Nicole Grimes, 28, has been part of Rao's at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas since the day it opened its doors in 2006. Now the Young Guns semi-finalist is guiding the Italian eatery with a long history as the chef de cuisine. Grimes grew up in Pittsburgh, raised by her grandmother on a menu of German and Italian dishes. She eventually headed to Le Cordon Bleu for culinary school and landed an externship at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colo., before heading to Vegas. Now she's not only charged with running the kitchen at Rao's in Vegas, but she'll also be training the new chef and kitchen at the coming Rao's in Hollywood. She was even on the long list of nominees for the James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef award earlier this year. Here she shares what it's like to be a female chef on the Strip and her aspirations for the future.
Can you talk a bit about being raised by your grandmother and cooking with her?
My grandmother always lived with us. My mom was a single mother. My grandmother would always make home-cooked meals because my mom never did that. I didn't realize how good the food was until I went to culinary school. She would make baklava and smelts. When I go home, I do it the way grandma does it.
How did you get your start in the industry?
Actually, you're going to laugh. I worked at a farm called Triple B Farms picking berries. We made everything with the berries. I worked at Denny's to work my way through culinary school. Then I went to went to the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, Colo.
How did you end up in Las Vegas? Where were you working?
I was in Colorado for three years and I wanted to move up. I couldn't move up like I wanted to there. I decided it was here or California and I couldn't afford California. Vegas is where I came. I started in 2006 at Rao's and I've been there since the beginning.
How did you rise up through the ranks there?
I didn't have a job. I packed my moving truck and moved and got lucky. They said, "We have an opening with a female chef. Do you want to come here?" I started there as a master cook.
How long have you been the chef de cuisine at Rao's?
I've been there almost three years in that role. I've been with Rao's for seven years.
What changes have you made to the menu there?
I just have to stick to the family recipes. We do such a large volume here. I did make changes in how we cut things and how we cook things to accommodate the larger volume.
You were nominated for a James Beard Foundation Rising Star award. Was that something you expected?
No. Nobody knows who I am. No one knows my name. That's a huge honor.
What's it like to be a female chef on the Strip?
It's the only job that I know how to do. If I work with these guys, they're going to respect me. It's not like I tell them to do things I wouldn't do myself. That's how it is. I don't think that will ever change. It will always be a male-dominated chef world. I know they think I just get by because pretty little girl.
What are your future plans?
I think I'll stay here at Rao's You never know. One day I may open my own place. There are a lot of pros and cons to that.
How do you feel about Young Guns? Do you want to be one?
Oh, yeah. All this stuff is a huge honor for my name to be on anything.
— Susan Stapleton