Celebrity Chef Hell
I have evolved.
I am no longer the avid food lover that I was in 1977 when I started consuming Julia Child and James Beard cookbooks wholesale.
I am not the insatiable gourmand I was from 1981-1990 when I ate my way through Southern California, Chicago, and New York City at every opportunity.
And no longer am I the intrepid gastronome of 1994-2012, when I considered it my sacred duty to dutifully report on everything and anything happening in the Las Vegas food and restaurant scene.
Things have changed and I have changed.
The Las Vegas Strip is no longer the revolutionary force is was from 1995-2010 — when it single-handedly invented the idea of the modern day, globe-trotting “celebrity chef” by giving burgeoning brands like Wolfgang Puck, Emeril Lagasse, Jean-George Vongerichten, Joël Robuchon and Michael Mina a platform to rake in mountains of cash while expanding their businesses.
I am no longer fascinated by every new opening, nor am I enthralled (as I used to be) by whatever menu delights were being trotted out by Hubert Keller, Scott Conant or Mario Batali.
And as much as I love my frogs and my frog ponds, the seasonal changes at Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, Restaurant Guy Savoy, Joël Robuchon and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon are met with more of a yawn these days than a hip-hip-hooray.
(These days, I pop in about once a year just to re-affirm what I already know: that our top flight French remain some of the finest restaurants in the world.)
Restaurants, I’ve come to conclude, are a lot like lovers. Remember the tingle of excitement that always precedes your first time with someone? The sense of exploration? The desire to consume them wholesale? It’s that anticipation and the unknown that makes them so fascinating. You’re anxious; they’re anxious; everyone’s anxious and no one knows what to expect. That’s why it’s so much fucking fun!
Or can be. New sex with someone can also be a disaster…especially when one side doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain. (For those in need of a primer on the subject, there are only two things you need to have great sex with someone: gratitude and enthusiasm.)
Or maybe you just lose interest much too quickly, or the whole thing was a gigantic let down. That happens a lot too.
The point is, going to a new restaurant, like getting newly naked with someone, is exciting because of the unknown. Once you become familiar with each other, you can still enjoy yourselves, but you do so in a deeper, more relaxed sort of way. And no matter how good you are at the process (and how much you love each other), sometimes, one of you can get bored.
Ladies and gentlemen, I think I’m tired of fucking the restaurants of Las Vegas.
That doesn’t mean I don’t love them. But it does mean I don’t get a woody at the thought of diving deep (or sticking my tongue) into the damp, juicy folds of their flesh anymore.
Even worse, it seems I’ve become immune to foreplay.
Flash your cleavage at me (in the form of fancy decor as décolletage) and nothing happens. Tongue my ear and you’ll get a ho-hum.
Give me a hummer of a hamburger and I’m hard-pressed to press the flesh.
Cheap and easy (comps/free food) doesn’t work on me anymore either (as if they ever did), and neither does mysterious and exclusive. (There may be some nimrods out there who are impressed by what fellow nimrods Bourdain and Chang have to say, but yours truly got over listening to the boring drivel of inarticulate chefs many years ago. And when I see a press release trumpeting some “exclusive” event with Chef Morimoto, I just scoff.)
Drugs don’t work either. Ply me with grower champagne or grand cru Burgundy and Mr. Happy remains as limp as a wet biscuit. Titillate my taste buds with truffles and my mood remains tepid.
I used to think of foie gras as the fellatio of fine food — something it would be impossible to forgo. Now I wave it off like a weary sultan dismissing the nubile delights of his harem.
Could anything be more concupiscent than caviar? One would think. But after consuming copious amounts of it, I have become immune to its charms.
Szechuan I used to consider salaciously salubrious; now I think of it as so-so.
Korean used to captivate; dim sum used to delight; now I deign them both barely desirable.
20,000 restaurant meals over 40 years in 16 different countries will do that to you.
Is there a cure?
Yes and no.
Some things there is no going back to.
The whole “celebrity chef” thing is so played-out that I’m callous to whatever they’re selling. It would be hard for me to ever getting excited again about someone’s 38th restaurant, or whatever concept Caesars Palace wants to slap Gordon Ramsay’s name on. The Giadas and Fieris of the world are exploiting their brand, and that’s it. They barely give a shit about the food, and their credulous public barely does either. Like a low-rent stripper shilling for a lap dance, the product doesn’t have to be great, it simply has to be is good enough to separate you from your cash.
It’s sad for me in a way, because I remember the excitement of 1998-2009, when so many “name” chefs opened their stores here and turned our humble burg from The Town That Taste Forgot into a world-class dining destination. But those days are long gone, and now our legacy has devolved into being the launching pad (or just another venue) for corporate brands (hello Slanted Door!), not the incubator of big deal dining.
Soooo, as with middle-aged sex, I’m going to pick my spots. With no longer the interest nor the energy for marathon orgies of eating. At this point, I won’t be looking for comfort every night of the week. Instead, I’ll be looking for meaningful experiences with worthwhile consorts, not the promiscuous joys of conquest through conspicuous consumption.
Proving what a stud you are is a young man’s game. The rampant devouring of the pleasures of the flesh is a lot of fun when you have the time, the curiosity and the energy.
Like all young men, quantity used to trump quality, which is okay when you’re 20, or 30, or 40. Then, it’s all about ego and belt-notching. What’s important in your youth is whether you scored, whether you can say you’ve been there. (When I see Instagrammers clamoring to be the first to post about whatever shiny new object is plated before them, I see myself twenty years ago.) But those delights are ephemeral, fleeting, and ultimately self-defeating. Now, as an experienced epicure I know just what I’m looking for, and it takes a lot more than a pretty face and a pair of tits to keep me interested.
What you seek as an older man — in sex and food — is substance and style. Combine them both and you have my attention.
Show me some real passion, some creativity, and some actual interest, and I’m yours for life.
Happy All Hallow’s Eve!
We at ELV hope you enjoy your horrors on this night of terrors.
Which got us to thinking (and no, it didn’t hurt): What is the scariest thing to most people?
Clowns under your bed? (see above)
Then we got to thinking a little harder (and yes, it began to hurt, a little), and then we realized what scares us more than anything in Las Vegas: wine lists with lots of commas.
And then we realized, without thinking hard at all, what was the scariest thing in Las Vegas restaurants, and the answer was easy. Behold if you can, ladies and gentlemen, the most terrifying thing in Las Vegas, the wine list at Carnevino:
As you can see, it is not for the timid. It is huge: it is massive; it is intimidating; it can be hard to read, and it is also stocked with only a single bottle for under $100 — a mediocre, overpriced prosecco in the upper left hand corner for $85. The cheapest Italian white wine on the list is $150. (Ed. note: there isn’t an Italian white wine on earth worth $150/btl.)
The last thing it is for (as you’ll read below) is selling wine to the average, well-heeled restaurant consumer who has a healthy interest in drinking Italian wines.
It is a list so overpriced as to make a mockery of every other tourist-soaking, conventioneer-gouging, fuck-you wine list on the Strip.
It is a list so ridiculous it will make you run to Joël Robuchon, Guy Savoy, or Twist by Pierre Gagnaire for relief.
It is wine pricing so outrageous that it should embarrass co-owner Joe Bastianich, who, in the foreward to his 2010 book Grandi Vini – An Opinionated Tour of Italy’s 89 Finest Wines (2010) wrote that wines on restaurant wine list should never be priced at “over 2 1/2 times over their wholesale cost.”
This is the same Joe B. who wrote in his book Restaurant Man (2012): “We’re in the business of of taking people’s money, but we’re not in the business of ripping people off.” He also claims in the same book that he sometimes “can’t sleep at night” thinking about the size of the checks in his restaurants.
To which I call horseshit.
So what is it Joe? Are you interested in people appreciating wine, or just bending over high rollers? Or are you and Mario Batali too busy being TV stars to care anymore?
Bastianich also says that the price of wine is “…more like art than cars — the subjectivity is what drives its price, but the quantitative costs quickly dissociate themselves from the price when the product reaches the consumer.”
To which I would ask him: What subjectivity makes a $60 bottle of Jermann Tunina (that cost you $30) worth $210 on your wine list? Is it really your appreciation of the “art” in the bottle that has you selling your entire wine list for 4-5xs the wholesale price of these wines?
Wine most definitely is not like clothing, or furniture, or cars. It is the only consumer product I know of where a certain type of retailer (restaurants) unblinkingly, unapologetically, charge double or triple the retail price of something you can buy much cheaper just down the street. Because, atmosphere.
To which I am finally forced to call bullshit.
But there is a reason for this rapacity, oh yes, there is.
As one general manager of another Strip restaurant told me, “Carnevino has a partnership with the Venetian, so all it (the wine list) is there for is to soak up comps.”
Another local wine purveyor of great repute calls the list a “rape job,” and that about gets it right.
None of this will endear me to the folks at Carnevino, but someone has to say it out loud, because enough is enough.
I love you Carnevino, I love your food, and I love your atmosphere, and I love what you’ve done for the Las Vegas food community and restaurant scene. And I used to love your wine list, like five years ago when it was merely expensive.
But I know a clip joint when I see one, and I will drink wine no more in your establishment.
Your list has given me a bad case of oenopinaciphobia (fear of wine lists), and the only cure I know for it is to do my Italian wine drinking in Italy. Or Ferraro’s.
I am divorcing the “vino” from Carnevino, until some sanity is restored. Until then, enjoy counting your money Mario and Joe, and stop slinging the bull about sleepless nights and your “love” of Italian wine.
ELV update: Last night at dinner we received this tweet from Mario Batali:
hey jc for tonite
@CARNEVINO we have 29 wines under $80 16 wines under $60 2 wines under $50 and that’s just the start! thanks bud!
Mario Batali added,
ELV note: I went to Alinea last Spring, and recently wrote about it for John Mariani’s Virtual Gourmet web site. The following is an expanded take on my meal, and the entire phenomenon of food that barely exists to be eaten.
In the past decade, restaurant going has become a sport, and the prize is bragging rights. Like all big game hunting, it doesn’t take much skill to pursue this hobby, just money. I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a gun, but if you give me enough cash, a little time and a good guide, I’m sure I could return from an expedition with an endangered species on my wall. And of course, I’d make sure everyone knew about it.
Most restaurant hunters focus on the biggest game — the most exclusive, hard to get to, hard to get into, restaurants on the planet. The 50 Best Restaurants is their Field & Stream, and the salons of social media are where the hides are hung. Like all trophy seekers, innate pleasure is secondary to tangible achievement. In this arena, there is no such thing as private, visceral enjoyment of a sensual pleasure. If you didn’t get a picture of it, did it really happen? If no one hears you dining in the forest, does it make any sound?
Two factors combined to jump-start this sport: the rise of the aforesaid social media (starting around 2009, when most grownups discovered Facebook), and a phenomenon known as FOMO (fear of missing out). Once a certain type of well-heeled show-off learned that there was social currency to be gained by being able to boast about where and what you were eating, the game was on. Suddenly, thousands of foodies around the globe started putting restaurants on a pedestal far out of proportion to what was actually happening in them.
Grant Achatz was perfectly situated to capitalize on these twin phenomena when he opened Alinea in Chicago in 2005. He had obviously been paying attention, and his timing couldn’t have been better. Between the hagiographic slobbering the media was doing over Ferran Adrià, and similar praise Tom “Call me Thomas” Keller had garnered over the previous decade for his interminable tasting menus at French Laundry, it was time to turn up their ideas to “11” and introduce the Midwest to the glories of marathon meals composed of unrecognizable food.
It was the height of the economic boom (that was about to go bust), but no matter, Achatz had big money behind him and he made a splash. For several years he and his restaurant were the media darlings of foodie America. A well-publicized bout with cancer, coming on the heels of all those glorious reviews (and being named Best Restaurant in America, in 2006, by Gourmet magazine) led to an autobiography in 2011 (at age 37!), and from then on, he and his restaurant have pretty much been critic-proof.
A ten-year anniversary re-boot was completed in 2015, and Alinea 2.0 now boasts a downstairs (the main room, if you will) and an upstairs salon with a slightly shorter menu. Dinner is now more like fifteen courses than twenty-five (although it’s still a 3+ hour slog), and the price is still a hefty car payment, exclusive of tax or tip. There is no bar. Indeed, there is barely a storefront — only an address on a building. When you’re this successful, and every major food publication has written about you, why bother advertising?
Achatz’s bout with cancer (in 2007) left him temporarily unable to taste anything. The myth persists, however that he lost part of his tongue. For the record, his cancer treatment “….did not require radical, invasive surgery on his tongue.” Whether his sense of taste was affected, especially after my meal there, should be a subject of serious debate.
Take for instance his signature black truffle “oreo” — a dish that is supposed to dazzle with its ability to intensify and combine the flavors of two iconic ingredients — Parmesan cheese and truffles — and manages to taste of neither. It looks like one thing and tastes like something else. And that’s about all it tastes like, thus setting the tone for most of your meal.
There are all sorts of gee-gaws (19th Century cocktail shakers, candy bar balloons, molecular disguises) put in place to elicit ohs and ahs from the well-heeled yokels, but what is missing is flavor — the taste of things as they are supposed to be, not what they’ve been manipulated into. Thus will you begin with a spear of rhubarb with avocado and coriander that barely hints at any of those, and continue directly to a “Pea, Parmesan, Meyer Lemon Swirl/Apple Lemon Balm Yuzu” that was an odd soup, attended to by a mass of acid with some powdered something beside it. (Do people still think reducing food to dust is über-cool? In Chicago, apparently yes.)
To its credit, the Thai coconut with black bass echoed those flavors, but I’m still trying to figure out what was going on with a barely there “Rouille Nori Paper” in a small bowl of olive oil-slicked broth. The words “langoustine” and “Bouillabaisse” appeared in the title, but never threatened the palate. Likewise, a pork belly with curry mango could’ve come from anywhere, and (to keep the clichés coming) the short rib was loaded with acrid smoke. As with most of the menu, the advertised flavors (e.g. hamachi, blueberry, lapsang souchong, morel steam, rosemary, kombu) never showed up, perhaps because there were so many of them per dish that they cancelled each other out.
Whether you like the Impressionist mess they call dessert here (see below) pretty much depends on your capacity to suspend your disbelief in how something so convoluted could be so much less than the sum of its parts.
Alinea surely had its place in bringing such consumable convolution to the Midwest a decade ago, but these days it’s little more than chefs doing cartwheels in the kitchen and pirouettes on the plate, and not very well at that. (I’d put a meal at Twist by Pierre Gagnaire, Guy Savoy, or Joël Robuchon up against anything Alinea can throw at you, any day of the week. In our frog ponds, they know how to dazzle and make things taste good. They also serve great bread.)
Respect for ingredients isn’t the watchword at Alinea — the ability to manipulate them is all that matters. Did Grant Achatz lose his palate ten years ago, or did this restaurant lose its mojo? Or have tasteless pyrotechnics become as dated as a tasseled menu? Belt-notching gastronomades don’t care, but anyone with all their taste buds ought to.
Life is too short to be confused by your food.
(Oohs and aahs not included)