Mystic Man: Las Vegas Chef Grant MacPherson Combines Passions for Music and Food

May 15th, 2014

Mystic Man: Las Vegas chef Grant MacPherson combines passions for music and food

By Richard Bienstock | Photo by Ben Clark

Scottish-born chef Grant MacPherson has experienced incredible success in his professional career. He’s run and opened restaurants all over the world, from Singapore to Sydney to St. Petersburg, Russia, and cooked for everyone from U.S. presidents to British prime ministers to rock royalty, including the King of Pop himself, Michael Jackson. During a decade-long tenure overseeing restaurant operations for the Bellagio and Wynn hotels that started in the late Nineties, MacPherson played a major role in transforming the dining scene in his adopted hometown of Las Vegas.

But to get a sense of where MacPherson’s passions lie, look no further than his mode of transportation. Instead of a pricey luxury sedan or a powerful sports car, the 51-year-old chef drives the few miles from home to his office, just off the Strip, in a 1974 Volkswagen Type 2 bus.

One could interpret this to mean that MacPherson doesn’t flaunt the spoils of his success. But the Volkswagen, while modest, is hardly inconspicuous. Rather, it is a moving paean, if not a billboard, to the very things that he holds in highest esteem, namely food and music. Its exterior is enveloped in a wraparound depiction of the Caspian Sea, its deep-black color studded with all manner of brightly colored underwater creatures, seaweed, and coral. MacPherson chose this customized graphic in tribute to his love for caviar, in particular the prized Beluga roe found primarily in the Caspian’s waters. Emblazoned across the back of the vehicle, just above a depiction of an electric-orange coral reef, is the phrase “Endangered Species.” Its presence there is perhaps another allusion to the Beluga sturgeon, but its execution is also a tribute to one of MacPherson’s favorite bands, Genesis.

“I had the lettering done to resemble the font used on the cover of [the band’s 1976 album] A Trick of the Tale,” MacPherson explains, meeting Guitar Aficionado at his office, which serves as the base of operations for his newest and primary endeavor, the Scotch Myst restaurant consulting firm. He points out yet another musical nod: the bus’ license plate, which reads MAGIC8. “I love the Who, and so I wanted it to spell out MAGICBUS, for obvious reasons. Unfortunately, it was too many letters.”

Musical references and influences are further evident upstairs in MacPherson’s second-floor office. His desk and workspace are cordoned off in one corner, and a large, wooden communal table spans much of the main room. But everywhere else there are guitars, and lots of them. Against one wall stand two Gibson Custom Shop beauties: a double-neck Jimmy Page EDS-1275 reissue and a 2006 Jimi Hendrix Flying V, a limited-edition replica of the black example that Hendrix had hand-painted with a striking psychedelic swirl and used onstage in Europe in 1967 and 1968. Off in a corner sit another pair of Gibson artist models: an autographed Joe Perry Boneyard Les Paul, sent directly from the Aerosmith guitarist’s office, and a Pete Townshend Les Paul Deluxe, a replica of his mid-Seventies “#1 Wine Red” instrument.

“That one is actually a prototype,” MacPherson says of the Townshend Les Paul, which sports many of the quirky modifications of the Who guitarist’s original, including a DiMarzio Dual Sound humbucker inserted between the two stock pickups, additional mini-toggle switches, and a large “1” sticker below the tailpiece. “As a big Who fan, I was just enticed,” he continues. “I saw the first farewell concert in ’82, in Buffalo, with the Clash backing them up. And a few years later, in London, I had the opportunity to cook for Roger Daltrey. Townshend is a phenomenal, theatrical guitarist. I’ve seen the band probably 30 times at this point. I’ve always loved their energy. I wanted to feel like I had a piece of them, in a way.”

In fact, many of the guitars in MacPherson’s collection function as mementos of a sort, tangible markers of admiration for the bands and musicians he loves. In this respect, in addition to the Townshend, Page, Hendrix, and Perry Gibsons, he pulls out a weathered Fender Rory Gallagher Signature Strat, a replica of the late Irish guitarist’s bruised and battered 1961 example, and also a stunning prototype model EVH Eddie Van Halen Frankenstein Replica.

Then there is MacPherson’s Blackie guitar, a Fender Custom Shop replica of Eric Clapton’s legendary modified Strat, which he used onstage and in the studio throughout the Seventies and Eighties. In 2006, Fender issued a very limited run of 275 instruments worldwide, from which MacPherson managed to nab number 50. While the guitar at first merely embodied his love for Clapton as an artist, it soon came to represent much more to him. In 2010, MacPherson was invited to cook at Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival in Chicago, and in 2013 he was asked to don his chef’s hat once again for a Crossroads at the Hard Rock Café in New York City, prior to that year’s show at Madison Square Garden.

In recognition of his work, Clapton sent MacPherson a letter of gratitude and a bracelet made from his own guitar strings. But it is Blackie that perhaps best represents MacPherson’s regard for, and relationship with, the guitar legend. It certainly represents for him the ways in which food and music have merged in his life. “Music inspires me in everything I do,” MacPherson says. “It sparks my creativity, my senses. In a very basic way, it makes me put better food on the plate.”

MacPherson has been putting food on plates for much of his life, although his cooking career did not get off to an auspicious start. After spending his childhood years in Dundee, Scotland (with a sojourn in South Africa), he moved with his family to St. Catharines, a city in southern Ontario, Canada. “That’s where I started my culinary adventure,” he says. “I worked in lousy little restaurants. Chopped a lot of chicken wings at a place called Bugsy’s.

“But then I got an apprenticeship at a restaurant there,” he says. “Actually, it was more like a motor inn, but at least it was a cooking job. So I was working, partying, making a little money, and listening to a lot of rock and roll music — the Who, Kiss, Black Sabbath. Basically, just having a good time.”

In short order, he managed to make the leap from the world of motor inns to something a bit more refined, and chicken wings were replaced by quality cuts of beef, lamb — and even lion.

“Around ’83, I was working at a restaurant further north in Canada,” MacPherson recalls, “and I was told by the manager there, ‘A big party is coming in next week, and we’re going to be cooking lion consommé.’ So the next day an entire lion is rolled into the kitchen on two trolleys — one with the body, the other with the pelt. I spent hours deboning that thing. The pelt went up to the general manager’s office. You try to do something like that today and you’d be in prison for the rest of your life. But the shit I had to do…”

Eventually, MacPherson landed a position in Vancouver at the Four Seasons, and from there his career took off. He moved on to similar positions at the Four Seasons in Toronto and London, and then with the Regent Hotels, working at properties in Sydney (where he helped the hotel’s restaurant, Kables, win the highly coveted rating of three Chef’s Hats, Australia’s equivalent of Michelin stars) as well as Kuala Lumpur. Of the latter experience, he recalls, “I didn’t even know where Malaysia was at the time. I showed up with a few pieces of clothing and my orange toolbox with a hundred cassette tapes. I learned about chilis, noodles, and different cuisines — Malaysian, Chinese, Indian. It was a great time.”

Following a stint at a third Regents property, in Singapore, MacPherson signed on in 1993 to run the dining room at the legendary Raffles Hotel, known as the Grand Old Lady of Singapore. Here he found himself cooking for famous figures like George H.W. Bush, Elizabeth Taylor, and Michael Jackson. “I cooked for him for three days,” MacPherson recalls of his meeting with the King of Pop. “A very nice man. He liked chicken soup and avocados. And candy. Lots and lots of chocolate.”

After five years with Raffles, MacPherson was recruited by Steve Wynn to head up culinary operations at his soon-to-be-opened Las Vegas mega-property, the Bellagio Resort & Casino, which at the time was the most expensive hotel project in history. “I went to Vegas for the interview,” MacPherson recalls. “When I saw the Bellagio, I was in awe. Nobody really knew what that hotel was going to be. And as far as food, it changed dining not just in that town but also in America, just through the awesome collection of restaurants, like Le Cirque and Jean-Georges [Prime Steakhouse].”

As the executive chef overseeing every aspect of the hotel’s more than one dozen restaurants, MacPherson played a central role in that transformation. Five years later, he repeated that success at the newly opened Wynn Las Vegas. But after a decade with the Wynn organization (both in Vegas and at their luxury resort in Macau, China), he decided to set out on his own with Scotch Myst.

“The phone rings and I get to do a lot of fun stuff,” MacPherson says of running Scotch Myst, whose current endeavors include two gastropubs in Australia, a restaurant remodel at the Grand Hotel Europe in St. Petersburg, and a yet-to-be-unveiled project in Beverly Hills. He adds, “I also represent the American Pistachio Growers association. I’m the executive chef for Viking Commercial. There’s a collaboration with Apple on a dining facility at their new campus in Cupertino. So it’s all exciting.”

Recently, MacPherson also appeared at the Life Is Beautiful festival, a music, food, and art extravaganza in Las Vegas, where, he says, “the organizers asked me to do a cooking demo. But I didn’t want to just be a chef standing on a stage.”

Instead, he asked famed Vegas-based rock photographer Robert Knight to join him for his presentation. “Robert has taken great shots of Jeff Beck, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, and he’s also a real storyteller,” MacPherson says. “We put some of his photography up on the screen, I did my cooking demo, and we had a little interaction. It made for a much deeper experience.”

MacPherson has managed to cook for many rock idols over the course of his career, crafting meals for guitar greats like Slash and Billy Gibbons in addition to his work with Clapton’s Crossroads Festival. Some years back, he was drafted to help revamp the menus at B.B. King’s Restaurant & Blues Club locations in Memphis and Nashville. His time there is memorialized in his office in the form of another six-string memento: a Gibson B.B. King Lucille that bears the autograph of the blues giant.

And it’s not the only signed guitar in his collection. Others include a 2006 “Music Rising” Les Paul autographed by U2’s the Edge — part of a series of instruments built to benefit charities combating the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina — and a Lace Sensor–loaded Strat with a “Lizard King” sticker, formerly owned and played by the Doors’ Robby Krieger.

For MacPherson, that artist connection to the instrument is of primary concern. He says he sees many similarities between music and cooking — “the artistry, the lifestyle, the travel.” But at the end of the day, in order to express that creativity, the person in the kitchen — on the stage, as it were — must have the right tools for the job. “A guitarist holding his instrument is like a chef holding his knife,” MacPherson reasons. “They are essential components of the craft. In that respect, these guitars represent the realization of that craft. I suppose that’s a big part of their appeal to me.”

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