Sitting on the panel at UNLV at the James Beard Foundation’s Taste America event with Mitchell Davis, Dr. Pat Moreo, Alan (The Hitman) Richman, Jeffery (The Man Who Ate Everything) Steingarten, and Chef Paul Bartolotta, was a thrill for ELV. Even though he tried to act with the insouciance and hyper-critical persona for which he is known, he could barely disguise how happy he was to be in the same company with these leading lights of American gastronomy.
As the panel discussion addressed whether Vegas has a long way to go before becoming a world class food city (as opposed to just a high-end restaurant town) — we were left to wonder how far our little duchy has come in the past ten years. The very fact that the James Beard Foundation was here was itself a feather in our cap, and ELV will fully confess to being an unabashed cheerleader for it (and any other national or international gastronomic group), who wishes to pay attention to us.
Because, if ELV may quote himself, Las Vegas is still an adolescent compared to most cities. We’re in the midst of attaining maturity on many levels — culinary, political, architectural, planning, cultural, et al — and like most teenagers, we’re hungry for attention and acceptance, commit distressing errors in judgment (can you say: SUV’s and shopping malls?), and take our youth and good fortune for granted. But if events like the Michelin Guides unveiling and Taste America are cause for congratulation and celebration, they are also a reckoning — time to assess our stock in the greater world of food, drink and restaurants.
If there’s one thing you learn from hangin’ with chefs and journalists not from here, it’s that Vegas is held in both awe and contempt — like a rich, tacky, boorish neighbor who sometimes gets it right in spite of themselves. The instant, world-class gratification we provide the food world and its customers keeps them awestruck, but they can’t help but return to doubts about the chimerical qualities of everything they see.
I like to remind them that Vegas exists, and has always existed, to provide a veneer of sophistication to the great American (and now world) middle-class, who don’t or can’t feel that way wherever they hale from. It’s Vegas baby! A place where even a small-fry call feel like a big shot for a day or two. Our world-class restaurants help sustain that illusion, and are just one more way we enhance the fantasies of people who like to feel (if only for a weekend) that they’re playing with the big boys.
Viewed at that level, our food boom has been an unqualified success. Viewed from the intellectual perch of New York from whence the other panelists came (excepting Dr. Moreo and moi), we still have a long way to go before the cognescenti consider us a true “food town.” And they’re right.