(ELV note: Yours truly has a book in him that will probably never be finished or published. Here is one of the chapters.)
“Hi ELV!” is how all those twelve-step programs start, and then they sink into one maudlin account after another of each individual’s slide into personal oblivion. Here’s my story:
It started innocently enough, as all addictions do. In 1982 in Wheeling, Illinois. “The first one’s free,” said Jean Banchet – at the time the celebrated chef/owner of Le Francais (considered at the time the best French restaurant in America). Then, in 1983. Andre Soltner, the dedicated Alsatian running New York’s best French restaurant, made a personal appearance at my table at Lutece. “Just take another hit, no one will notice,” he purred. And so I did.
Oh yeah, and Jacques Pepin — he of the velvet delivery and oh so elfish countenance — he was one, insidious seducer as well. Maybe the worst of them all.
Devious, black-hearted dealers that they were, they knew I would become powerless to the grip everything from demi-glaze to boulliabaisse would soon have over me.
First it was stocks, then reductions, then demi-glazes, then vegetable carving, sauteeing, poaching, mayonnaise making, and emulsions that soon had me hungering for more.
Pepin was, in many ways, the one that started me down the path to self-destruction. Not content to just hear my tales of fine French food, he took me by the hand and personally showed me how (like Mickey Rourke in “Spun”) I could make my own stash. Maybe not as primo as the stuff coming out of the pros kitchen, but enough to tide me over a weekend or a month or so of empty pockets, until I could afford the crystalline, pure sh*t, that could keep me buzzed for days.
Yeah, he was the real dog, that Pepin dude. After taking a couple of hands on classes from him out west, I moved back to Connecticut (within an hour of downtown Manhattan), which ended up being like Robert Downey Jr. moving to Bogata.
Soon, I was knee deep in the gastronomic equivalent of Peruvian flake (circa 1980). La Cote Basque, Le Perigord, La Caravelle, Lutece, La Grenouille, Le Cirque — they were all there for the indulgence. Hell, I felt like Tony Montana when he arrives in Miami. To paraphrase Tony M., New York in the eighties was a sensual, sumptuous, silky, smooth and slick foie gras that needed to be….eaten!
And I was just the guy to do it.
By my estimation, between 1985-1990 I ate in almost every frog pond on the island. Weekends were the worst — shopping excursions to Balducci’s, Dean and Deluca and Zabar’s — inevitably followed by dinner at Le Perigord or Chanterelle, but I was also known to leave Food Gal #1, and Hugh Alexander Curtas (The Official Number Two Son Of ELV), huddled alone, cold, beside a modest, underfed wood stove in our Connecticut hovel, as I gallivanted off to another gastronomic adventure at the likes of The Four Seasons, La Caravelle or Le Veau d’Or.
It was shameful behavior, to be repeated dozens of times over the years. For how could the warmth and love of a good woman and an infant son compete with the sights, smells and seductions of something new to eat every night, in spectacular settings with tuxedoed guys at your beck and call, surrounded by quality babes, drinking the best hooch on earth, whilst motorboating the of likes of pike quenelles en Nantua sauce, lobster thermidor, crab souffle, blanquette d’agneau, turbot en croute, poulet en daube Provencal, pots de creme, chocolate ganache, Grand Cru Chablis, classified growth Bordeaux — all there for the taking in 1987 New York City at prices that seem Lilliputian by today’s standards.
Keep in mind, this was ten years before I became a food writer. There was no KNPR radio gig, no written reviews, no ELV — just a dude in his mid-30’s who was obsessed with tasting it all. No one knew what would become of this guy, his friends and family just found him a bit touched, and then awfully distant when he would escape the demands of adulthood by immersing himself in the thrill of the search and then the conquest of another great restaurant. Needless to say, his law practice suffered miserably.
My obsession with French food led to the destruction of more than one relationship. No sooner would we get a little ahead financially than off I was blowing a wad on a caneton a l’Alsacienne, cote de bouef and a bottle of Burgundy. The wives didn’t understand. The girl friend still doesn’t.
I’ve been in and out of de-tox more times than Nick Nolte. Moving back to Vegas in 1990 was just such a bracing, head-clearing move. I retain a picture of myself atop a boat on Lake Mead in the summer of ’91, tanned, fit, with just the barest beginnings of six-pack abs. It was easy to be in shape back then. There was nowhere to eat in Las Vegas. Like Calvin Trillin says: “Dieting is easy in every city in America except New York.”
In New York in 1990 (and today), you can’t walk 100 feet, anywhere, without being tempted to eat something. Vegas in 1990 was a wasteland of bad buffets and “gourmet rooms” that were serving pre-war (and by pre-war we mean pre-WWII) versions of bad French recipes. Tournedos Rossini — not the real version, but one with cheap pate spread on top — was considered the height of sophistication, and prime rib — not good, Lawry’s-class prime rib, but thick, fatty crap — ruled.
Then Wolfgang Puck, the Pablo Escobar of chefs, opened Spago in The Forum Shops in December of ’92, and my downward spiral commenced anew. Puck and his henchman David Robins tapped into a vein of lust that I was only too happy to tie off for another hit of product. Produce freshly brought in from California (believe it or not that was a novel idea in 1993), top quality fish flown in from all over the globe (ditto), and a wine list with some real thought behind it were like tossing raw meat to a starving dog to yours truly back then. Puck has gone global over the past twenty years, but those who remember his Ma Maison days know that he is/was a classically trained French chef who could cook with the best of them. And even if his gourmet pizzas put him on the map, the foundations of all of his restaurants have always been in solid, French technique.
Another, seminal event took place in Las Vegas two years later that contributed to my road to ruination: the arrival of Jean-Louis Palladin and the opening of his restaurant in the Rio Hotel. Seems laughable now, but back then, when Tony Marnell owned the Rio, it was a major player among the hotels, with an aggressive and tasty food and beverage program that was a big hit with locals.
We never got the full story about how Marnell persuaded Palladin to leave the Watergate Hotel in Washington D.C. and move out here (more on that later), but his move to the High Mojave Desert added a legitimacy to our restaurant scene that no chef or restaurateur in America could afford to ignore.
Within a two year period the hottest chef in America and one of the most respected French chefs had staked a claim here, and the stampede had begun. There are chefs all over this country who will still speak with awe about the things Jean-Louis was responsible for: day boat scallops, peekytoe crab, heirloom vegetables…it was he who almost singlehandedly demanded better products for his influential restaurant back in the ‘8o’s, and by doing so, started a stampede (and demand) of his own for better raw ingredients to cook with. The next time you bite into a piece of line caught fish (from say, Browne Trading Company in Maine or artisanal meat from Creekstone Farms in Kansas), in a small, quiet way you can thank Jean-Louis Palladin for it.
Palladin died in 2001, and as much as we admired him, we need to tell a tale that almost broke us from our addiction to French food altogether. It involved his restaurant but not him.
The year: 1997. The scene: Napa (Palladin’s oddly named restaurant in the Rio) has just opened. We can’t wait to try it and rush over in the first week of it’s opening. “Table for one, please?” we intone to the lovely hostess. Our meal — peekytoe crab salad, diver scallops, lamb persillade, chocolate ganache — is beyond wonderful. The bill: about $200….for one. But wait! There’s a problem. We might be a little drunk after a few glasses of good wine, but we’re sure we didn’t have five martinis at the beginning of the meal. The error is pointed out, corrected, and we’re on our merry way, happy beyond words that such an amazing talent has deigned to come to Vegas.
The time: a couple of weeks later. The scene: Napa with then-wife. Jean-Louis is in the kitchen, standing at the expediting station (that juts into the dining room) like Russell Crowe on the bow of his ship in “Master and Commander,” his presence commanding the room and his voice booming to his sous chefs: “Allez! Allez! Toute suite! Quatre legumes! Tres bien!” It’s a wonderful show and our dinner is again, beyond delicious. The check comes. Once again, we’ve been charged for two tasting menus (not one) and several cocktails that weren’t ordered. Amends are quickly made, and we stagger out of there, sated and blissful.
One week later. I dine alone again, get pretty toasty on a bottle of $75 Burgundy, but have the presence of mind to notice they’re charging me for one twice as expensive when the bill comes. “Excusez-moi monsieur,” we slur, “But there must be some sort of mistake…” “Pardon, pardon,” is the reply, “We will take care of it.”
About a month goes by. It’s our anniversary. (Yes, it’s true, we’ve had lots of them with lots of women, but this one stands out.) Only one place is even considered for our celebration. We dine, we drink, we smooch, we ask for the bill. This time, we’re being overcharged by $173! (A tasting menu that wasn’t ordered, plus cocktails, have found their way onto our bill along with the stuff we did order.) I’ve had enough (and enough to drink) that I demand to see the manager, walk him over to the bar, and dress him down for what is, at the least, systemic sloppiness in how they are running their operation. He is contrite but says very little, and sends us a corrected invoice. I mention to the wife that this is the fourth time in four meals this has happened (the second with her)…and I can’t believe how careless they are with their l’addition.
But she wasn’t having any of it.
You see, ex-wife number three was Vegas born and bred. Worked in the hotels here in her younger days, and was once married to a casino executive. “It’s a scam, pure and simple,” she told me. “The front of the house figures if they pad the check with every (or almost every) party, they’ll get away with it at least half the time — especially if the parties have been drinking. Do the math. This way they can easily add another $500,000 to their bottom line every year. Most people (in Vegas anyway) don’t scrutinize the bill…and comps really don’t check. Waiters, management make out, people get screwed and don’t even know it.”
I hated to admit it, but she was right. A scam going on in one of the greatest restaurants in the history of Vegas, run by one of the world’s greatest chefs, right under his nose.
I didn’t for a minute hold Jean-Louis responsible, but did write a scathing letter — outlining these facts and allegations — to the Vice President of Food and Beverage at the Rio at the time. It got no response. Further convincing me of both his complicity and the operation’s sleaziness.
That V.P. — let’s call him Ian O’Reilly — has bounced around from one F&B job in Vegas to another over the years. His dismissal (for other unbecoming conduct) from another of those jobs is legendary, and to this day, we kick ourselves for not making a bigger stink about what was clearly a top-down money-making scam.
Had we been then who we are today, there would have been no hesitation. Countless consumer dollars would’ve been saved, and we would’ve enjoyed many more meals at the hand of a master. We imagine we would’ve even gotten to know the great one himself, and done what we could to burnish his already immortal reputation.
As it was, the bad taste these four meals left in our mouth meant we would never return to Jean-Louis Palladin’s cuisine.
But as untimely and sad as his death was (of lung cancer at age 55), it signaled for me not the end of my love affair with the cuisine he helped make so famous, but, in many ways, its beginning.
In other words, we were about to take our addiction to a whole new level.
* Daniel “Dime Bag” Boulud and Laurent “Tied Off” Tourondel