Letter of the Week – Where Has All The Quality Gone?


An obvious avid foodie, professional cook and thinker of deep thoughts writes in this week with some cogent observations, cogitations and ruminations about what has happened to our local (and national) food scene. Taken in its entirety, it summarizes much about the state of our restaurants.  ELV’s response will follow after the LOTW:

Dear ELV,

I’m curious what you think about Michael Mina opening all these eateries all over America? What do you think about all these talented chefs from days ago assimilating under his brand? Such as Adam Sobel, Gary LaMorte, Gerald Chin, Dave Varley? I mean the list goes on.

I’m also wondering if the Mina brand has somewhat standardized and factory-o-ized fine dining, upscale dining, gentrified dining? I say all this because I watch some of my friends post pics of the new Giants Stadium location and this Locale Market thing in Florida, and all I see is his consumption houses. I am seeing a crossbreed between culinary and media…. For example at the locale Market place in Florida there was talk about an alligator wrapped in bacon? For me all imagine is upscale dining dumbing itself down to cater to the reality TV obese couch sitters that patriotically support the idea of ‘Murica.

Everything covered in bacon, and gator huntin’ reality shows. And then as the Giant stadium restaurant opens, I just saw whole pigs roasting which really support this masculine, barbaric football crowd… but of course in San Francisco it’s done with a perceived fineness, because the techie and über liberals of the Bay wouldn’t have it any other way.

Myself, I started out long ago as a dishwasher at Thorton Winery in Temecula California. Actually I started at McDonald’s…worked at local places, went to Culinary School in Portland. Came to Vegas, worked at places there, worked at Bradley Ogden when we won best new restaurant, went to be a private chef for poker players, then sold truffles. It was about a 13 year adventure.

It was amazing, but I watched so many changes happen in the kitchen. As well, I went through so many food philosophy changes as well. I always enjoy a good meal, or trying an authentic taco here and there… but these days the regular diet is all about vegetables, fruits, nuts, olive oil and minimal cooking. I see so many of my old colleagues putting on those pounds. And the guys that stay in it, I wonder if they really love it… cooking the same shit, working the same shitty hours, keeping that food cost at 21% while dining prices are out the roof. I wonder when the restaurant will get exciting again?

My secret is that I would love to see the whole restaurant industry burst. Its sad, because a lot of people would lose jobs. I’m a huge advocate of people cooking at home and embracing the “pantry staples”. It’s what any great chef, Escoffier has taught… and all these chefs came from the same background. I wonder when the restaurant industry will actually take a social responsibility. To actually provide a healthy meal that isn’t over portioned. Or to take a social responsibility towards resource usage.

You know how crazy it is to watch a restaurant filled with hack cooks leave the burners on day after day, using all that gas? Or all the water that gets used to wash dishes day after day? Once you start noticing shit like that, the whole industry becomes a drab to work in.

But thinking about dining, so in a place like Vegas where let’s just say someone residing there is a bit superficial, hedonistic and materialistic…. is the Strip considered, “the local” dining scene? Is that why local dining establishments don’t survive? Also, I remember some years ago this restaurant opened in Henderson, (can’t remember the name) that wanted to charge strip prices. It didn’t last long. (ELV note: The name was “Chicago’s Own – A Taste of Class,” and it was terrible.)

So you’re left with places like Gaetanos, worn menus from Table 34, Todd’s Unique dining. And good luck finding a breakfast place that doesn’t serve cardboard potatoes. Why does the Las Vegas valley torture itself like this?

Do locals feel like a local place won’t be as good because its not backed by the brand. Are servers less talented, because they got black listed from the strip? It’s so interesting. So many variables.

Anyhow. Happy holidays.

Cogently(?) Cogitating Joe

ELV responds:

Dear CCJ,

So many questions. And so many valid observations! It’s hard to know where to start.

Let’s begin with Mina, who we call the Egyptian Wolfgang Puck.

From what we’ve observed over the past dozen or so years, it does, seem as if MM is patterning his culinary empire after the Puck’s template. By that we mean: he (and the money men behind him) hire gifted people, embrace constant but cautious expansion, and keep the home fires burning. In Puck’s case that would be Spago and CUT — his flagships in L.A. — and in Mina’s case it means keeping his San Francisco outlets humming along at a very high level to maintain his culinary cred, while continually expanding the brand at all levels of consumer interest — from football stadiums to haute cuisine palaces.

Mina’s places may not always knock us out, but they rarely, if ever, go below a B- level of performance. True, he and Puck (and Danny Meyer) may have “standardized” fine dining to an extent, but their restaurants have aged much, much better than many other “empires” that have fallen by the wayside.

As to the dumbing down of American food culture — well that’s a double edge sword that had both blades honed by the Food Network. Yes, it helped take the American food revolution mainstream in the 90s and early aughts, but ever since capturing that audience, it has continued to pander to it — with nothing but a parade of inane “competition” shows and a 24 hour a day celebration of mediocrity in all things gastronomic.

One of the worst poxes wrought upon us by the FN has been its obsession with restaurant cooking (all those stupid reality shows), which is not, and never has been, the way most Americans cook and eat. Everyone from James Beard to Craig Claiborne to Emeril and Mario Batali understood this, but the nimrods running that network see their numbers in “elevating” third-string restaurant chefs as heroes by making us watch them throw shit together to win whatever it is they win by winning one of those absurd shows.

No wonder our home cooking has gone to hell, and no-talent, no-idea restaurants get celebrated in our national and local press. (America needs another gastropub or 33 year old wunderkind playing with his tweezer food like I need another ex-wife.)

What we need, as you so ably point out, is a restaurant industry that discovers a way to make money by appealing to people’s love of natural, well-sourced, well-cooked food — food with tradition and deliciousness at its core — not by using celebrity chefs, franchised brands,  and star-fucking as a way to get customers in the door. In this sense, America should look to the more mature food cultures of Europe and Asia for inspiration, and not to Las Vegas — which would open a Wayne Newton Immersion Circulator restaurant if it thought it could make eighteen cents off the enterprise.

Finally, as for your bemoaning cardboard potatoes and shop-worn neighborhood places, all we can say is: abysmal eateries pack ’em in here every night (cf. Grape Street Cafe, Gaetano’s, Brio et al) while quality joints like Due Fori, Forte and Marche Bacchus are hungry for customers. As with government, people get the restaurants they deserve, and most (middle-to-upper-middle class) residents of Las Vegas deserve to be dining in Fresno.

Yours in fighting the good fight,


3 thoughts on “Letter of the Week – Where Has All The Quality Gone?

  1. Deserve to be dining in Fresno is now my official quote of the week, thank you for this little nugget of pure gold.

  2. Even Mina’s flagship has slipped from former glory – the stars are gone, the ‘upscale’ replaced by casual, etc. Pub1841 is a joke and I’ve not had a more disappointing meal in Las Vegas than Stripsteak – nor a less convincing apology for such a shit show. To say he is in it for the money is an understatement and to compare USHG and Mr. Meyer to such a man is awful.

    All told a very well written letter from Joe…though I do think he needs to try some more Vegas breakfasts. I’m not a morning potato guy, but the scene is far better than a superficial looksee will indicate. MTO’s potatoes, for one, are excellent.

  3. “In this sense, America should look to the more mature food cultures of Europe and Asia”

    When America looks elsewhere, it’s primarily to export ideas and not bring new ones back.
    While I do enjoy my time in Europe, it’s always great to come back to the US (including your city) and enjoy the ingenuity of your Chefs.

    While there is some great cooking going on in parts of (northern) Europe, the continent feels stale in comparison to the US.
    That the inustry turns out to be more of a business model than professional pride is a different story.

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