It’s 5 p.m. on a chilly Friday in April, and I’m finishing up an early dinner at Gordon Ramsay Pub & Grill at Caesars, Atlantic City’s newest celebrity chef-driven restaurant. The atmosphere is subdued; a few people are drinking wine at the bar, and a group that looks like adult versions of the Jersey Shore cast is celebrating a birthday at a nearby table. “It’s the calm before the storm,” says Chef La Tasha McCutchen, with a smile, as she stops by to see how I’m enjoying my meal. She got this prestige head chef job in a way befitting our reality show-saturated era—by winning Season 13 of Hell’s Kitchen, Gordon Ramsay’s grueling and often ridiculous TV series featuring the perpetually blustery British chef berating a group of mostly hapless and under-qualified cooks.
McCutchen had to keep her newfound success a secret for a long time—not an easy thing to do—as her season was shot in 2013 and the show’s finale didn’t air until this past December. She started her new job shortly thereafter, and has had to learn to deal with some pretty major changes from her previous life working as a cook at 3030 Ocean, a “modern American seafood” restaurant in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The head chef here is another Hell’s Kitchen alum, Paula DaSilva, who came in second place back in 2007, and presumably provided McCutchen with some tips on how to deal with Ramsay’s renowned wrath. Still, the spotlight currently shining on McCutchen can be intimidating. For starters, her smiling face is plastered on a giant billboard towering over the Atlantic City Expressway, greeting visitors speeding towards the Boardwalk and casinos. Her job now involves much more than just working behind the line, as she is the face (second to Ramsay’s, of course) of a new venture that management hopes will bring some business and much needed revenue to the struggling former Boardwalk Empire.
Times have been tough for Atlantic City as of late, with four casinos closing in just the past year, and Caesars Entertainment (the parent company of Caesars Atlantic City) filing for Chapter 11 this past January. This is a serious problem for the town once known as “America’s Playground,” as well as the rest of the Garden State. In an interview on NJ.com last summer, New Jersey resident and labor economist Deborah Figart warned about the ripple effects AC’s demise could have upon the rest of the state, including reduced consumer spending and vendors who rely upon contracts with casinos going out of business. Walking around the casino floor, one marvels at the amount of people employed to keep the operation running, and the recent closures have left the populace searching for work. The Bureau of Labor Statistics puts Atlantic City’s unemployment rate at almost 12 percent, nearly double the national average.
And let’s not forget about the lingering effects of Hurricane Sandy, which devastated the Boardwalk just a few years ago. According to a Reuters article, gaming revenue has decreased by about half since 2006, due in large part to the influx of new casinos in other states like Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, and Connecticut. And, let’s be honest, Atlantic City often feels like a weird, sad, forgotten gambling city, a neglected sibling to its bigger, shinier sisters. In other words, Atlantic City makes Reno look like Vegas and Vegas look like Monte Carlo.
Of course, its peculiarity is also part of the AC charm. It’s an easy car or train ride from major mid-Atlantic cities like New York and Philadelphia, drawing slot machine-addicted grandmothers and fist-pumping club kids alike for weekend excursions. But just a block away from the Boardwalk, Pacific Avenue isn’t exactly a cozy tourist destination, as check cashing joints, pawnshops, and decrepit liquor stores seem to mark every corner. Perhaps this is the real Atlantic City, not the forced glitter, sprawling buffets, and incessant dinging of the slots that fill the adjacent casinos.
Still, McCutchen’s right about the coming storm of patrons at Gordon Ramsay’s Pub & Grill. Around 11:30 that night, I take a stroll back over to the restaurant to check out the scene, and it’s popping. A couple of huge parties have taken over the dining room floor, which extends a bit awkwardly out into the lobby right next to the front desk. The restaurant doesn’t appear to be at capacity, but the place is hopping nevertheless, and this is still the offseason. The summer months are when Atlantic City tourism really gets going. Also, the food, elevated pub grub based upon some of Gordon Ramsay’s favorite dishes and British classics, is executed with great finesse. (Full disclosure: my meal and overnight stay were comped by Caesars PR, but if normal service is close to what I received, they’re doing a fantastic job.)