<< Back

In the Kitchen: James Trees

In the Kitchen: James Trees

By Rob Kachelriess

A little more than 18 months ago, James Trees didn’t have a single restaurant in Las Vegas. Now he has three. The chef capitalized on the grassroots success of Esther’s Kitchen in the Downtown Arts District with the recent opening of Ada’s at Tivoli Village. Along the way, he found time to put together the far smaller and lower profile 108 Eats grab-and-go panini and ice cream counter at The Strat observation deck. All three places found success in locations with their share of struggles and challenges. Tivoli Village, in particular, has a reputation for being a cursed spot for new restaurants, but Trees is bucking the trend. He says the success of Ada’s wouldn’t be possible without developing the “DNA” at Esther’s Kitchen first. It’s one that shows humble respect to the customer with price, service and execution. “We earn our customers one dish at a time,” says Trees. “Everything counts. We put out one bad dish and we lose a customer. That’s something a lot of chefs are almost okay with—and I’m not.”

Ada’s and Esther’s Kitchen share common elements. Vibrant, simple pasta dishes. Inventive, artisanal pizzas. Fresh baked bread with servings of anchovy butter. Compelling, yet affordable wine selections. Ambitious cocktails. And perhaps most important of all, a well-trained staff that knows how to make unfamiliar ingredients on the menu approachable. “It might read a little funky, you might not know all the words, but we’re going to walk you through that,” explains Trees. 

It’s been a long and winding road to the top. The chef was first exposed to the business of dining before he could legally drive a car. Born and raised in Las Vegas, Trees “followed some girl” into a culinary tech program thinking it would be a fun activity to do together. “We dated all summer and broke up,” he remembers. “I showed up on the first day. She didn’t.” Instead of falling in love with the girl, Trees fell in love with cooking, which he describes as “art, history and science all rolled up into one.” His skill and interest in food led to an internship at the Mirage at just 15 years old—something he acknowledges probably wouldn’t happen at such a young age today. Trees learned under chefs like Luke Palladino and Alex Stratta, who recommended him to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. He returned to Las Vegas and began a five-year on-and-off working relationship with Michael Mina. “More ‘off’ since he fired me three times,” Trees laughs. “He fired me as a master cook at Aqua; he fired me as sous chef at Michael Mina; and he fired me as a chef de cuisine at XIV in L.A.” 

Trees is quick to point out he was always rehired at a higher level than when he left. While he could be “a nightmare… a crazy person” at times, he views his setbacks and challenges as part of a growth process. As time went on, he found motivation and inspiration that would later shape his role as not only a chef, but a business owner. The journey included a stint at Andre Rochat’s Alize at the Palms, where Trees was given the freedom to flex his creativity on daily specials. (“We were firing on all cylinders; we were working really hard.”) He also cites his time at Bradley Ogden in Caesars Palace as a stimulating environment ahead of its era. “That was a unicorn kitchen,” he remembers. “You had people who were motivated. They wanted to be chefs and nothing was going to get in their way.”

Ten years in California brought gigs at numerous restaurants up and down the coast. He also contributed to Gordon Ramsay’s “Hell’s Kitchen” television show. While in Los Angeles, Trees developed a fondness for the city’s neighborhood dining scene and wanted to bring that sense of community and cuisine to Las Vegas. He returned home and opened Esther’s Kitchen in early 2018, naming it after a late great-aunt who encouraged his career and left him an inheritance that helped make the restaurant a reality. Now a mentor in his own right, Trees is eager to pass along both knowledge and opportunity, fostering creativity and advancement from within. The team at Ada’s includes Chef de Cuisine Dylan Jobsz, who was originally the first hire at Esther’s Kitchen, and General Manager Sonia Stelea, the driving force behind Esther’s acclaimed cocktail program. “I think the apprenticeship program in the Old World style should come back,” says Trees. “The idea that we all need to go to college to be engineers is kind of passé. You can run a crane and make $150,000 a year or be a chef and make half-a-million dollars a year. You don’t need to go to school for that.” 

Trees and his kitchen team experimented with numerous styles and recipes to perfect Ada’s two signature dishes—pizza and ice cream. His employees are encouraged to run hard with the ball. “One of the things I love about Esther’s is I very rarely interject on the menu anymore,” he says. As he continues to take rising culinary professionals under his wing, James Trees is able to touch different corners of the Las Vegas Valley with the combined reach of Ada’s, Esther’s Kitchen and 108 Eats. Yet, this may be just the beginning. The chef has an eye on opening more concepts, but doesn’t want to move too fast. Give it a few years, and you may see “a couple weird projects” take shape. “We’re talking about a 15-seat restaurant that’s almost like an Italian omakase,” he says. “I have insane things I want to do—at different price points, feelings, and clientele—but what we’re doing first is creating this base so people know who we are.”

Leave a comment