James Beard Award-winning chef Alex Stratta returns from Sin City with two Michelin stars.

Beyond the Stratta Sphere

Written by Wynter Holden Category: People Issue: January 2017
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Eighteen years ago, Alessandro “Alex” Stratta had just won a James Beard Award for his splendid cooking at Mary Elaine’s at The Phoenician when Las Vegas casino mogul Steve Wynn tapped him to helm a restaurant at the newly constructed Bellagio hotel.

It would be a lavish arrangement – impeccable facilities, priceless artwork, near-unlimited resources – but the young chef initially declined the offer. Like any sensible 20-something, he changed his mind a few days later, only to find that Wynn had handed the job to Spanish-born chef and two-time James Beard Award winner Julian Serrano. Luckily, there was an opening at the Wynn-owned Mirage hotel and casino. When Stratta showed up, there was a surprise waiting.

“It was called Restaurant Alex Stratta for about a week. I was mortified!” he says. “The restaurant was being decorated, and when I came back it was named Renoir. I was kind of relieved.” The reluctant celebrity later lent his name to a fine-dining concept, Alex at the Wynn Las Vegas, and neighboring Italian restaurant Stratta.   

After an 18-year residency in Vegas, one of the most decorated chefs to rise out of Phoenix – and the only Michelin-starred chef currently in Arizona – is back. And you might be surprised by where he currently hangs his toque: The Herb Box, a highly respected but relatively middle-brow family of eateries in Phoenix and Scottsdale. Not a Renoir or high-roller to be seen.

But it suits him. Soft-spoken and gracious, with a newly trim waistline and more salt than pepper in his goatee, Stratta is indeed low-key. Despite his impressive reality TV résumé (Bravo’s Top Chef Masters, Iron Chef), he’s a different breed than the manic Rachael Rays and hotheaded Gordon Ramsays – a calm, cheerful soul, and every bit the grateful cancer survivor who moved back to his professional birth city to raise his kids and start the latter half of his career.

The Herb Box owner Susan Wilcox was attracted to Stratta’s humility and desire to mentor. “When you’ve been in the trenches of the industry like we both have, there’s a certain camaraderie,” she says. “He’s really relaxed, and a great teacher.”

A fourth-generation hotel industry pro, Stratta planned on working in resort restaurants – he just assumed he’d be running the front of house. Thanks to his father’s position as president of Princess Hotels & Resorts, he experienced resort life in a dozen countries. “I grew up with cooking around the house, but I pretty much lived in hotels until I was about 14,” Stratta says. His first job was washing dishes in a hotel kitchen. After graduating from California Culinary Institute he began a career as a pastry chef.

His dalliance with desserts didn’t last. “Pastry was too precise,” Stratta says. “It wasn’t as much about the ingredients and the originality as I wanted it to be.” Serendipity, and stomach flu, pulled him away. During his first week apprenticing at Louis XV in Monte Carlo, a kitchen worker fell ill and Stratta was tapped to step in and cook. “I fell in love with it right off the bat.”

Stratta trained under Michelin three-star French chef Alain Ducasse at Louis XV and with Daniel Boulud at Le Cirque in New York before coming to Mary Elaine’s. Stratta credits Ducasse with educating him on the farm-to-table concept. Of course, back then it didn’t have a hipster connotation. “Ducasse was 20 years ahead of his time,” Stratta says of his mentor, who combined French and Italian cooking in ways most classically trained chefs had never seen. That influence carried over to Mary Elaine’s, where Stratta sought to merge his own French and Italian heritage to translate rustic Italian for a refined palate. He planned to label the cuisine Mediterranean to bridge the thought gap between French and Italian cuisines. “But it was right next to this kebab place with $5 signs,” he says. Distancing himself from bargain meats, Stratta reclassified Mary Elaine’s as French fare.

After relocating to Las Vegas and establishing himself with Renoir and Alex at the Wynn, Stratta entered a “best of times, worst of times” life phase, equally wonderful and turbulent. In 2007, he battled colon cancer while caring for newborn twins Marco and Bianca and managing Alex. Stratta began eating healthier, taking a low-carb, regulated-portion approach. Within a few years, he had lost 90 pounds and, remarkably, scored two stars from the famed Michelin guidebook – the culinary world’s ultimate accolade. “I was thrilled,” Stratta says.

Chasing Michelin stars can be maddening. Michelin is spotty about where it dispatches reviewers, particularly in the U.S. – Phoenix has almost certainly never been visited, precluding high-caliber chefs like Kevin Binkley or Chris Bianco. Moreover, Michelin is fastidious.

There’s an expectation of expensive china, glassware and ingredients. According to Stratta, this impedes smaller establishments without major financial backing. “I had every resource possible. Absolutely, it helps,” he says. “But there are plenty of nice restaurants with beautiful accoutrements everywhere in the world, and of those not many are Michelin three-star restaurants. That’s where quality execution comes in.”

He and his staff at Alex toiled mightily to procure a mythic third star, but Michelin ceased reviewing Vegas restaurants in 2009 due to the economic downturn. Stratta parted ways with Wynn to open Tapas by Alex Stratta in the Las Vegas suburb Summerlin, but the small-plates concept didn’t connect with big-appetite suburbanites who “just didn’t get it,” he says. It closed in 2015.

The prospect of a fresh start and work-life balance steered Stratta back to Phoenix. Hoping to spend more time with his now-8-year-old twins, Stratta landed at The Herb Box via a detour at Omni Scottsdale Resort & Spa’s Prado restaurant, which hired him as chef de cuisine last summer. Unfortunately, the work-life balance he dreamed of burned up faster than his charred octopus. “After a few months of breakfast, lunch and dinner service, I was back on the roller coaster again,” Stratta says. While he hopes to eventually open his own restaurant here, Stratta is content to update The Herb Box’s culinary program and spend his days off with his kids. Wilcox and Stratta agree they met at a fortuitous time; he wanted a steady management job and she had just split with her partner. “I believe that opportunity presents itself at the right time, when you meet the right person,” Wilcox says.

For his part, Stratta sounds like anyone who flew to Sin City with big dreams, hit a jackpot and overstayed. “I always loved it [in Phoenix],” he says. “Nothing against Las Vegas. It was very good to me. But 18 years in Las Vegas is a long time... especially in the casino business.”

Menu de Stratta
A brief sampling of the iconic dishes that made Alex Stratta a star.

• Cream of Lobster Soup
Though hardly avant-garde, this early Stratta favorite knocked ’em dead at Mary Elaine’s. Stratta’s reduction techniques with brandy and port wine set it apart from ho-hum resort bisques.
• Herb Risotto with Roasted Vegetables
Few diners were familiar with risotto when Stratta arrived at Mary Elaine’s, so the chef had his work cut out for him. “When someone asks you to pay $28 for a bowl of rice, it needs some explanation.” His secret: cooking with bone marrow instead of butter.
• Short Ribs with Candied Shallots
“This is the one I can’t get away from,” the chefs says. Pairing red wine-braised beef with a crown of crunchy, sweet shallots, it goes with him everywhere... including The Herb Box.