Chef Theo Schoenegger, who cooked for Frank Sinatra at San Domenico in New York City, has created a menu the Chairman himself would love, at the country’s only restaurant endorsed by the Sinatra family.
When Executive Chef Theo Schoenegger was tapped to lead Encore Las Vegas’s giving his stamp of approval to a plate of shrimp scampi at the only restaurant in the United States endorsed by the Sinatra family.
Raised in San Candido, Italy, by restaurateur parents, Schoenegger became his mother’s shadow at the age of 9 while she prepared homemade pasta. “I grew up in the kitchen,” he says. “My summers were spent cooking versus having fun in pools. I was lucky, though. I was raised in the beautiful Dolomites, in the northern part of Italy.” His mother (“an extraordinary cook”) and father owned a farm. “My dad would go hunting and bring a whole deer back,” Schoenegger says. “I had the good fortune of growing up in an environment where the product was always the shining star.”
After culinary school in Merano and stints at Aubergine and Tantris in Munich, Schoenegger was invited to work at Palio in midtown Manhattan in 1986. He spent four years at the fancy Italian establishment before accepting a position at the popular Central Park South restaurant San Domenico. It was there he met Frank Sinatra. “He enjoyed a good meal,” Schoenegger says. “I remember the first time I met the guy, he was pretty impressive. It was something very special.” Sinatra was already a legend by then, but “he’d say, ‘Hey, how are you doing? What are you going to cook for me tonight?’” the chef recalls. “He always said it the nice way, the appreciative way.”
As San Domenico’s executive chef, Schoenegger learned Sinatra’s favorites. “He liked a good plate of pasta with fresh tomatoes, and he liked his antipasto,” he says. “He would always ask for shrimp and beans, too.” Serving not only Ol’ Blue Eyes but celebrities such as Luciano Pavarotti (who lived two doors down), Plácido Domingo, Bruce Springsteen, and John F. Kennedy Jr., the high-end restaurant entertained around the clock. “John Jr. lived in the same building that the modern Italian restaurant, Sinatra, it was kismet. Sandblasted wood-paneled walls lined with Frank Sinatra photos and cherished memorabilia, like the Chairman of the Board’s shiny Grammy for Strangers in the Night, welcome din- ers into Chef Theo’s world. You can find him in the kitchen tasting sauces andrestaurant was in for a time,” Schoenegger says. “He would take the ele- vator right down from his penthouse—on Rollerblades—and come in the restaurant’s back door to pick up his food. It was pretty cool.”
Schoenegger left New York City and the star-studded San Domenico in 1996, and after four years as executive chef of Aquaria in Palm Beach, reopening Rock Center Café in Manhattan, then opening Patina in Los Angeles and running it for five years, “I got a call from Mr. Wynn,” he says. “The rest is history.”
In 2008, Schoenegger opened Sinatra at Encore. Paying tribute to the singer, the Roger Thomas–designed space has a 14-seat private din- ing room (aptly named the Chairman’s Room), an intimate patio area reminiscent of a Tuscan garden, and a bar featuring two Sicilian-made nine-foot-tall crystal-beaded obelisks from the 1920s. “It’s gorgeous, it’s perfect,” the chef says. “It’s not too big, it’s not too small. It’s a place that lends itself to just about any special occasion. It’s not a low-ceiling, smoky, checkered-tablecloth type of place. It’s an incredibly elegant and beauti- fully done restaurant.”
In celebration of the 100th anniversary of Sinatra’s birth on December 12 of this year, all year long the restaurant is offering patrons The Ultimate Sinatra, a five-course tasting menu filled with the icon’s favorite foods. Indulge in sautéed Santa Barbara spot prawns and cannellini beans, clams Posillipo, fusilli, veal milanese, and eggplant parmigiana, before ending your meal with the Cappello, a fedora-shaped Valrhona dark-chocolate mousse delicacy accompanied by a rich Jack Daniel’s milk chocolate panna cotta.
The prawns and beans bring back fond memories for Schoenegger. “We love the shrimp and beans in Italy,” he says. “I used to make this back in the day. You need lots of rosemary, some speckled tomatoes, garlic extra-virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, parsley, and a little white wine. Then you make a bean emulsion with the cannellini beans, quickly sauté the prawns, and then finish it with the rosemary garlic oil. It’s to die for.” And veal milanese—a dish Schoenegger prides himself on—is an Italian classic. “We make the best Milano on the West Coast,” he says. “You start out with a beautiful, thinly seasoned veal chop, dipped in flour, egg wash, panko bread crumbs, with a little Parmesan cheese. Then you pan-fry it in extra-virgin olive oil. It’s a traditional dish, but it’s one of the best.”
The commemorative tasting menu comes with the restaurant’s signa- ture Sinatra Smash (whiskey, crème de cassis, muddled blackberries) and a copy of the CD Ultimate Sinatra. And while the majority of the dishes on this menu are inspired by those Sinatra had at San Domenico, the clams Posillipo entrée is based on the one he enjoyed at Patsy’s in New York City.
For a closer look at Sinatra’s most beloved dishes, Schoenegger and Sinatra’s granddaughter A.J. Lambert have started offering interactive cooking demonstrations. “It’s a lot of fun,” the chef says. “It keeps his spirit alive. The audience is very interested in what it was like to cook for him, and to have a family member there is really cool.”
Schoenegger (who shares Sinatra’s birth date, if not year) has played a key role in the success of the seven-year-old restaurant. “This is a once- in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says. And if the singer were alive today, the chef believes he’d be quite pleased with this establishment: “Sinatra would be extremely proud. He would probably be sitting in there every night having his veal Milano. He would enjoy himself.”