What happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas. Before moving to Santa Barbara County in 2018, prolific chef Lee Gottheimer spent years perfecting his cooking chops in Nevada’s Sin City, where he worked for a handful of prestigious restaurants after graduating from culinary school.
Gottheimer—who recently took on a new role as sous chef with Buttonwood Farm Winery and Vineyard in Solvang—said he’d probably have a desk job today if not for one fateful trip to a once prominent bookstore, about two decades ago.
“This is how old I am—I was sitting in a Borders, which no longer exists, and I was reading Kitchen Confidential,” Gottheimer recounted. “I think most people in the industry have that one private, personal moment with Tony Bourdain.”
Gottheimer was working for a bank in Las Vegas at the time he picked up Bourdain’s book. He’d always loved cooking as a hobby, and all of his jobs before the bank gig were at restaurants, starting with his first job at a pizza joint during his teen years. Reading his copy of Kitchen Confidential “brought me back to high school, and how much fun I had,” he said.
“I was always cooking and interested in food,” Gottheimer recalled of his childhood. “My mom always had me helping out in the kitchen. I remember peeling carrots and helping her with dinner.”
As an adult, he hadn’t considered working toward a full-time career in the restaurant industry, until his bookstore-based epiphany. Reading Bourdain’s words sparked a resurgence of interest in cooking for Gottheimer, who then proceeded to take night classes at a culinary school while keeping his full-time job at the bank.
“That’s when I started drinking the Starbucks Doubleshot,” said Gottheimer, who credited the beverage with keeping him sane and caffeinated during his longest nights while enrolled in the culinary program at the Art Institute of Las Vegas. “I never really got into those until that moment. Then I realized why people drank those.”
After Gottheimer graduated, he left his bank job for a kitchen gig in Vegas that sounded like a gamble.
“I gave up my comfy desk job for a late-night, minimum wage salad station cook job on the strip,” said Gottheimer, who worked his way up the food chain from there.
Gottheimer ventured into working for various Vegas venues throughout his career, holding kitchen positions at the Bellagio Resort and Casino, Wynn Las Vegas, Vdara Hotel and Spa, MGM Grand Las Vegas, and The Shops at Crystals.
Part of Gottheimer’s reason for relocating to California—and the Central Coast specifically—was the chance to work in kitchens that were much closer to their sources of food.
“Vegas is a great place to cook food, but it’s a horrible place to grow food,” Gottheimer said. “To be where the food comes from is kind of every chef’s dream. That’s what brought me here, career-wise.”
After moving to Santa Barbara County, Gottheimer’s jobs included positions with Third Window Brewing, The Bear and The Star, and Alisal Ranch. During his time at the latter, he served as chef de cuisine and specialized in a variety of barbecue techniques, many of which he has incorporated into some new food offerings at Buttonwood Farm Winery and Vineyard—one of the venues owned by his new employers, the Gleason family.
“The family is great. They have a lot of vision for their properties,” said Gottheimer, who recommends the barbecue half-chicken, served with apricot barbecue sauce and cabbage slaw, among several comfort food options on Buttonwood Farm’s menu.
Above all, Gottheimer said his goal when it comes to cooking has remained consistent throughout his career: “making food that people get excited about.”
Arts Editor Caleb Wiseblood is a glass half-full, half-chicken kinda guy. Send comments to [email protected].