Chef Talk

The Weekly Interview: Chef Timon Balloo readies Sugarcane at Venetian

Sugarcane executive chef Timon Balloo.

Since opening in 2010, Sugarcane has turned into one of the coolest places to eat in Miami. Its multi-ethnic cuisine and dynamic range—from crudos and raw seafood to smoky meats from a robata grill and a whole roasted chicken with truffle fingerling potatoes—plus a festive vibe have proven the perfect fit for its original location. Now it's coming to Vegas, with its opening just around the corner.

We caught up with executive chef Timon Balloo in the final weeks before Sugarcane’s debut at Venetian, planned for early November.

So how close are you to opening? It’s down to the wire. It’s been intense. There’s only so much training you can do outside the space. We are just excited to get in the space and start cooking, get the bar staff behind the bars and start moving around and get the mechanics down, and start creating flows with the floor staff.

What’s the biggest challenge with this opening? Is the Vegas factor the biggest thing, or is it more about opening in a big hotel which is so different from the Miami restaurant? Most of the challenges really come from within, but you do have the whole lore of Vegas to deal with. Every top chef in the world has some type of fingerprint here, and it’s an honor to be among them and produce your product here. On the other hand, we started so organically in a neighborhood area with a food-driven culture that is not, I would say, avant garde, but definitely aggressive as far as cuisine. If I look through the menu, there’s something for everyone. The more aggressive diner can find things like uni or tripe or pig tail, but also the most common green salad or a slider. I think that’s worked for our brand. We always look at every opportunity to re-create ourselves, look at trends, look at how people are eating. We’re going to receive so many demographics of people from so many regions here. It’s going to be about understanding your menu and diversifying your mix to appeal to all those people, how to yield a successful product while staying true to your brand, integrity and philosophy.

How different will your Vegas menu be from the one in Miami? We’re keeping about 50 percent of the core menu, and that’s what we use as we grow. It’s important for that other 50 percent to take on a location imprint, the personality of the chef, the culture of the region. I’m from San Francisco and had a very Asian upbringing, and being [out in the West] we’re looking for more Asian-style flavors to serve as the common language here as opposed to Miami. There was a lot of education to teach everyone what gochujang is and what kalbi shortribs are like. Out here, I’m assuming it’s going to be a pretty common thing, and we’ll be able to play with those flavors a bit more. We’re also really enthusiastic about the agriculture in this area. We’ll be going up the whole West Coast, California to Portland to Seattle, and that’s a toy box for any chef. I’m super stoked about that.

There’s a lot to eat at Sugarcane. What parts of the menu do you think will work best in Vegas? We’re going to increase our raw bar in Vegas. We have a normal crudo and raw bar section, but we’ll go more in-depth with those offerings, and those are really fun things. We’re going to intensity our grill and open-fire cooking program here, and we have this beautiful Uruguayan-style grill that’s going to be a lot of fun to play with.

You’ll be here, of course, as you get the restaurant open. How much time are you planning to spend in Vegas once it’s up and running? I think I might come back every three or four days for the first few months. I have a really solid team in Miami, but I just need to be closer to the ocean to be able to function. Who knows? I could fall in love and move out here.

It happens. Really?

It’s pretty easy to live here. Many, many people come to Vegas planning for one or two years here and end up staying. Like forever. Wow. I’m really looking forward to the [outdoors] stuff here, exploring the mountains and the lake and all that. The Strip thing, that’s looked at as the 9 to 5, that’s work. You don’t want to be in the office all the time. I want to get out and see that stuff. And I’ve been doing my research and having chefs take me off the Strip and see what the locals are eating, what the real people of Vegas are eating. I’ve heard the argument that we’re not going to appeal to locals [on the Strip], but I still think it’s important to get the pulse and understand the demographic you are working with, the day to day.

So you’ve been exploring already? We did Spring Mountain [Road] on my first trip and will probably do more of that.

It’s impressive. I think so, too. And it’s cool to see that. I hear a lot about the whole thing that’s happening Downtown, and I’m really excited to make the rounds at all the dive bars, too. We did Herbs & Rye. It’s clear there is some type of movement happening here, and it’s really interesting to see. When everyone takes off the suit and tie and gets out of work and goes to do what they really wanna do, that’s the real integrity of our culture, the industry. That’s when the best things happen.

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