John Curtas is …

Wake

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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)

“Thoughts and Prayers,” Hashtags and Hand-Wringing Aren’t Enough

The world is no better than its places. Its places at last
are no better than their people while their people
continue in them. When the people make
dark the light within them, the world darkens.
–Wendell Berry, “A Poem On Hope”

ELV note: There will be no food reviews or pithy commentary this week. Below are two posts about the recent Las Vegas massacre, one from me and one from my son, Hugh Alexander Curtas. My thoughts are more about a co-worker who was murdered; my son’s is a more measured, political/philosophical take on the tragedy. I hope you take the time to read them both and pass this on to others who might be interested.

Five minutes after my wife and I drove past Mandalay Bay Hotel and Casino two nights ago, the worst mass murder in modern American history took place. If the windows had been down in our car, we probably would’ve heard the gun shots. As it was, we drove home from the airport and went to bed, oblivious to what had occurred behind us. The next morning, as I was walking to work, my secretary texted me that Cameron Robinson, a management analyst in the City Attorneys office, had been killed. Cameron was shot in the neck, right beside his partner, as they were watching the concert. Bleeding profusely and screaming for help, somehow he was gotten to an ambulance, but it was too late. He died on the way to the hospital.

Cameron was only twenty-eight, but he looked like he was sixteen. He was short, fit, and funny, and worried about his weight even though I don’t think he weighed 120 pounds soaking wet. He had a sly, shy sense of humor, and needless to say, everyone in the office loved him. I didn’t know him as well as most, but his office was right across from mine, and I could see him in there everyday, diligently working away, or, when he wasn’t doing that, keeping the secretaries in stitches. I used to steal M&Ms from him all the time, and he pretended not to notice. Once or twice I brought him something sweet as a partial payback, but my side of the candy ledger was always permanently in the red.

There is nothing that can be done for Cameron Robinson. He was killed by a demented maniac utilizing weapons designed solely for the purpose of killing human beings. That these weapons are legal and (barely) regulated is to the everlasting shame of the American body politic. I won’t go on a polemic about guns or gun control (although I could), except to say that, in my lifetime, the idiotic, psycho-sexual attraction to firearms has trumped common sense at every turn when it comes to regulating what is, in essence, the most dangerous consumer product of them all.

None of this matters to Cameron. He died bleeding and screaming in an ambulance — shot by a spray of automatic weapons fire from hundreds of yards away — a sweet, generous, hard-working young man who was just beginning to grow into himself. Just last week I thought I should bring him in a huge bag of M&Ms after Halloween, just to balance the books. Thanks to American gun laws, this is one debt I will never have to repay. – John Curtas

Image may contain: 1 person, smiling, closeup

www.gofundme.com/you-will-be-missed-cameron-robinson

I went to bed Sunday thinking two people had been shot in my hometown of Las Vegas, Nevada. I didn’t give it much thought – active shooter situations are an almost daily occurrence in the U.S. In fact, 273 people have been killed in mass shootings in the U.S. in just the past 280 days, according to the Gun Violence Archive.

I woke up yesterday to the aftermath of the unthinkable. As I write, almost 60 souls are known to have perished, with an almost inconceivable 515 additional people wounded. My city was massacred.

I feel an excruciating sadness for the murdered. Friends-of-friends and acquaintances are among the dead – living, breathing human beings who will never again have an aspiration or a dream and will never again know the beauty and love of this world. My city is hung heavy with a pain it has never known.

Make no mistake: This tragedy is the fault of the cowardly, ignoble excuse for a human being that pulled the triggers of those automatic weapons just as much as it is the fault of craven politicians and their gun-lobby overlords who have created the circumstances for a society that devalues human life by allowing weapons of mass destruction to be bought and sold with almost no regulation whatsoever.

I’m a liberal, but I have no problem with guns. I was born and raised in the West. I respect that our Constitution provides an established legal right to own firearms. No person, politician, or organization will ever strip American citizens of the right to own guns – to think otherwise is rank ignorance. No one is coming for your guns.

My problem is ultra-extended magazines, easy access to automatic weapons, lax oversight of the gun industry, spineless politicians, and a refusal to acknowledge gun violence as a scourge on our citizenry that could be greatly reduced with modest legal alterations.

You should have no right to unlimited, unrestricted access to weapons of mass destruction, just as you have no right to unlimited free speech – when the public good outweighs the personal right, the public good prevails.

Yes, I’m politicizing this issue. We must politicize this issue – the dead deserve no less. More specifically, we have not politicized this issue enough. More specifically still, we have failed to match the politicization of gun violence in our communities like the gun violence advocates have.

No one wants innocent people to die, but when you stand in the way of protections for innocent Americans, the blood drips from your hands. We’re in this situation because of a large-scale, ultra-moneyed, decades-long lobbying effort by well-connected gun advocates (the NRA and their paid-for politicians). Their efforts have been strategic and effective and have stymied progress on gun violence prevention at every turn. Mass shootings are now an American pastime.

Guns are tools. Without human intervention, they are harmless. But, in the same way the agency of the murderer turns an inanimate object into a killing machine, the methodical strategy of gun violence proponents prioritizing unlimited ownership of weapons and ammunition over the safety of our citizenry turns them from ambivalent bystanders into accomplices in these horrible crimes.

It’s our government’s job to protect its citizens from danger and harm. Yes, there is room for debate about the efficacy of mental health services and how poverty and lack of opportunity makes normal people do insane things – violence is a complex issue with many intervening factors. But the paramount factor is our easy access to weapons of war. Vegas’ dead would still be alive if that lunatic couldn’t access multiple automatic weapons and unlimited ammunition. This massacre was preventable.

We must mourn and move on. But we must not let the darkness of cowardice and violence perpetuated by gunmen and well-connected lobbyists alike dissuade us from the hard road of modest public safety protections. Don’t pray, make policy change. – Hugh Alexander Curtas

Carlos Buscaglia Is Leaving DUE FORNI

The pizza ovens will remain. The pastas will continue to be made. The uber-cool drinks, funky wine list and Neapolitan pies aren’t going anywhere.

But Due Forni is losing the man who (along with Alex Taylor) invented the concept and has kept it going for the past six years.

Yes, Carlos Buscaglia is moving on, going back to the Strip, and leaving his pizzeria progeny behind.

And suddenly, Las Vegas feels a little less artisanal, more by-the-numbers, and not quite as culinarily compelling.

Six years ago it was a match made in heaven. Six years ago, the Strip was in the doldrums, and chefs like Buscaglia, Howard Choi, and Daniel Ontiveros were looking to make their mark in the ‘burbs. One by one they sought to pioneer and present a better way of eating to the citizens of Las Vegas. One by one they tried to elevate our food scene, and one by one they (along with David Clawson, Bradley Ogden and others) have crashed upon the rocks of our insatiable addiction to prefabricated, freeze-dried and franchised food.

There have been some success stories, to be sure: Dan Krohmer’s Other Mama being the most notable of the bunch. But by and large we are a blue collar town who prefers the sanitized and safe to the original and thought-provoking.

“There’s too many chain restaurants and too many people who want to eat in them,” is how Carlos put it to me last night. “It can be very discouraging.”

Indeed it can. Every day at my office I’m confronted by staff and co-workers who prefer Jimmy John’s and Claim Jumper to something owned by a local. All they really know is that these places are safe and predictable, and that’s all they really want. Instinctively they know, what Buscaglia and I know: that it takes a certain leap of faith to put yourself in the hands of a local chef. Better by far to trust the judgment of thousands before you, and give yourself over to a formula that’s worked millions of times, be it in making a mediocre sandwich or a fried chicken chalupa.

That’s what Due Forni and Buscaglia have been up against from the get-go, and that’s what they’ve succeeded against, against all odds.

But, as he explained to me, it’s time to move on.

“Frankly, I’m tired of cooking everything in two ovens and in a 400 square foot kitchen with no stove. I’m looking forward to managing a big kitchen again.”

That shouldn’t be a problem where’s he’s going since HEXX (where he’ll be running the kitchen), is a multi-tiered, high-volume operation that will keep Carlos on his toes.

What they are gaining Due Forni will be losing: a chef with great taste, and serious cooking chops. Buscaglia has been on the Vegas food scene since the early 90s when he was slinging noodles at Pasta Mia. From there he worked his way up the kitchen ladder all the way to becoming top toque at Fiamma, before departing to pursue his dream of bringing great ingredients and great pizza to the neighborhoods.

He succeeded and Due Forni succeeded, but time marches on and new challenges must be faced. From the sound of things, new ownership is taking over DF and, for the time being, the template will remain in place. (It still does a bang-up business most nights of the week, despite being surrounded by shopping malls with loads of shitty dining options that the public can’t get enough of. I’m talking to you, Downtown Summerlin.)  It remains to be seen if they do Carlos’s legacy proud, but let’s keep our fingers crossed that the dough will be just as crispy-chewy, and the toppings just as top-shelf as ever.

Even if they do, however, not having Carlos Buscaglia cooking off the Strip just made eating off the Strip a little less tasty.

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