Big chef, small pond
AS I WALK THROUGH the Rainbow Club, the movie Doc Hollywood plays in my mind. That is the early 1990s (classic?) starring Michael J Fox as hotshot doctor Ben Stone, who is on his way to Beverly Hills when he gets stuck in small Grady, South Carolina, and has to adapt to its laid-back Southern lifestyle.
Certainly, the Strip is closer to Water Street in old Henderson than to Grady, but in some ways it feels just as far away. Follow me here: Our Doc Hollywood is Chef Scott Pajak. The 43-year-old culinary expert was a veteran of the Strip for 18 years, namely with the Emeril Lagasse brigade, where he worked his way up from line cook to sous chef at Emeril’s New Orleans Fish House at the MGM Grand before ascending to executive chef of Lagasse’s Stadium at The Palazzo.
In that ultramodern sports bar, Pajak, who looks like an offensive lineman himself, catered to tourists, many not caring how much money they burned as long as they filled their bellies with topnotch grub and their mouths with overpriced cocktails while rooting on their favorite teams. Though he wasn’t as well known as his boss, Pajak did achieve a measure of celebrity as one of the first local contestants to win the popular Food Network competition show Chopped, back in 2012.
But with 2020 came COVID-19 and the end of many local eateries, including big-name Strip restaurants. Nobody knew what the sports landscape would look like this year, so it wasn’t a surprise when Lagasse’s Stadium shuttered this year. “It was the hotel's decision,” Pajak says of the abrupt closing. “There was nothing we could do. We had to move on.”
For the first time in nearly two decades, Pajak found himself without a job. That didn’t last long.
Tim Brooks, an owner of The Rainbow Club and Emerald Isle Casino in Henderson, had had Pajak on his radar for quite a while. For three years running, he bid on the chef at a Boys & Girls Club event where the prize was a private meal cooked personally by the Chopped champion.
Upon hearing about Pajak’s free agency during this latest special dinner, Brooks knew he had just the man for a project he had in mind. “I met Scott on a Monday night (at the dinner), and Tuesday he was in my office. On Wednesday, he was already on the payroll getting ready to open up Triple B for us.”
Triple B recently replaced Images Cafe in The Rainbow Club. It’s a burger joint that serves Americana fare done well at reasonable prices. As for why Brooks felt confident Pajak was the chef to create the new menu and helm the eatery’s opening, Brooks says, “When you meet somebody, you have a gut feeling about their work ethic and their ability to perform, and Scott was a perfect fit for what I was trying to accomplish.”
The changes have been immense for both the eatery and the chef. Pajak now caters to regulars who live in the neighborhood. For the most part, he’s sticking to his culinary guns, but he does admit, “It's an older, local group. That's sort of different than being on The Strip. So we keep the spice level down a touch.”
The biggest adjustment for the restaurant under Pajak’s helm has been his insistence that everything be scratch-made. Daily soup sp
ecials are now made with in-house stocks, and items that might have once gone from freezer to fryer now have more care put into their preparation.
This type of effort shines through in everything from burgers — the top sellers are the Triple B Classic Cheeseburger (right) and the Big Tex BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger — to new brunch items like the biscuits and gravy with pork sausage and cracked black pepper.
Pajak has even brought over some dishes from Lagasse Stadium, including the lobster grilled cheese (right, below), which, not surprisingly, is much more affordable at The Rainbow Club. He is also creati
ng special holiday menus for Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve.
But then what? How long can a man who spent so many years on the Strip be expected to remain satisfied on Water Street — which is coming along, sure, with a hockey rink under construction and several new restaurants recently opened (Biscuits and Bourbon, Fratelli’s Italian Kitchen), but is still far from the bright lights? No one knows, but perhaps this spoiler offers something: Doc Hollywood found true happiness in Grady and stayed for good.