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Meet the Marine Biologist Who Makes Seafood a Science at Wynn Las Vegas;
One of the Few in the World with a Job Like This

By Ron Sylvester, Las Vegas SunMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News

May 29, 2012--When Yasmin Tajik took up marine biology, she didn't figure on working in the desert and caring for sea creatures that would soon become someone's dinner.

Tajik arrives at work at 7 a.m., and when most people are trying to decide how to dress for triple-digit heat, she puts on a jacket to stay warm in a chilled cooler filled with salt water tanks beneath the casino floor of the Wynn Las Vegas resort. Some 3,000 lobster each month pass through Tajik's care from the ocean on their way to one of the 20 restaurants who may order seafood that day. Most are gone by the end of the day and are replaced by the next shipment.

"Yes, we sell that many lobster," she said. "It's like the restaurants are buying out of our warehouse."

Tajik pushes a button and two stainless steel doors slide open to reveal tanks with water kept at a cool 40 degrees. She keeps a close eye on the temperatures, because variations can cause problems for the lobsters. She makes her own salt water with a special marine mix. She measures the acidity and ammonia in the water and even has to keep levels of bacteria that mimics the crustaceans nature habitat.

There are other tanks in the kitchens at Bartolotta Restaurante di Mare and for the Chinese restaurant Wing Lei.

Besides Maine lobsters, there are crabs, prawns, Mediterranean blue rock lobsters, spiny lobsters, spider crabs, brown crabs, dungeness crystal crabs and rock cod. Marble goby is the only freshwater fish kept alive for the restaurants.

Tajik didn't expect to end up in Vegas when she studied biology at Gustavus Adolphus College in Minnesota. Her pursuit of marine life took her to seaside internships in San Diego and Hawaii. But she landed a job in the Mohave Desert, as an educator for the dolphin habitat at the Mirage.

She got her first taste of working with seafood 10 years ago at the Bellagio, before corporate executive chef Grant McPherson lured her to the Wynn, when that resort opened in 2005.

As a marine biologist, Tajik pays attention to issues of sustainability and sea life populations.

"Fortunately, the lobster population is plentiful," she said. "But our chefs also keep an eye on this, and if they see a problem, they would pull back on serving them."

Tajik knows a handful of other marine biologists in Las Vegas, and most work with more traditional aquariums, such as those at Mandalay Bay, the Mirage and Caesars. Tajik said they will get together to share notes and the latest technology and help each other solve problems. But only the Bellagio has someone working with seafood in chilly rooms underneath the casino, she said.

"This is more challenging than working at an aquarium, because we have such a turnover," she said. "There is a whole new group that comes in every day."

No one in this city, and practically the world, has exactly the same kind of job Tajik does at the Wynn, however.

She's the woman with the langoustines.

Chef Paul Bartolotta's restaurant at the Wynn is the only one in the Western Hemisphere to serve langoustines -- an orange lobster about the size of a crawfish. Only 11 other restaurants in the world have them.

"It is the caviar of crustaceans and there's nothing that tastes like it, with a combination of the delicate sweetness of the meat and the salinity of the ocean," Bartolotta said. "Nothing else has that sweet and salty flavor."

Langoustines, called the true scampi, lose that sweetness when they're frozen. Like their bigger, more famous cousins from Maine, scampi must be kept alive before being cooked. But they do not like to leave their native waters. These langoustines only thrive in silty deep waters off an obscure island somewhere near Siciliy. It took Bartolotta two years to find the distributorsending the scampi to Las Vegas, so the chef guards his source as top secret.

"They are difficult to get to the desert, and they are very, very delicate in nature," Tajik said. "A shift in temperature of five degrees and we start losing them. They are unlike the lobsters, which are very hardy creatures."

It took Bartolotta receiving three empty shipping boxes, before he and the distributor could figure out the routing and the time it would take to get the langoustines to Vegas. He said when he received his first shipment in time for dinner one night a few years ago. More than half died before morning.

"Yasmin really took this seriously, and she did a lot of research," Bartolotta said. "We've now cut our mortality rate to where it's almost negligible.

Tajik works an eight-hour shift, but she's on call 24 hours a day and will go to the shipping dock behind the Wynn, and down the hall from her coolers, to inspect shipments of lobster and langoustine whenever they arrive. The chefs are often there to meet the packages, too. They will take the boxes into her cooler and check out each creature individually to make sure they arrive alive, healthy and intact.

Shipments arrive in stryofoam boxes packed with ice, enough to slow the langoustine's metabolism down and put them into a deep sleep for the trip. Maine lobster have similar packing and are wrapped in wet newspaper, Tajik said, to help them hold oxygen in their gills.

It can take anywhere from overnight to 36 hours for lobsters to travel from the ocean to the Wynn shipping dock.

"That's if they don't miss a flight," Tajik said.

Yes, even lobsters sometimes miss their connecting planes.

Tajik's job is to keep the creatures happy.

For a day.

"We want to keep them as stress free as possible," she said with a smile, "before they're killed for dinner."


(c)2012 the Las Vegas Sun (Las Vegas, Nev.)

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