Culinary Game-Changer: Elizabeth Blau
When your first professional job is working with legendary restauranteur, Sirio Maccioni, proprietor of the iconic Le Cirque, you bear witness to the recipe for success...and for Elizabeth Blau, this served as a launch pad for her epic career.
Elizabeth’s passion for food and travel began as a child growing up in West Hartford, CT––her first foray into the industry was at age 16. After getting a Master's Degree at the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, she worked at Le Cirque in New York City and was charged with bringing the concept to Las Vegas. With that initial success, she went on to open many fine-dining restaurants in luxury hotels and casinos and is widely credited with transforming Las Vegas from a buffet town into a culinary mecca. Elizabeth then founded Blau & Associates in 2002 and has turned it into one of the premiere restaurant development consulting companies.
In 2012, together with her husband Chef Kim Canteenwalla, Elizabeth opened Honey Salt, serving market-inspired cuisine that draws from their travels, childhood memories, and countless meals they have shared in their home with friends and family over the years. Their best-selling cookbook, Honey Salt: A Culinary Scrapbook was named Best Cookbook in 2018 by Food & Beverage Magazine.
In an industry traditionally, and still dominated by men, Elizabeth was able to crack the code and build a hugely successful career, which inspired and motivated her to co-found The Women’s Hospitality Initiative in 2020. Committed to developing and implementing programs for women to grow and achieve leadership positions in the restaurant world. WHI is one of many ways Elizabeth continues to serve her community and has received numerous honors and accolades for her significant efforts.
In addition to appearing as a judge on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America, being featured on the Travel Channel and the Martha Stewart Show, and serving as an annual judge for Hotels magazine's “Great Hotel Restaurant” list, Elizabeth co-starred on CNBC’s Restaurant Startup as one of the Season 3 investors.
Wife, mother, and culinary game-changer…let’s hear herstory from Elizabeth herself.
Before we get into your incredible career, let’s go back to where it all began…your hometown of West Hartford, CT. When and how did you first get interested in hospitality?
I have always loved the restaurant business. My parents shared a passion for travel and food, so I was exposed to many wonderful chefs at a very young age.
What brought you to the Cornell Hotel School?
Cornell is the premier hospitality program in the United States and having a graduate degree that combined hospitality and business at an Ivy League school with an extraordinary alumni network seemed like the perfect place for me.
As your first job out of college, how did you wind up working for NYCs top restauranteur at the height of his fame?
I met Mario and Marco Maccioni at Cornell, and through my professor, Tom Kelly, I was introduced to Sirio on a field trip to New York City. I ended up writing a strategic marketing plan for Osteria Del Circo--the Italian restaurant they were planning to open in NYC--and parlayed that into a job.
You then took Le Cirque to Las Vegas, no small task! What gave you the confidence to take that on?
My education, my work experience, and Steve and Elaine Wynn building Bellagio, which would become one of the greatest hotels in America. It was the perfect place for Le Cirque, and I had no hesitation it would be a major success. And 24 years later, it’s still a major success!
What are some of the award-winning restaurants you’ve developed over the course of your career?
Picasso and Prime both at Bellagio… SW at Wynn.
What are the key ingredients for a successful restaurant?
Great location, beautiful interior design, a signature menu and a great beverage program.
Have you had any F&B concepts that failed? And if so, how do you cope?
Success and the restaurant business in a casino in Las Vegas is measured on a different scale than the rest of the world. I have had concepts that didn’t succeed and thankfully, was able to reconnect them with very little collateral damage.
As a woman who has broken through the jarring statistics revealed in the film, “A Fine Line” by documentarian, Joanna James--that less than 7% of women ever advance to an executive chef or restaurant owner role, even though women make up over 50% of enrollees at hospitality and culinary schools—how you were able to push through and rise to the top of the food world?
I think the key to success in any industry is factored by hard work, passion, dedication to your craft, and insatiable curiosity. I have never approached anything in my career without a focus on these goals. While the statistics of women not achieving these levels is real, I’ve just focused on doing the best I can as a person, and not focused on my gender.
I think the key to success in any industry is factored by hard work, passion, dedication to your craft, and insatiable curiosity. I have never approached anything in my career without a focus on these goals. –– Elizabeth Blau
What obstacles do you think hold women back in F&B?
I think the obstacle that holds women back in any industry are confidence, self-advocacy, determination, and sometimes just a bit of courage.
Love that you took the initiative to help turn those statistics around, by collaborating with other women in the industry to create the “Women’s Hospitality Initiative”. Tell us a bit about WHI and what you have achieved since the program began in 2020?
WHI was created with the goal in mind to accelerate the development and advancement of women leaders in the restaurant industry. We found that this development needed to start early in the education process, so we launched a first-ever of its kind college course called “From the Classroom to the Boardroom: Leadership for Women in Hospitality.” The course started at both the University of Las Vegas and the Culinary Institute of America and has since grown to Florida International University and San Diego State University. This fall we will also be launching a similar high school-level class through Nevada.
We want to create a path from entry-level to the C-suite, and that begins with reaching women in high school. Our programs will not just help women develop skills to last a lifetime, but they’ll also be exposed to valuable networking opportunities with mentors throughout the hospitality and restaurant Industries.
Ten years after starting your own company, you partnered with your husband to create Honey Salt. Why did you wait ten years?
The funny thing is in working in the restaurant industry for over 25 years and spending much of that time creating restaurants for other people and other companies, the timing finally felt right personally, financially and professionally to do something on our own.
How is it working with your husband? Who is the boss?
Well, let’s hope he’s not reading this article, in which case I am the boss. However, if he gets his hands on this, I will definitely say I was misquoted, LOL. I think life and work are a delicate balance and there is no difference in trying to run a company with your spouse.
You also became a mother not long after starting your own business, how have you balanced work with motherhood?
The restaurant business is basically like having an extended family, so I think the fact that I have one child allows me to balance work with my many restaurant children as well.
What tips would you give to other women looking to have both a demanding career in food and simultaneously being a parent?
Life/Work balance is critical to both your success as a mother and as a career person. I would highly recommend prioritizing family and making sure you have a support system around you so that you can be the best that you can be for yourself, your work, and your home.
On top of running your successful firm, you’ve also appeared on numerous TV shows. How did those opportunities come about and how important is it for people in food to be so visible?
Appearing on TV has been all about opportunity, timing, and great public relations partners. Most of our business comes through word of mouth, so being visible in the industry is very important to us.
What do you think of all of the food trends coming out of TikTok how has the app impacted your business?
I think a lot of the Tik Tok trends are great, but mostly for home use. Social media is very important for restaurant marketing and a great communication tool, but TikTok hasn’t really affected our business. The followers don’t necessarily equate to the number of reservations.
What top three trends do you see coming next in food?
Food brand collaborations to create fun and unique menu offerings––for example, Taco + Milk Bar and McDonalds + Krispy Kreme
Candles to make your home smell like your favorite menu restaurant item, like a Waffle Cone from Salt + Straw!
Luxury Culinary Pop-Ups like Gucci Osteria in Beverly Hills, Florence, Toyko
What is next for you and Blau & Associates?
Next month, on April 17, 2023, actually, we are opening Crown Block, at the top of the iconic Reunion Tower in Dallas. (For those that don't know it, the building is round with lights at the top and was shown in the intro for the TV show Dallas.)
Kim, my husband, has created an innovative steak and seafood menu for Crown Block utilizing regional Texas farms and local purveyors, and we have head sushi chef Intae “Ian” Kim, who has worked at Nobu and Uchi offering up sophisticated Japanese-style cuisines. We are excited about this new venture and plan to visit Dallas often to see our son, an SMU student, and check in on the restaurant.
Quickfire with Elizabeth!
What time do you wake up?
What is your morning routine? What do you do for self-care?
Coffee, newspaper, and a full breakfast. I always try and work out in the morning, as well.
What is something only a person that works in F&B knows?
86’d means a dish is no longer on the menu.
How many meals do you eat out in an average week?
What is your favorite thing to eat at Honey Salt?
Lemon Chicken Salad and a Brookie