Making the News

Press of Atlantic City

Originally Published:Thursday, June 17, 2010

Harrah's cooks up a new attraction

By Donald Wittkowski
Press of Atlantic City

ATLANTIC CITY - If only everyone's kitchen could be so clean.

Countertops are crumbless. Stoves are stain-free. Ovens have no odors.

Welcome to the new Viking Cooking School at Harrah's Resort, the latest nongaming attraction that shows how Atlantic City's casino industry is evolving beyond the slot machines and blackjack tables to draw customers.

"It's a nice alternative to what everyone else in town is offering right now," said Jay Snowden, senior vice president and general manager of Harrah's Resort. "It's unique for Atlantic City and, quite frankly, there's nothing like it in Las Vegas."

Snowden stood amid gleaming appliances, tables, granite countertops and silverware. Spatulas, big wooden spoons, egg beaters, pepper shakers, sugar jars and bottles of extra-virgin olive oil were ready for use by the "students" - casino customers - who sign up for cooking classes to learn the culinary craft.

"We have a classic mixture of people," said Edward Batten, director of food services and executive chef at Harrah's. "We have some people who have never picked up a kitchen knife and we have other people who consider themselves gourmet chefs."

Batten and Snowden emphasized that the cooking classes, no matter what the skill level of students, are mostly intended to be fun. There will be no "Hell's Kitchen" reality show pressure and no screaming celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay, they said.

"I would tell you that it's a very fun, social and somewhat light-hearted experience," Snowden said.

Harrah's guests pay between $79 and $129 to participate in classes ranging from 90 minutes to three hours long, depending on the sophistication of the meals they prepare. There are 16 students per class. They slice, dice and cook under the eyes of local, regional and national chefs.

"In a sense, they get their own kitchen," Batten said. "When you're done, your group sits down to eat the food you've prepared."

This is the 16th Viking Cooking School across the country and the only one in a casino. Harrah's invested just under $1 million to build it. The school occupies a prominent spot within a corridor of retail shops not far from the casino floor. Spectators crowd around the large store-like windows when classes are in session.

"Our environmental services department has to come here and clean off the handprints from people who are looking in the windows," Batten said.

More than 300 people have signed up for the classes since the cooking school made its debut on Memorial Day weekend. Snowden described the demand as being strong.

Viking Cooking School is another example of the casino industry's push for more nongaming attractions to give customers more to do than just gamble. Casinos have been adding upscale restaurants, retail shops, nightclubs and spas in recent years as Atlantic City transforms itself into a broader tourist destination.

Michael Pollock, managing director of Linwood-based casino consulting firm Spectrum Gaming Group, said the Viking Cooking School is a "terrific idea" that caters to baby boomers who have plenty of disposable income. He believes it will generate extra business for Harrah's, in addition to being a unique attraction.

"Here's the key: The successful casinos in Atlantic City going forward are going to be the properties that are not just looking for a share of the gaming dollar, but also a share of the discretionary dollar. This is a great example," Pollock said of Harrah's partnership with Viking.


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