Best Food Week Ever – Part Four – UNLV Panel Discussion

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.

Your thoughts?

5 thoughts on “Best Food Week Ever – Part Four – UNLV Panel Discussion

  1. It was a very interesting discussion. I admired the passion of Paul Bartolotta, the knowledge of Alan Richman, the nuggets of truth and wisdom of ELV and the way Mitchell Davis kept it all together and moving along nicely. It did seem that Jeffrey Steingarten has slipped a little in his years…or at the very least was having an off morning. But even Jeffrey off his game is better than most on theirs.

    I hope the JBF had as great experience here as we had entertaining them and look forward to the Awards here soon!

  2. I was looking at my notes from the discussion (that’s right, I was taking notes), and a couple of really good points that were made included the idea of food cities being borne of waves of immigration. Dr. Moreo made the assessment that Las Vegas, as relatively diverse as it is, is really a town of second- and third-generation immigrants, and their cultural traditions have been diluted by living in America, at the same time struggling to define a culinary culture of our own.

    I used to have a t-shirt that said “Everything you like I liked 5 years ago” and I think that’s kind of the way that outsiders look at Las Vegas and its restaurants. But whether they say so or not, I believe there’s still a certain amount of envy that comes along with it.

    Just my $0.02.

  3. There are two large hurdles we must face before we are go any further as a food town. The first being our local’s food scene which is almost non existant. The second hurdle is who we (mostly) cater to when creating menus, themes, etc. I’ve constantly had this circular discussion since my arrival here from the east coast; we constantly cater to middle America. “Middle” carries throught to everypart of what we do —- Food has to be dumbed down from what the chef’s want to do so it actually sells, service has to be less formal and less complicated so that the guest isn’t intimitated, cocktails have to be sweet and fu-fu so they get ordered, beer has to be pedestrian, wine has to be popular, etc. All these little things combine to make an extrordinarily mediocre experience for a real foodie (or any decent NYer). So since we cater to a bland median there is no way we can rival cities like NYC, Philly, or San Fran. I recognize that there are exceptions to this but not enough to buck the trend, I’ve even seen restaurants that were spectacular and innovative get sucked into the medianand most times become more profitable.

    The other big hurdle is our local food scene. We have so few places to go to for good food at a resonable price. We are coated in a filthy film of TGIRubyFriday’s that we can’t see the few tresures that are there. Aside from the strip and the few blocks surrounding it, I’m left asking — Where are my Gastropubs?, or hell, I’ll even settle for one REAL pub, Where can’t a get a beer that isn’t produced in Millions of gallons at a time (aside from Yardhouse)? Where’s my noodle house? cheese shop? Wine bar? Irish Pub (that’s not a chain)? Perogie kitchen? Real Trattoria? and my biggest gripe of all….Whre are all of the non-gamming bars?

    I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t at your event….I was busy catering to the median. But this is my 2 cents……

  4. Andy, You made some excellent points, but for some of your gripes, are you looking for those things or just complaining you don’t see them right in front of you? Las Vegas, unlike SF or NY, does not have a specialty store on every block, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there. As for cheese shops, I know ELV will echo the statement that Valley Cheese & Wine is a (fairly well) hidden gem. I know Noras is a good wine bar. Crown and Anchor is gaming, is English, but does have beers that are very worthwhile. I haven’t really found a “real Trattoria” outside of Italy. As for non-gaming bars in this town, they all go away unless they are a chain or attached to a high end strip restaurant because they face higher bartender turnover (gaming means better tips or so they think) and an uphill battle in a town where people want to put 20 in a machine and drink “free” all night. (I hope to be working on changing that trend soon!) I’m also sorry you have allowed yourself to work in a place that caters to that median. Quality places can be found at all price points, you just have to look.

  5. Thank you ELV, The Beard Foundation, UNLV and Professor Moreo for sponsoring the panel discussion, and thanks should be given to Mitchell Davis, Richman and Steingarten for coming out from New York to lend their opinions.

    I sat next to some students from UNLV and I can tell you first-hand that they were quite impressed to be sitting in front of a panel with such impressive credentials. I know that they came away from the panel with a greater understanding and insight into what makes the food and dining community of Las Vegas unique. So thank you for giving that to the students.

    I’m a firm believer that we need to have more of these serious discussions so that we can work challenge ourselves to help the Las Vegas food and dining community propser in the future.

    I liked the balance of opinions on the panel-ELV representing the perspective of the local food writer/restaurant critic, Professor Moreo representing the views of a local resident and supporting students pursuing a career in hospitality, and of course local Chef Bartolotta.

    The opinions of the “locals” were countered by the two nationally recognized figures-Richman and Steingarten. The selection of Richman and Steingarten to the panel lent a huge amount of credibility to the argument that Las Vegas has become an emerging prescence on the American dining scene.

    I’m writing a volumious tome on my experience, (a moniker I’m often given for being too wordy), but rather than bore everyone further at ELV, I’ll just end by saying it was the “serious” part of the Beard events and a welcome part at that.

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