Getting It and Not Getting It

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When training oneself to eat and to drink, it is best to inhabit a precise financial spot — one should have enough money to pay the tariff, but not so much that he is indifferent to the size of the bill. This is so because modest deprivation leads to experimentation. A rich man never has to choose between an inexpensive main course (braised beef heart for example) paired with a good bottle of wine and a pricier main course with a rather middling bottle; he will simply order the best of everything and in so doing will never know whether he likes beef heart or not. – A. J. Leibling

Item: I have friends who go to Italy all the time, have traveled all over the country, and love to return with tales of white truffle hunts and very special meals — meals where they always meet the chef, and he was “just divine,” and “John, you have to go and we’ll put you in touch, and it will be the best meal you’ve ever had in Rome, Venice, Palermo….” whatever. Within days of returning from one of their trips, they can look me straight in the eye and suggest we go out for some red sauce slop at some terrible local Italian because, and they say this with a straight face, “We really like the food there.”

Item: Dearly departed Robin Leach, who had chefs and sommeliers bowing before him for forty years, always preferred the cheapest, shittiest sauvignon blanc on any wine list.

Item: I recently went to Raku with some folks who raved about the food. (They were not Raku rookies, and we must’ve parked the entire menu on our table.) During our meal, they told me I had  to go to their “favorite place for Japanese” which will “blow me away.” We did go a couple of weeks later and it turned out to be a mediocre sushi bar/Japanese restaurant, that is no different from dozens of other cookie-cutter, Korean-owned, Japanese joints in town. (At the rematch, many of the inventive dishes fell flat and the fish was merely okay. That didn’t keep the price for our omakase from being through the roof.)

Item: I’m friendly with a local mogul who has bucks deluxe — travels to Europe all the time, rents houses for a month in Tuscany, islands in the Mediterranean, hobnobs with chefs, had his wedding in Rome, etc — you know, the usual for a guy scraping by on a couple of mil a year. This guy loves to hold court at one of the oldest, lousiest Italian restaurants in Vegas. Garlic City, I called it. So pungent you can smell it a block away. I ran into him there one time (after losing a bet), and he was beaming at a table filled with his business associates. “John, John! Come over here! Let me introduce you.” After telling everyone what I do as a food writer and joking around for a minute, he pulls me down to him and whispers, “Isn’t the food here great?” To which I replied, “Well, there’s certainly a lot of it.”

Do you know what all of these people have all have in common?

They don’t get it. Never have and never will. No matter how many trips to Europe they take, or so-so sushi meals they have, they are constitutionally incapable of making discerning judgments about food.

Getting it isn’t hard. Anyone can get it, but you have to want to.

Frenchmen think they get it simply by virtue of their being French.

As Joël Robuchon so aptly put it:

Only a small number of French possess refined palates. The French believe they have innate knowledge in the gastronomic domain as in the domain of wines. Whereas nothing is further from the truth. The Japanese (and Swiss for example) show real curiosity; they are very attentive in trying to understand and taste what they are served. That is what refinement is.

New Yorkers think they get pizza, simply because they grew up around a lot of crappy street slices. (Just ask pizza maven John Arena sometime about how often he’s heard the words, “I’m from New York; I know pizza.”)

Los Angelenos think they know tacos.

Bostonians brag about knowing good chowda.

All of them do this because everyone wants to think that they get it — in the same way everyone wants to think they have good taste in clothes or music. (And we all know what we like, so what we like has to be good, right?)

I know my friends above will never get it. Because they all have too much money and they all think having that money gives them discernment….when all it really does is make them lazy.

To truly get it (be it in food, wine, fashion or whatever) you have to, 1) want to get it; and 2) work at getting it. And by “work at getting it” I mean you have to think about things, rather than just constantly pat yourself on the back about how good you’ve got it.

I’m reminded of some rich clients I used to have when I was in private practice. They knew I was into wine and were always asking me what I liked. “Do you prefer Nuits-Saint-Georges or Volnay?” they would ask. “Which vintage should I buy, ‘o5 or ‘o6? Are you a bigger fan of Dujac or Remoissenet?” After dozens of these inquisitions (and precious little sips from their cellars), it became clear they weren’t interested in actually experiencing the pleasure of wine as much as acquiring information about it — for investment or showing off or whatever. There’s a big difference between knowledge and wisdom, and they didn’t give two shits about acquiring the latter. (For the record, my answers were: It depends. lay down your ‘o5s, drink the ‘o6s, and either one if you’re pouring.)

Getting it involves passion and study, not just purse. Getting it involves asking a lot of questions, while acknowledging (and remaining comfortable with) how little you know. The reason rich people never get it is because they’d have to admit how stupid they are about the subject at hand. It’s so much easier just to spend a lot and then feel good about your good taste.

Getting it involves insatiable curiosity.

Getting it means being willing to admit your ignorance. All successful people hate to admit they don’t know something — doctors especially so — which is why they’re always pretending to be much smarter than they are.

Not getting it is like listening to  Boccherini and then stating you prefer Death Cab For Cutie.

A lot of people like the idea of getting it much more than the real thing….just as they like the idea of wine much more than the actual product. Tons of people these days (and seemingly every Millennial on the planet) loves the idea of being a foodie, without really wanting to put in the work.

So, you have to ask yourself dear reader: Do you get it or do you just want to pretend you get it?

Are you the type who knows why Raku is so great and its competitors fall so short? Do you actually think about why a wine is good when you sip it? Or do you just remind yourself that it has to be good for the money you paid? And if you’re a younger foodie out there (or a blogger or Yelper), do you base your judgments upon what you know or what you like?

Like I said, there’s a big difference between knowledge and wisdom.

And if you’re one of those rich folks, well, that doesn’t mean you can’t get it….but you have to stop using your money as a crutch.

I’m sure there are lots of astute, discriminating gourmets out there who are very wealthy.

I’m just not sure they exist in Las Vegas.

Let’s give Joël the last word on this:

This might surprise you, but the number of those who possess real knowledge and have refined palates is extremely limited. And it has nothing to do with social class. Indeed, people from all stations come to my place, and the least wealthy are far from the least knowledgeable.

The Last Course

There is no sincerer love than the love of food. – George Bernard Shaw

My father could sell ice to an Eskimo. He was a born salesman. Made (and lost) a lot of money in his life, but he ended his run on an up-tick, and left my mother quite comfortable, so I guess all the hustling and drama was worth it.

I’ve never been much good at selling anything….even myself. Maybe because I saw all the sturm und drang my dad put our family through as he made all that money; or maybe it’s because the German-Protestant side of me considers selling and marketing to be a craven and unseemly.

The internet, in case you haven’t noticed, has become about nothing but selling. Everyone and every thing on it is trying to sell you something. For what is a selfie but a exercise in self-promotion? And who is naive enough to think these days that Facebook is just about sharing pictures with your friends and relatives?

No, when you boot up your computer or click on your phone, your eyeballs immediately become both product and target. The internet, along with being the great equalizer and disseminator  of information, has fed us all into the sausage grinder of the world wide marketing machine.

And what it did to food writing was turn it all into fast food hamburgers.

By way of comparison, consider the New York Times writer (Amanda Hesser) who, in 1998, was given a company credit card and carte blanche to travel around France for two weeks finding subjects to write about. The only writers traveling to Europe these days either do it on their own dime (like moi), or hustle for a pay-to-play gig whereby they get a free trip in exchange for an agreement to write a favorable (it’s understood) story about their trip for some back-home publication (something I’ve also done, mainly for wine articles).

Thus has the entire field of food writing been turned on its head. No longer do publications like Bon Appetit and Travel + Leisure send writers to discover stories. Instead, they are the repositories for articles that have been pitched to them by hotels, cruise lines, tourist boards, international booze conglomerates, etc.. Marketing now dominates everything, and with the exception of a few giant national newspapers, and some teeny tiny periodicals, all opinions are now bought and paid for. It’s all quite sad because you can no longer trust anyone.

Except Chad H. on Yelp, who doesn’t like Estiatorio Milos because it’s “too fishy.” Him you can trust.

I say this with tongue only partially wedged in cheek, because at least “Chad H.” (who probably doesn’t know his xiao long bao from his Chow Yun-fat) actually went to the restaurant he’s opining about. The listicles that dominate web sites like Eater and Thrillist are the product of press releases. It’s doubtful that whoever compiles these has ever stepped foot in the places they proclaim as “hot.” All they know is what they’ve cribbed from a p.r. sales pitch, or the internet…or from the dwindling number of writers (or other publications like this one) who are doing boots-on-the-ground (or, in this case, food-in-the-mouth) research.

In it’s own not-so-subtle, insidious way, the internet created a vortex of simplified discourse that sucks the consumer farther and farther away from meaningful information. Which is just the type of controlled message that corporations and public relations people want.

I was never selling anything. Not when I started my “Food For Thought” radio gig with Nevada Public Radio in 1995, not when I started my TV gigs with local news stations in August, 2008, and not when I started this blog exactly ten years ago today.

If there was a primary motivation it certainly wasn’t money. Even in its late 20th Century heyday, there wasn’t a lot of money to be made in writing about restaurants. If I have to point to a specific inspiration it would have to be much purer and less meretricious: I wanted to promote good restaurants so more people would eat there and they’d stay in business and their success would inspire others to follow.

Everyone thinks I’ve always been about criticizing restaurants, but in fact, what I really was doing was advertising them.

A restaurant critic might start out as a consumer advocate — and, indeed, it is through those eyes that you must view your subject — but what you end up being is a cheerleader, a fanboy, an unabashed promoter for the businesses you cover. You do it somewhat inadvertently, and you do it out of keen interest, but first and foremost, you do it out of admiration, not because you’re on the payroll…and that makes it the sincerest form of salesmanship there is.

Somehow though, I don’t think my father would’ve understood. He died in 2006, but I’m sure he, like many others, would’ve asked why I didn’t try to monetize Eating Las Vegas. All I could’ve told him was, “Because I’m doing it for love, Dad, not money.” I did it for the love of writing, and for the love of restaurants, and because I hated what the internet had done to food journalism.

I would further explain to him that to be a professional critic of anything, you have to be in love with your subject. The job of a critic is to educate, not pander to the lowest common denominator, but to be a good teacher, you have to be both enamored of and fascinated by your subject.

And boy, have I loved writing about food and restaurants.

And I really love writing about them on my own web site.

Nothing against the dozens of editors I’ve worked for, but there’s a freedom in being able to express yourself without the constraints of some blue nose with a blue pencil telling you to “tighten it up,” or “tone it down,” so they can keep their lowest common denominator readership happy.

And what I’ve loved about you, dear reader, is that you never wanted me to dumb it down or tone it down. You appreciated me letting fly with my opinions, my stylistic liberties and my awful, insistent alliteration. Only a few of you ever begrudged me my fantasies or my foibles. Most of you got it from the get-go, and you let me have fun writing in my style and from my heart — not from the perspective of some fuddy-duddy dead-tree publication.

Almost everything I’ve ever written has come from the heart, not from a paycheck — which either makes me a hopeless romantic or a fool.

The romantic in me longs for the days of incisive writing and journalistic standards applied to rigorous reporting about where you should eat and why. The fool in me thought that I could raise those standards (in Las Vegas at least), even as they were evaporating all around me. But unlike most critics (save for Seymour Britchky, my muse) I put my money where my mouth was. Sure I got comped a lot (especially in the last decade), but my restaurant bills from 1995-2010 would choke a horse. I went in, anonymously for the first ten years, threw down, and then coughed up my sincere opinions about what I ate. I don’t know if anyone ever again will be foolish enough to do what I did.

To be a blogger, you have to be obsessive. In the early days, my staff and I would crank out two or three posts a day. Those were exciting times. By 2008, the wave of fantastic food that had begun to build a decade earlier was just cresting. It was a tsunami of gourmandia the likes of which no city in the world had ever seen. What had begun with Spago in 1993 and Emeril’s in 1995 continued to swell with the opening of the Bellagio in 1998, and then, in rapid succession, the launching of the Venetian and Mandalay Bay. By the time Joël Robuchon showed up in 2005 and Guy Savoy arrived in 2007, I felt like the world’s luckiest surfer — one who was making the drop on some awesome lips, day after day, night after night, for a dozen years in a row.

15 years on the radio, 9 on TV, 6 books, countless magazine articles, multiple national television appearances, numerous contributions to guide books and web sites. — it’s been a good run. I’ve taken this whole food writing thing so much further than I ever imagined when I was nervously sitting in my bedroom on October 14, 1995, hand-scribbled script in one hand and a cassette recorder in the other, rehearsing for my first radio spot on KNPR —  sweating over how to make food sound fun and interesting for three minutes. But I got through that, and I got better — at writing, at eating, at tasting, and at radio and television. My waistline suffered, my liver suffered, my relationships suffered, and most assuredly by bank account suffered, but I made my mark, and helped a lot of restaurants and chefs in the process. Even my stick-to-business dad would’ve been proud of that.

As Augustus McCrae says to Woodrow Call at the end of Lonesome Dove: “By God Woodrow, it’s been quite a party hasn’t it?”

It’s been quite a party.

[ELV — the man, the myth, the inveterate Francophile, Romanophile, oenophile, turophile, Sinophile, Nipponophile, and Grecophile — will be on hiatus for the next month or two while he re-boots (and re-names) this web site and tries to decide what he wants to do when he grows up. Until then, kali orixi to all.]

(Ouzo iz always appropriate)