Nicolas Kurban arrived in Melbourne only five weeks ago, and already he’s willing to be quizzed about his new hometown. He’s here to replace Walter Wagner, the heavyweight food and beverage doyen who helped Crown Melbourne easily ascend to the top of the Australian casino heap. Wagner’s strengths were in detail — scouring China for items that would bring luck to his tea-swilling, Sho Noodle Bar patrons; clout — he was able to lure the likes of Neil Perry, twice, when the chef’s hometown casino couldn’t get him at all; and balance — even ruffling a few Zampelis feathers to get the right tenant mix of elegance and affordability.
They are big shoes for Nicolas Kurban to fill. Crown Melbourne has long stood as the premier casino in Asia Pacific, but like any major resort, without the right investment it can become a sitting duck. Kurban isn’t that worried about Crown’s position in the region though; he’s focused more on its ascendancy to the top, the very top. It’s hard to imagine an Aussie casino eclipsing the major centres of Las Vegas, Atlantic City, or even Macau, but Kurban thinks the mix is already on its way. With the casino floor effectively doubled over the last year, and a whole new precinct at Crown’s West End designed to liven up the resort, the only things Kurban points out that are missing is a superclub presence and some tapas to share.
Kurban was previously Vice President of F&B and Retail at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, as well as Director of Fine Dining Operations at Wynn Resorts, and before both of those, he was Director of Restaurant Operations for the dual three Michelin star chef Thomas Keller’s restaurant group. It’s quite a resumé, and shows he has the breadth of experience to bring the world to Crown.
TASTE OF MELBOURNE
venue: How have you found Melbourne?
Nicolas Kurban: I’ve been around the city, and some nice areas like Port Melbourne and St Kilda. When I came a while ago, I felt it was similar to San Francisco. I was surprised to find such an amazing food culture here, the cafés, how much Melburnians love to go out and eat, as well as the fresh produce. It’s good to be in this kind of city. It will take a while for me to get around and know everyone, but overall I feel very fortunate to be a part of Crown.
venue: How much of your job relies on your knowledge of Melbourne?
NK: I’m very familiar with how the casino, and food and beverage business works. That’s what I’ve done for the last 15 years-plus. I don’t know a lot about Melbourne, but I’m eager to learn a lot about it. It’s important to get to know the city, what the trends are here, and what works. Not everything that works in The States, or Europe will work here. But there are similarities in the trends.
venue: What are some of those casino trends?
NK: Growth in bars has been very important. Also, people are very knowledgeable about food. Local cafes and restaurants are definitely in a much better place then they were 15 years ago. People used to go to a major city to find the best, it’s not the same anymore. We have to up the game, we have to be as competitive, and as good, if not better than what’s around the neighbourhood. When you come to Crown you should expect the best restaurants, the best bars, the best music, the best décor, the best service.
venue: What is your appraisal of Crown at the moment?
NK: Crown wasn’t waiting for me to come in. The senior leadership identified a lot of areas that needed investment. If you look at the West End allotment, there’s been $100m invested in bars and clubs, gaming and dining, all in a tightly knit, seamless precinct. It’s a completely new offering for our guests — outdoor areas, something for everyone day and night. There’s the Lumia bar and balcony, The Merrywell that opened a month ago, and this month we have the Cotta café, and the Common Room — the sports bar that’s opening in a few weeks. These are completely new offerings for Crown that will position the West End as a fun, vibrant place where people can find exciting new food and beverage, and gaming offerings.
BALANCE WITH A CLUB
venue: What kind of balance are you trying to achieve?
NK: One thing about Crown is you have all kinds of budgets coming and all ages. We have to offer something for everyone, but at a premium level. This is where the West End will be focused on a younger demographic. Then we have all our premium restaurants, and The Conservatory is going through an $8m reinvention to revolutionise buffet dining. It will be ideal for families and groups with an open kitchen so you can see the chefs at work. It will be theatrical, dramatic, and fun.
We’re also opening a new champagne bar in The Atrium, where you will be able to buy vintage champagne by the glass. There will be new high-end meeting places for an older crowd who are coming for dinner or on their way up to the Palladium.
venue: Crown has struggled to lock in a strong nightclub presence that lasts. How do you think Club23 works in that regard?
NK: Club 23 is doing really well. It accomplished something that is unique. If you go there on a Friday and Saturday, it has a very hip crowd. It’s a bit selective, not open to everyone. But the club scene is definitely something that Crown is focusing on. It started with Club 23, but will hopefully continue with the other clubs on level three, and will hopefully be the next big investment in 2013-14. The club scene and nightlife is becoming a must for casinos because of what the late night crowd can bring. If you go to Las Vegas, whether the Bellagio, MGM, or others, you’ll notice how important these clubs have become. Club 23 is on the right path, it’s very loungey — I wouldn’t call it a superclub — but it’s attracting the right crowd, with amazing views of the city, great music, and very professional staff.
venue: Do you need that superclub presence in the mix?
NK: I believe that’s something that will become very important to become a complete resort. There’s nothing set in stone, though we have talked about it, and it is in the plan. A superclub done in a very elegant and professional way, that attracts the right customers, is what we need. We don’t need just any old superclub. Something Las Vegas style would be very important.
A MAZE OF CHEFS
venue: Your history includes managing the Thomas Keller Group, how important are Michelin stars to the casino?
NK: They’re very important. We just brought on Peter Chan, he’s a double Michelin star chef, who came from Macau. He’s focusing on positioning Silk and our Chinese offering as the top in the city, if not top in Australia. Part of the vision for Crown would be to attract Michelin stars and be proud of the offering. And possibly partnering with celebrity chefs that can really help the branding of Crown and bring something to the table. I’m very happy with our partnerships with Neil Perry and Guillaume Brahimi, and there could be more to come. Then there’s Mr Hive, which is also a new offering with an innovative menu, a dedicated dessert bar, and a young team of dedicated professionals. We have high hopes for it. The chef there, John Lawson, and his team, are very talented.
Michelin stars are important to us, though I don’t know if it’s a necessity. It’s more important to have offerings that meet people’s expectations of Crown. If we can accomplish it with Michelin stars, that’s fine, if not, we’ll accomplish it with our own concepts and designs of restaurants.
venue: What did the failure of Gordon Ramsay’s Maze mean to Crown and its perspective on celebrity chefs?
NK: This was before my time. I don’t have many details. It’s an unfortunate thing. Gordon Ramsay is a talented chef who I have huge respect for. Sometimes things don’t work out. It happens in Las Vegas, in Atlantic City, even in New York. We just heard of Joel Robuchon leaving the Four Seasons in New York after being there for years [Robuchon had just received a second Michelin star last year for his restaurant L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon — Ed]. All we can do is learn from the experience and move forward. Lawson was the executive chef for Gordon Ramsay and has stayed on board. So to us, the level of delivery will remain with Lawson at Mr Hive. In the end, it’s about Crown supporting these chefs and committing to buying the best produce. We have a captive market here. We have 1600 rooms that are pretty much full 90% of the time. We have the demand, we just have to be able to deliver, if not go beyond those expectations.
venue: Will you be changing any of the food and beverage offerings on the casino floor?
NK: The casino floor is very important. And there’s also a lot of capital investment, beginning this year and going on to next year. There are plans to refurbish a lot of the casual outlets. We’ve already started it in a way, if you look at Mings, our dim sum and dumpling house, and Sho Noodle Bar also offers Chinese and Vietnamese food. The existing sports bar on the casino floor will shut down for refurbishment in the next month, and we have a plan for another casino bar that is as elegant as the Common Room and the Atrium bar. Everything that’s been there for a while will get its share of investment and refurbishment to make it relevant to the 21st century, to make sure we compete not only on an Australian level, but on an international level as well.
On Level One, they’re adding so much casino space, and the food and beverage offering is just becoming an amenity. The gaming space has almost doubled in the last year or so, if you look at the Mahogany Room, and the Level One offering. We’re keeping up with demand. It’s a project that’s been coming along over the last few years. There’s been $100m invested in Level One alone. But you can take that and probably add a few hundred million more across the casino complex.
venue: Traditionally Melbourne’s Crown has held dominance over Sydney’s The Star as the premier casino in Australia. With The Star trying to tipping the balance more in its favour, how much will you be looking North?
NK: The Star’s done a good job with what’s been done. Anything The Star does, is good for Australia in general — good competition is better than bad competition. If you take the Las Vegas model, the more casinos that opened, the better everyone did because it became a destination.
I don’t take any competition lightly. What they’ve done is good, and we should look at them. Crown is on a different level, it’s a much bigger space, and we have a much higher volume of traffic. But I was impressed overall with the food and beverage offering. I’d heard where The Star used to be, and what they’ve done is pretty amazing. It’s good for Australia, the economy, for tourism. Everyone needs to stay on their toes, to be investing in their properties, and looking at their own hotel rooms, and offerings. The problem was The Star didn’t seem to invest back into its property for over a decade, and when you neglect something that’s what happens. You have to put capital back in all the time to stay where you are, that’s the key.
SHARING: A LOT ON HIS PLATE
venue: What’s your favourite food or beverage trend at the moment?
NK: I love Nobu; I love that Japanese-influenced style of food. But what’s really on trend right now over in The States is Spanish tapas. Latin fare is really gaining ground all over the world. Obviously Italian and Asian cuisine are always going to be very popular, but the small plate and sharing is what’s in. I don’t think people want to have big portions any more and sit for two or three hours. Eating out is about having fun, and the sharing nature of tapas is what people really like. I think it’s something that’s missing at Crown, and if I can find the space and money, it’s something I will put on the agenda.
venue: What’s your overall vision for Crown?
NK: I want the food and beverage at Crown to be positioned as the best in the world. I’ve had the privilege to work in Las Vegas, Napa Valley, New York, and Atlantic City, with the best chefs and the best minds. So hopefully over the next five to 10 years I can help bring some of that vision to Crown. Attracting a good team is very important. I want people to know that not only can they come and have the best meal and cocktails at Crown. But I also want them to say they want to work at Crown. It’s important to have people say, ‘this is the culture; this is the team I want to be a part of’. If anything, I want to put Crown on the map as the food and beverage mecca of Australia. Where if people want to have a job working for a chef in a kitchen, they think of Crown first. I think we have a lot to offer here. They can work for different restaurants, experience different cuisine, all under one roof. There are not many other resources like that.