The Speech

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Speaking in public is as natural to me as polishing off a Poulet de Bresse en Cocotte avec Champignons Glacée et Truffes with a bottle of Clavoillon Puligny-Montrachet 2018.

Between my legal career, trial work, teaching gigs and second career as a semi-famous food critic, I suppose I’ve addressed crowds (ranging from a handful to hundreds) at least a thousand times in my life.

In that last capacity, I get asked occasionally to give talks to local groups who want to hear about my career as that food dude who has spent most of his adult life obsessing over restaurants.

About a month ago, I gave such a speech to a nice group of local Rotarians. Wonderful people; nice lunch (at the always-lovely Lawry’s).

It was a version of the same talk I’ve given many times over the years, charting the culinary history of Las Vegas, my food-writing origins, and the state of our gastronomic state….all of it spiced with recommendations and tales of my many tangles with celebrity chefs.

I was sober, not hung over, and plenty prepared (not always the case years ago). But still, I rambled and forgot a few things, and it’s been bugging me ever since.

My wife (the long-suffering Food Gal®) was in attendance and gave my speech a “it was fine, you were great” review in the same tone she uses to cheer me up after another mediocre performance in bed.

So….I’ve decided to actually write out the same speech I’ve been giving for 25 years and condense my thoughts into a single 20 minute script.

There may never be a next time. Perhaps my speech-making days are over. (As I told the Rotarians: I’m a dinosaur and I know it. I was Las Vegas’s first real restaurant critic, and I’m probably destined to be its last.)

But if there is another one, if I am asked to give one more, I’ll be prepared, for once.

Image(Thanks, Rotarians, for the bio and the sunburn!)

Intro

The three questions I get asked most often when someone hears I am a restaurant critic are: How did you become one? How many times a week do you eat out? And how do you stay so thin? (turn sideways) The answers are: It’s a long story; ten times a week; and I have the metabolism of a hummingbird.

As for my weight, well, to quote the late, great Los Angeles food critic Elmer Dills (remember him?): I’m not as fat as I could be nor as thin as I should be.

Being a restaurant critic is a lot like being a horse put out to stud: It sounds like a great idea until you have to do it on command, all the time.

Anyway, being a serious critic — one who writes for money about restaurants on a regular basis — you get a lot of dudes (it’s always guys) who’ll look at you and say, “I could do that; sounds like fun No big deal. I like to eat.” It’s the same shit they say when they meet  male porn starts: “Damn dude, that ain’t work. Sign me up!” Well, like a porn star, you look at these fools and say, “No, dude, you can’t. You couldn’t keep up with me for three days.”

Of course, as with sex, the tasting is the fun part; the work is in making it fun for others. But more on that in a minute.

First, let’s talk about how Las Vegas went from “The Town That Taste Forgot” to Gourmet Capital to Celebrity Chef Hell…

So….how DID we go from the Town That Taste Forgot to one of the gastronomic capitals of the world? People like to say it started with Wolfgang Puck at Spago in the Forum Shops in December, 1992, but in reality, it began a few years earlier with a chain steakhouse….and that steakhouse was…

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Ruth’s Chris! Yes, as the story goes, Ruth Ertel — the founder of Ruth’s Chris — loved to gamble in Vegas. Her favorite dealer at Caesars was a fellow named Marcel Taylor. Taylor was an ambitious sort, and sometime in the late 80s he persuaded Ertel (over the objections of her board of directors) to open an outlet in Las Vegas. The thinking then was: Why on earth would anyone ever leave a casino to eat? Every hotel in those times had four different eateries: a coffee shop, a buffet, a steakhouse, and a “gourmet room” serving “continental cuisine.” (From which continent they never really specified.)

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Keeping the customer captured was on every hotels’ mind back then. The thought that people would leave to peruse the dining options at another hotel was ridiculous. The idea they might venture a mile off the Strip to eat was unthinkable.

But in 1989 Ruth’s Chris opened on Paradise Road and within a year it was the best performing venue in the chain. Other prime chain steakhouses took notice, and within a couple of years, Morton’s and Palm (back when both were actually good) had opened outposts here.

The next big moment came in 1994/1995 when Gamal Aziz (a forgotten name but pivotal in birthing Vegas’s gastronomic renaissance), brought Emeril Lagasse, Charlie Trotter, and the Coyote Cafe’s Mark Miller to the MGM. Soon thereafter, a non-celeb chef joint at the MGM –Nob Hill — was the first restaurant in Las Vegas to spend more than $1 mil on its build-out. These days, $10+ mil is more the norm.)

Steve Wynn paid close attention to the the success of Spago, and the MGM. By 1998, when he opened the Bellagio, he was ready to dial things up to “11”. As I’ve said many times: when the Bellagio opened in Las Vegas, the gastronomic ground shook in the High Mojave Desert and the whole world felt the shudder.

People take it for granted now, but the Murderer’s Row in one hotel: Julian Serrano at Picasso, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Prime, Olives, Aqua, and the Maccioni family, with its double-magnum of of Big Apple excellence —  Le Cirque and Circo — was like nothing ever seen, in any hotel, anywhere in America…before or since.

By the turn of the century, every national food and wine magazine, not to mention most major newspapers (remember them?) were sending writers to cover our restaurants.

(If you’ll permit me a slight detour: then and now, the lack of attention paid by Las Vegas’s mainstream media to the culinary explosion going on on the Strip, has been an embarrassment to this town since 1995. And don’t get me started on the lame-ass lip service paid by our LVCVA to our food scene — even though our restaurant scene has been, for over twenty straight years, one of the most famous in the world. Our world class dining became a big deal in spite of our local media, not because of it.)

Thus it was written in The Book of Ruth’s Chris (any biblical scholars out there?) that one steakhouse begat another and the MGM begat the Bellagio and Bellagio begat Mandalay Bay which begat the Venetian, which begat Caesars upgrading its dining options, as well as begatting all sorts of bar raising for new hotels like Aria and the Cosmopolitan.

The early aughts were the halcyon days of the celebrity chef  — Ogden, Palladin, Palmer, Batali, Flay, English, Keller (both of them), Mina, Lagasse, Andrés — when casinos would throw money at anyone famous if they’d agree to slap their name on the door. This regrettably led to to the Giadas, Ramsays, Changs and Fieris showing up (who were not, let’s say, as dedicated to quality as the original pioneers), but as with any fad, you have to take the good with the bad.  On the whole, though, it was a net gain for all concerned, and going to Vegas just to eat (something else that was unthinkable in 1995), became a trend in its own right in the first ten years of this century.

A word or two about celebrity chefs: I’m of two minds about famous chefs: on the one hand, they made this town. On the other, most of their restaurants are a joke, the culinary equivalent of an Elton John picking up a fat paycheck for a show where others sing his songs for him. Without celebrity chefs we’d all still be swooning over the Circus Circus Steakhouse; now that they’ve made their mark (and their cash), most of them should slink back to whatever TV studio keeps them employed. Just the other day, I had a colleague ask me about Bobby Flay’s new Italian restaurant, because, he said, “My wife likes Bobby Flay.” (eye roll) Summoning all the tact I could muster, through clenched teeth I muttered: “Bobby Flay is to Italian food what Chef Boyardee was to noodles.”

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Famous chefs (most of them) are just brands. They don’t cook; they don’t even run businesses. They just sell their names for cash. Cash that you pay. For the privilege of them not cooking.

What started as the raising of the bar in a few huge hotels, got taken to the Stratosphere (the atmospheric one not the pathetic one), when the French Revolution took hold between 2005 and 2010. In short order, we saw three of the world’s greatest chefs — Joël Robuchon, Guy Savoy, and Pierre Gagnaire — plant their flags, directly from Paris, and our gastronomic revolution was complete. By 2010 even snooty New Yorkers and imperious Parisians were taking us seriously.

Now, let’s be honest here: did all this fame show up because of our wealth of natural resources? Our verdant food culture? Amber waves of grain and pristine seafood? Nope, they came because there was gold in them thar hills and every one wanted a nugget. 40 million mouths are a lot to feed, and unlike Orlando or Branson, MO, the Vegas tourist is flush with cash and ready to spend it on experiences they can’t get there or in Paducah. (I don’t know what people spend their disposable income on in Branson and Paducah, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t overpriced caviar and champagne.)

These fancy schmancy restaurants weren’t for everyone, but they represented an aspirational level of hospitality you couldn’t find anywhere but Vegas! Baby! And it was available to all! Unlike intimidating New York, snooty Paris, or self-impressed ‘Frisco.

And talk about the pendulum swinging: in about a decade (95-‘o5), we went from 99 cent shrimp cocktails and cheap buffets to being the most expensive high-end restaurant city in the country. Not to harp on the sex thing again (but it is fun isn’t it?), but some Vegas menus (and wine lists) should be served by a proctologist with a side of K-Y Jelly.

The trouble with reaching the top is, like the New England Patriots, you have nowhere to go but down….and that, ladies and gentlemen, is where we find ourselves today. To be sure, the rising tide has raised all boats, but staying afloat, will be harder and harder in the coming years. Big deal meals are not the big deals they used to be, and the quadruple whammy of aging Boomers (who fueled the 90s boom), fading celeb chefs, the Great Recession, and the past two pandemic years have made the future of fine Strip dining very uncertain…and that’s where our local dining scene has stepped up to the plate.

While the Strip may be in a slump, new things are constantly happening in Summerlin, Chinatown, and Downtown. And I’m happy to report there are now even good things to eat in Henderson, of all places (Saga, Rebellion Pizza). Where there used to be only a sprinkling of local spots and miles of franchises, now you have locally-owned, affordable, chef-driven restaurants making big splashes all over the ‘burbs.

Even if peak Vegas has passed, we still boast the best steakhouses in the world of any city that isn’t New York or Tokyo; our Chinatown is a bang-for-the-buck gem; and female chefs (like Jamie Tran, Gina Marinelli, and Nicole Brisson) are dynamos powering our local restaurant resurgence. And at the drop of a hat, I can start waxing poetic about our French bakeries, coffee scene, gastropubs, and pizzas galore.

And you can criticize Millennials, Gen-Xrs and the Instagram/Tik Tok generations all you want, but they’ve been raised to demand better ingredients and better eating and that genie ain’t going back in the bottle.

Becoming a Critic/Doing the Work

Okay, you’ve had your history lesson, but who’s this fellow giving it to you?

To answer the first question I posed at the top of my remarks, I’ve been covering the Las Vegas food and restaurant scene since 1995. When I started I was it: there were no others writing about food with any regularity or even the pretense of journalistic objectivity. I’ve never been especially prescient in anything (as my ex-wives can tell you), but one thing I did see coming down the pike was the sea change about to envelope our food and beverage industry.

As they say: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. So I started knocking on doors and asking media outlets if they were interesting in having someone cover/critique all these fabulous new eateries that were invading our humble burg…first in a trickle, and then in a tidal wave. No one was interested except Nevada Public Radio. I aced the audition (and already had a face made for radio), so I started my radio commentary years with a tongue-in-cheek admiration for Martha Stewart telling me what size tomatoes to buy.

 My first gig on KNPR radio was a sweet one for 15 years. From there I moved into segments on our local CBS and NBC affiliates, wrote for every publication in town except the Review Journal, and eventually ended up writing 8 editions of Eating Las Vegas – The 52 Essential Restaurants, which published its last edition in 2020.

Basically, I got into food writing because I wanted to be a consumer advocate. At their core, that’s what any critic is. When it comes to food, we want to guide you to where best to spend your hard-earned cash, and at our best, we teach you something while we’re doing it.

You may not like my advice on tuna tartare or tacos, but I share it from a storehouse of experience going back decades now, and from trips to Tokyo to Tuscany. To be a good food critic you need to eat a lot, read a lot, cook a lot and travel a lot. Thankfully, I’ve been able to do all four. (That hummingbird thing really helps). Comparison might be the root of all unhappiness, as Cicero said, but it’s also informs every good critic’s opinions.

Food writers are dinosaurs and we know it. Once people could take and access high quality pictures of potential meals on their phones, our goose was cooked. But we still bring something to the table. When you peruse social media for pretty pics or recommendations, all you get is crowd-sourced opinions based upon personal preferences. All taste is subjective, of course, but having done the work, traveled the globe and eaten everywhere (especially in Vegas), what I offer is the same thing Anton Ego did in the movie “Ratatouille”: perspective. An Instagrammer will only tell you if they liked something; a good critic will tell you why you do.

At this point I’m pretty much the professor emeritus of Vegas food writers, and I content myself being an influencer, occasionally writing blog posts at www.eatinglv.com (like this one!) and spreading the love for all the worthy eateries I can find.

I’ve been very lucky: I’ve had a front row seat for the biggest culinary revolution ever to happen to an American city. In spite of my prickly opinions and prejudices, I have enormous respect for people who work in restaurants. To be a good critic you have to be in love with your subject and I am. I have been in love with restaurants since I was eight years old and my passion has never waned.

I am in love with them and always will be because a good meal, shared with family and friends, is the loveliest expression of our common humanity that I know. As the great food writer Alan Richman once said: “Food is life itself, the rest is parsley.”

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Stick to Food

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Ed. note: The following is a trip down memory lane. It has very little to do with food.

When you hit your sixties you start looking backwards.

There are more miles behind you than in front, so it’s natural (I guess) to take stock of all the places you’ve been rather than where you’re going.

And as we all know, where we’re headed is a terminus without return.

Looking back is something I’ve been doing a lot of lately, and nothing makes me do it more than when someone tells me to “stick to food.”

The way these comments arise is invariably the same: I venture an opinion on social media about some issue (Covid-19, climate change, Tom Brady. George Floyd, potholes in my neighborhood…) and someone on Facebook or Twitter (or occasionally here) doesn’t agree with me. What they’re thinking to themselves is, “I only know this dude as a food critic/Las Vegas restaurant expert/reviewer and here he is opining on Trump or foreign policy or racism in America and why the hell doesn’t he STAY IN HIS LANE and stick to letting me know where I should eat?”

Since they only know me in one limited way, they weaponize what they think is my only area of expertise and turn it into an insult. And on some crude level, it works, at least from their limited perspective.

“Stick to food” always amuses me, not only as a juvenile insult, but also because it is so easy to toss at a person who writes about food…as if that’s the only thing they’re qualified to think about. Any red-blooded male will tell you food and sex are the two things every man is highly qualified to think about….along with the New England Patriots and how to avoid household chores.

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“Sticking to food” is easy for dudes. Food is fascinating, but most men think about it in a “me eat now” sort of way. Face it: heterosexual men are the most boring creatures on earth, so any attempt we make to discuss anything outside of food and Mr. Happy should be encouraged, not criticized. Just a thought, ladies.

And goddammit, if a hillbilly like Taylor Swift is allowed to weigh in on white supremacy, then a food writer should be given leeway to opine on something besides the saltiness of the shrimp. The only thing most men want Taylor Swift to weigh in on is their face.

Things get dicier for us less famous folks of dubious repute. We’re supposed to establish a rapport with our readers, stick to the script, not make people think, and most certainly don’t disagree with them about something they KNOW TO BE TRUE.

Regardless, when someone tells me to stick to food, here are the things that race through my mind:

I survived the 60s, 70s, and 80s, and have tales to tell about each decade. (The 70s were the WORST….the 80s were when I was at my worst.)

Up until this worldwide coronavirus shutdown, the Vietnam War was the dumbest thing I ever lived through.

Once you’ve survived it, Richard Nixon, and Watergate (not to mention Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Lewinskygate) you learn to have a healthy skepticism about anything government does…not to mention when not to ejaculate on a woman’s dress.

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This doesn’t mean government (at all levels) isn’t capable of doing great things. I work in government (at the municipal level) and know very well what good it can do for its citizens. But huge social experiments involving anything but road building, public safety, utilities, or fighting wars are not its forte.

When someone tells me to stick to food, it invariably makes me remember everywhere I’ve lived and traveled, and to quote Mark Twain:

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

I refer to myself as a Connecticut Yankee, but I was educated in Florida, Tennessee and Kentucky, and my family has lived in Georgia since the 1970s…so I have more than a passing acquaintance with the customs, food, and failings of the the West, the Northeast and the Deep South.

4 Ways Billboard Woman of the Year Taylor Swift Changed Country ...(Come sit right over here)

People are fond of calling Nashville a “cool city” these days, but when I went to college there it was a racist backwater. Plus, country fucking music, need I say more?

My love-hate relationship with the South runs deep. The people are friendly, the women beautiful, and the food is to die for, literally. But the politics are as fetid as a Savannah swamp in summer.

Louisville, Kentucky was kinder and gentler, and gave me my first job as a public defender — cutting my teeth as a trial lawyer and handling hundreds of cases from capital murders to minor misdemeanors. Four years in those courtrooms taught me lessons I put to good use for the next three decades. Having a jury come back and say “not guilty” to a packed courtroom is the second greatest feeling a man will ever have.

As a young boy, I wanted to be a baseball player; as a young man, I wanted to be an actor.  Not having the talent for either broke my heart. Baseball was my first heartbreak. As they used to say when I took the field, “That Curtas kid may be small, but at least he’s slow.”

My mother wanted me to be a piano player; I failed miserably there, too. Ditto, playing the guitar. It helps to be coordinated (and possess some manual dexterity) if you’re trying to learn instruments that require both. In that sense, I’m no different from the 95% of us who fail at music and sports (which would be 95% of everyone), I just learned my lessons harder and quicker than most.

Four times in my life I’ve tried to learn French. Flunked it twice in college. Finally gave up when I was in my 40s. Even now, after having been to France ten times, I’m barely past the bonjour! and s’il vous plait stage. Thankfully, the French have always taken pity on me, and more of them now speak English, so it’s easier to hide my shame these days.

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Three ex-wives taught me a lot about marriage, the hard way. Handling divorce cases was a wonderful remedy to cure my belief in the fundamental goodness of the human race.

By the time I started writing about food (in 1994, in Las Vegas), I had already practiced law for seventeen years in three different states. Despite appearances, it was not because I was thrown out of any of them.

I was a helluva criminal trial lawyer and gave it up to do business/commercial law, probably to please my father. Business law paid the bills for twenty-five years, but wasn’t nearly as sexy as a biker bar homicide trial with everyone in the courtroom in flack jackets.

You start out as a wide-eyed product of the 60s  — a  young attorney, wanting to help the underprivileged, protect the Constitution, change society for the better, cure poverty, etc.. Twenty years later, you find yourself always representing one half of a bad business deal, with both sides competing to see who can be the greediest motherfucker. Good times.

Complicated business disputes pale, however, next to rubbing shoulders with a guy who likes to seal people’s eyes shut with Krazy Glue before he rapes them. (Yeah, you read that right.) His name was Ed Wagner and he was a peach of a fellow, just ask the four victims who couldn’t see him. Nothing says “doing the lord’s work” like defending serial sex offenders.

One of my sub-specialties in this genre involved representing a series of pedophiles. (You read that right, too.)  These were not cases for the faint of heart or stomach. The Vatican has nothing on this cowboy when it comes to getting nose deep in others’ sexual perversions.

Speaking of perversions, porn stars were also clients of mine. The tales they told would curl your hair. Some of those stories have gone with Marilyn Chambers to her grave. R.I.P. Marilyn, since you had so little of it in your lifetime.

In between I did personal injury plaintiff’s work, divorce, real estate, contract litigation, you name it. No one will ever call me the world’s greatest attorney, but there’s not much you can slip by, or shock me with, at this point in my career.

Don’t talk to me about gun control until you’ve been to an autopsy.

Having survived two very depressing periods in my life, after divorces bookended the 1990s (when I smoked, popped, snorted or swallowed anything put in front of me), I also consider myself something of an expert on being your own worst enemy. My aim was never better than when pointing a large caliber character flaw at my own foot.

There’s an old saying about becoming more conservative as you get older, but for me it’s been the opposite — although the liberal media’s hysteria about everything from Trump’s latest brain fart to the pandemic has me questioning my loyalty to institutions like the New York Times. And if I never see a television newscast again, it’ll be too soon…no matter how hot the weather girl is.

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This is just age talking, but after following politics for decades, one gets to the point where the ideological clashes seem like a young person’s sport. At a certain point, you long for a toothsome bite of pasta amplified by the perfect cheese. Or whiling away the morning in a Parisian cafe, sipping strong coffee over a good book. Or viewing a Mediterranean sunset from a mountain in Italy (above). Anything but witnessing another never-ending political wrestling match.

If you look at my home library, you’ll find an inordinate number of nonfiction, travel and cookbooks, followed by various social and political science tomes. And for a card-carrying pacifist who has never owned a gun, there are more military books than I can count. Anytime you’d like to discuss the finer points of Blücher’s assault at Waterloo, the US Navy at Guadalcanal, or the Second Battle of the Somme, ring me up.

I used to be a movie buff. Used to go to at least one a week. Have dozens of books about movies and actors. Now we’re lucky if we hit a theater four times a year. These days it looks like we may never go again.

If I hadn’t become a food critic I think I would’ve become a drama critic (failed actor and all that), or some kind of writer. But I’m a food writer because I’ve been obsessed with food since I was twelve, and when you get right down to it, the only way to get good at something is to be obsessed with it.

Image(Wine lists are more fun to wrestle with than systemic racism)

To quote two of my faves: “There is no love sincerer than the love of food” (G.B. Shaw), and “Food is life itself; the rest is parsley.” (A. Richman)

Warren Zevon said enjoy every sandwich……and so you should.

Twenty years ago I flirted with the idea of giving up the law and becoming a full-time writer. I knew I could do it as well as anyone, but a quick survey of the landscape showed me I’d be working twice as hard for half the dough (I was making then) in a dying profession. So I stuck with the law and kept my writing going as what they now call a “side hustle.”

The irony is, of course, that two decades later I am known much more as a food writer than a lawyer. This fact never ceases to amuse my accountant, once he finishes weeping over my tax return.

These are the things that run through my mind whenever anyone tells me to stay in my gastronomic lane, as if I’ve never had a life outside of it. All they’re really doing is exposing how little they know me. (It’s also kind of a compliment, I suppose.)

They know me only one way, and that’s okay. The very way all of us present ourselves publicly these days is predicated upon snap judgments and visceral reactions. Now everyone has a public persona (remember: only a select few used to) and there is no time for reflection, for research, for the slow satisfaction of actually learning about a person or an idea.

Oscar Wilde said the truth is rarely pure and never simple, and truer words have never been ignored so completely.

This is where our world is now. So much information, so much access, so much ignorance. One of the great(?) things about the pandemic shutdown is how it focused Baby Boomers on how little time we have left, and how little we count anymore. Society has become over-sensitized to everything and common sensical about nothing. If it isn’t easily digestible, no one wants to chew on it.

We Boomers have to come to grips with this: our selfish time has passed; the world is no longer ours; the “me generation” has become the meh generation. We have been eclipsed by the internet, social media and groupthink , and it took the Pandemic Panic of 2020 to drive the point home.

Being a lawyer for forty years has taught me to assume little and question a lot. You look at things from a contra perspective, ever suspicious of the low-hanging intellectual fruit. There are no easy answers; nothing is as black and white as it appears. People who hate Donald Trump (including my wife) don’t want to hear this, anymore than those who would lionize George Floyd. The easy road taken, the current trend followed, the popular thought parroted, will always earn you applause. But making yourself feel good about what you think is not a way to make you think.

Not conforming to the facile or the fatuous is why I will never stick solely to food, and anyone who suggests I should can stick it where the sun don’t shine.

Image(While you’re solving the world’s problems, I’ll be in Venice)

 

The Evolution of a Critic

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(Ed. note: People are always asking me” “How did you become a food critic?” Here is the answer.)

Food writer John Mariani once said there are 3 kinds of restaurant critics: “The slobs, the snobs and the oh goodie goodies.”

The slobs are professional writers who either get thrown into, or decide to write about food sometime in mid-career. Being writers by trade, their qualifications for the gig (when they start out) usually consists of being able to write a cogent paragraph and knowing what they like to eat. Ask any editor and they will tell you they prefer a real writer who wants to become a food critic, to a passionate foodie who wants to (try to) become a writer. Getting real writers to write about real restaurants is usually a lot easier than getting them into a collared shirt.

Mariani properly pegged me as a “oh goodie goodie” type of critic years ago. For the longest time, I ate everything in sight and was pleased as punch that Las Vegas was taking its place on the world’s gastronomic stage. Somewhere over the past decade, I shed my omnivorous obsessions and replaced them with unabashed epicurean snobbery, and therein lies the tale.

John Anthony Curtas was practically raised in American restaurants. As a preteen in the 1960s, I circumnavigated the United States with my family, eating in the best restaurants in town from Miami to Seattle, New York to New Orleans. My  parents were hardly “to the menu born,” but both had a healthy appreciation for good food, and wanted their children (me, two sisters and a brother) to experience the best of eating out. Neither parent was a gourmet; we never had wine or liquor in our house, and seafood was as foreign to our table as chopsticks. But what Mom and Dad loved was going out to a restaurant — dressing us all up and making a night of it. To them, dining out was about the experience of leaving the confines of home and seeking the thrill of being served good food in a fabulous place where they waited on you hand and foot. Wherever we traveled, they always sought out the best restaurant in town and the best table in the house —  the better to experience the theater of great dining.

As a young adult I started cooking more out of poverty than choice. My older sister gave me a subscription to Bon Appetit magazine in 1978 that I ate up, literally and figuratively. An early girlfriend and the second Mrs. John A. Curtas were both foodies before there was such a term, and they indulged my then passion for Chinese food. By 1980 I had pretty much cooked my way through The Chinese Menu Cookbook, (Joanne Hush and Peter Wong, Holt Rinehart Winston, 1976), and was seduced by the Szechuan food craze that was all the rage by then. (Yes, there was a Szechuan food craze in those prehistoric times, and I have the cookbooks to prove it.)

My ex-wife was even so kind as to compile a list of Chinese grocery stores for me, when we first moved to Vegas in 1981, so I could continue working my way through the various regional cuisines. Until around 1990, if you had asked me what my favorite food in the world was, I would’ve answered the strong, salty, sour and hot foods of the Sichuan and Hunan provinces of China. (Then and now, the textural nuances of Cantonese cooking, and the folderol of  Mandarin banquets, remain more of a curiosity than a keen pursuit.)

Wedged into all of this was a move back east in the mid-1980s — where I lived mere 50 miles from mid-town Manhattan. It was a seminal time for American food, and I consumed the New York restaurant scene wholesale, as Danny Meyer, Drew Nieporent, Larry Forgione, et al developed a food-centric, wine-friendly, customer-casual template that put baby-boomers at ease with sophistication without pretense.

In 1990, after five years of eating in places like Odeon, the Coach House, Four Seasons, Peter Luger, and the Union Square Cafe (not to mention enjoying the best seafood in America every summer on Nantucket), I moved back to Las Vegas and surveyed the edible landscape. It was not a pretty sight. The best restaurants in town were two chain steakhouses: Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s. Every hotel had five eateries: a coffee shop, a buffet, a steakhouse, and Italian, and a (not-very) “gourmet room” serving “continental cuisine” from some unnamed continent. All of them facing the keno pit, or so it seemed. Marcel Taylor — the Caesars Palace dealer who brought Ruth’s Chris to town in 1989 — told me the philosophy of every hotel back then was to capture the casino customer and never let them out the front door. As he put it, “…they figured we have every place anyone could ever want to eat in right here, what more could they (the tourists) want?”

But want they did, and when Ruth’s Chris realized its Vegas outpost was outselling all its other franchises, the word quickly spread to upscale chains and chefs everywhere that Las Vegas was the place to be. Late 1992 brought the opening of Spago, and soon thereafter, Mark Miller, Charlie Trotter and Emeril Lagasse planted their flags in the MGM. Suddenly, we had a real restaurant scene.

The only thing lacking was a serious critic to write about it. Hard to believe 23 years later, but in 1994, the only person covering restaurants in Las Vegas was the mother-in-law of a certain newspaper owner. She belonged to the “My friend Mabel had the chicken soup and she thought it was a bit salty” school of food writing, and was avidly followed every week by what few society matrons there were in town.

So, I stepped into the breach. It took a year of hounding media outlets, but finally, in October, 1995,  I got a shot at being the Nevada Public Radio food critic — a position I pretty much invented for myself and a gig that lasted until 2011. Did I know anything about radio? Absolutely not. But I knew a helluva lot about food, and could put two sentences together, and looked great in a button-down shirt. As I like to say: In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. For five years I was the only game in town when it came to critiquing serious restaurants in a serious way. It would not be until 2001 that our main newspaper hired a full-time food writer, and in keeping with tradition, they made sure she was of the “My friend Edna had the steak and she thought it was a little chewy” school of food writing.

The Nineties brought multiple trips to France and Italy, and writing for all sorts of magazines and guidebooks. It was then that I honed both my palate and my writing. It took a decade plus, but only after all those meals, travel and reviews did I begin to appreciate my subject matter and my relationship to it. Food is the most intimate relationship we will ever have, and allowing strangers to cook it for us is an oddly perverse ritual which many struggle to understand. (It’s the reason so many people have a chip on their shoulder when they eat out.) Giving over our bodies, our health, and our mouths to persons unknown, and paying them for the privilege of feeding all three, is surrendering an inordinate amount of power to a stranger — and paying them money for the privilege of taking advantage of you. It is this curious dynamic that continues to fascinate me, as much as anything that I shove in my piehole.

As for the food, then and now the ingredient-driven Italians and technique-driven French have always fascinated my palate. French food — more than any other on earth — is driven by the extraction, concentration and layering of flavors. Italian cuisine — in all of its regional glories — celebrates the simplicity of the raw material, while a Frenchman tries to make it taste even more like itself. The yin and yang of these philosophies still hold me in their thrall, and, of course, they both make the best wine on the planet (sorry Spain and California).

Enter Japan. Japanese food is about the quest for perfection, and in many ways, eating Japanese food in America and Japan has refined my tastes even further and eliminated my helter-skelter insatiability. No longer am I a galloping gourmand, happily ingesting everything in sight. Now, in my sixties, I seek the unobtainable grail of the quintessential. Like a Japanese chef, I take interest in the details of the divine.  A wasted meal, or even an ingredient, puts me in a bad mood. I have eaten so much of everything that I now simply want the best of anything — be it in a street taco, a glass of wine, or a piece of fish.

I am no longer an “oh, goodie goodie,” and I am certainly not a slob. It is said that to become a gourmet, like becoming a first class horseman, you have to start young. I am an epicure and I started very young. But there are many more steps before me, and it is this mountain that I continue to climb.

Food is life itself, the rest is parsley. – Alan Richman