are part of a greater thing, part of this fantastic experience of a city-within-a-city kind of experience and I’m just thrilled to have everyone come in, be overwhelmed by CityCenter and then actually come into Sage. Everything is just fitting in together well.

HL: How long did it take?

SM: It has been a three-year process for me to be involved in the planning and getting ready for CityCenter. It was hugely satisfying to be open in December (2009) after so much planning.

HL: How different are your diners in Sage as compared to your places in Chicago?

SM: I think it is fantastic to see such a great West Coast market that we don’t see as much in Chicago. Most people from the West Coast fly over Chicago on their way to New York. So to be able to be in the dining room here and to meet so many people from California, I feel like it’s a brand new start with a brand new audience.

HL: What about international diners? What do you anticipate?

SM: I’m up for all challenges that way.

HL: Whether a customer is local or tourist, how do you feel about special requests?

SM: I have never taken a special request personally. I am here to please and I hope our menu can do a broad stroke to really entice everyone to come into Sage for dinner. For those who come here who want something different or something off the menu, we always try our best to do that.

HL: What do you think of the response to Sage so far?

SM: I think people are just excited about the restaurant. We are essentially a brand new name in town. We have a lot to prove and we approach it day by day to build our reputation everyday and get the word out.