Bill Gideon, executive chef at the Seminole Hard Rock Casino, arrives early in the morning and spends close to two hours walking the property checking in with staff. He’s upbeat and down to earth for someone overseeing close to 250 employees at one of the biggest attractions in Tampa Bay.
Gideon started cooking at age 5, mastering the fine art of scrambled eggs.
“Both my parents worked,” he said. “Eventually I was cooking all the meals.”
Born in San Francisco and raised in Mark Twain’s hometown of Hannibal, Missouri, he never went to culinary school but worked his way up, starting at age 14 at Missouri’s Carriage House restaurant. But his sights were set on Broadway.
“I studied vocal and instrumental music,” he says. Besides playing trumpet and French horn, Gideon’s vocal range goes from baritone to second soprano. During his career, he even sang backup for the likes of famed jazz musician Dizzy Gillespie. The plan was to sing and compose for Broadway musicals. But then he landed a cooking gig through a contact at the Danish embassy.
“I put music on the backburner, so to speak,” he says.
Now, 36 years into a culinary career, he’s traveled the world cooking for presidents, dignitaries, even the famed Julia Child.
During the meal he prepared for Child in her home, in the same kitchen seen on The French Chef, Gideon opened up some “beautiful oysters” from the Pacific coast.
“She wanted to taste one,” he said. Using “an incredible Japanese oyster knife,” he attempted to open the oyster for Child to eat but “just couldn’t get it open.”
“She gave me a smack on the back, took the knife, opened the oyster, slurped it down and told me it happens to the best of us,” he recalled laughing. “That’s my Julia Child story.”
For 10 years, he worked at Four Seasons Beverly Hills (the hotel in Pretty Woman), and other Four Seasons restaurants in Chicago, Nevis, Boston, and Philadelphia. He’s opened his own casino, catered for heads of state, and cooked at the Kennedy Compound. Casinos, he says, didn’t always achieve “high roller” status when it came to cuisine.
“Casino chefs were the bastard stepchildren of cooking,” he said. “Las Vegas really brought it into the now. Before that, casino chefs were considered can-opener cooks.”
He says this while seated in the casino’s white-linen palace to fine dining food and service, Council Oak Steaks & Seafood. The prime beef (supplied by Chicago’s Allen Brothers) is dry-aged in a Himalayan salt room, “drawing the moisture out without changing the basic flavor, just making it better,” Gideon says. Meat arrives aged for 21 days, and then gets an additional 15-21 days.
Seafood is Florida fresh; even the Caesar salad gets its own twist with fresh white anchovies (more buttery than briny).
“It’s a carnival in your mouth,” he says. “With the bread, the greens, the cheese, the dressing, and those fresh anchovies.”
He oversees 200 cooks and 40 managers.
“It’s just like conducting an orchestra,” he says.
Every day, the casino’s various culinary outlets are cooking up everything from prime rib to Vietnamese Pho.
“Eighty percent of everything we serve is made from scratch on site,” Gideon says. The rest is “cheffed up” with homemade chicken stock or fresh herbs.
Tonight, there’s an after-party for an event with Derek Jeter. The staff at Council Oak is seated, rolling silverware, while a manager gives them the lowdown on the evening’s events, fresh oyster offerings, wine specials, and any large tables. The after-party means a boost in business for Council Oak.
For Gideon, it’s all about giving customers whatever they want.
“If they want fresh rolls from the Rise bakery while eating dinner at Council Oak, that’s no problem,” he says.
At the end of the day, he wants the food at Hard Rock to take people somewhere.
“I see it on people’s faces; when they eat something delicious and are transported to another place,” he says. “That’s what it’s all about. That’s what food is all about.”