Haute Dining: 12 Questions for Executive Chef Oscar Pena from B.B. King’s Blues Club

Blues great and restaurateur B.B. King has brought his B.B. King’s Blues Club offering Southern comfort food served supper club-style and combining dining with a live music venue to Las Vegas. While this isn’t the first spot of this kind (think House of Blues), it does offer a different twist to the familiar with fall-off-the-bone ribs, fried pickles and straight from the bayou gumbo.

Executive Chef Oscar Pena has launched seven House of Blues (making this partnership a great fit) and worked as a personal chef to boxing promoter Don King. Chef Pena has much in common with B.B. King. Both pursued their dreams at a young age and are now enjoying incredible success. Along with his duties at the B.B. King’s Blues Club at the Mirage in Las Vegas, Chef Pena has appeared on the Food Network and participated in the second annual Celebrity Chef Tour benefiting the James Beard Foundation. Chef Pena is deeply rooted in the culinary scene in Las Vegas opening several casinos including the Luxor, Venetian, New York New York and Monte Carlo. At B.B. King’s, Chef Pena creates Southern cooking Vegas style including Southern fried catfish, double thick cut Cajon meatloaf and blackened bleu Lucille burger.

Haute Living: What inspired you to become a chef?
Oscar Pena: I started cooking as a teenager and I like the techniques, sampling and creating that is part of being a chef. I come from a big family and my mother has 10 siblings and my father has 10 siblings. But I am the only one who works in the restaurant business.

HL: You have opened up a number of venues — how many cuisines have you covered?
OP: When I opened the Venetian, which covered all cuisines. I have cooked Italian, Mexican and for the last seven years, I have concentrated on barbecue.

HL: B.B. King’s Blues Club calls their menu Creole cuisine. How did you learn about cooking Creole?
OP: My mentor used to be a personal chef to Mike Tyson and he taught me. Also, I used to work as a personal chef to both (Mike) Tyson and Don King and I learned all about Creole and southern food.

HL: What is your favorite cuisine to cook?
OP: I like Creole and Southern cooking. I like the barbecue, smoking, marinating and flavoring of the cuisine.

HL: Where were you raised?
OP: I was born and raised and Southern Nevada and attended the Culinary Institute of Las Vegas for my training.

HL: What do you like to cook at home?
OP: It’s funny. I really don’t like to cook at home. I usually make sandwiches. I like to take a break. My daughter is 14 and my son is 18 and I let them do most of the cooking. My daughter likes to bake and my son is learning how to do prep in a kitchen.

HL: What are some of your specialties at B.B. King’s?
OP: Our ribs. They are fabulous. I marinate them and cook them so they literally fall off the bone. Our catfish is another specialty. I marinate them as well. Also, our fried green tomatoes, which is an appetizer, is very good.

HL: B.B. King’s Blues Club has several restaurants across the country with a set menu. How has this influenced your cooking and setting up the menu in Las Vegas?
OP: My background is House of Blues, which is barbecue and blues, so I try to stay more competitive with different recipes, play with those recipes by sampling and create news dishes. The owners encourage this; they are great and give me a lot of freedom.

HL: What dishes are offered at B.B. King’s in Las Vegas that you wouldn’t find offered at any other B.B. King’s?
OP: Our barbecue salmon. I used corn chowder for the sauce and it is a salmon with a Carolina glaze

HL: What specials are coming up for the hot summer months of Las Vegas?
OP: Salads. We have a Southwest chicken salad on the menu. I want to come up with a light fish dish and something vegetarian, so I am working on it right now.

HL: Do you see a demand for vegetarian at B.B. King’s?
OP: Even though this is a barbecue place, I want to give our diners an option and offer a vegetarian barbecue platter.

HL: Other than B.B. King’s, what is your favorite restaurant in Las Vegas?
OP: I love prime rib, so I go to The Prime Rib Loft in the Orleans.

HL: Other than Las Vegas, what is your favorite city for restaurants?
OP: San Diego. I like lobster and the restaurants in San Diego offer great seafood.