ELV note: What does the following have to do with food writing? Absolutely nothing. Well, maybe a little something. But it’s my damn blog and I’ll write anything I damn well please. ;-) I hope you are mildly amused by it, and perhaps learn something about me in the process.
COMMON HUMAN CONDITIONS THAT DON’T APPLY TO ELV
Indigestion – Even in late middle age, the only things that give me indigestion are (too much) champagne and barbecue. Which is a pity because champagne goes great with barbecue.
Intolerance – There are three things on this earth I can’t stand: 1) intolerance of other cultures, 2) the Dutch, and 3) people talking in movie theaters. Seriously, as my kids say, “Dad, you are both a very tolerant and intolerant guy.” True dat. Slobs, guns, and pets in public drive me nuts, otherwise I don’t care if you’re a neo-fascist, satan-worshipping, wife-swapping, dope-taking, sitcom-loving sado-masochist. But I draw the line if you’re one of these guys.
Alarm clocks – I haven’t used an alarm clock in 30 years. You tell me when I have to get up, I wake up an hour before that.
Answering you back – If you call, I return the call. Text me, you get a text right back. Same with e-mails. The only times I don’t get right back to people is either when I’m traveling, extremely busy at work, or sick.
Attention to detail – Details only count if you’re a scientist, an engineer, or a baker.
Taking yourself too seriously – Has never been a problem. I am as amused at myself as I am at what a fool you are being.
Kitchen timers – I swear to god I have a kitchen timer for a heart. The only thing I use a kitchen timer for is baking cookies.
Forgetting things – I don’t forget anything. I can tell you the song that was playing the first time I kissed a girl (Mason William’s “Classical Gas”); I can tell you where I was standing when I first found out I passed a bar examination (1414 Eastern Parkway, Louisville, Kentucky); I can tell you the names of all of my fraternity brothers at Vanderbilt (most of whom I loathed). A good memory is a double-edged sword, though. There are a thousand things I wish I could forget.
Pickiness about what I eat – The only thing I would never eat is a live bug. If it’s served as food by some culture on this planet, I’ll try it.
Getting drunk – I don’t brag about it, but I can hold my liquor like nobody’s business. Drinking to drunkenness doesn’t interest me anymore, but even when it did, there are probably only a handful of people who have ever seen me really drunk.
Celebrity worship – Famous people (especially actors, athletes, politicians and musicians) are some of the most boring people on earth. Whenever I’m in the company of someone famous, I always wonder why they’re not much more interested in talking to me. The life I’ve led — criminal lawyer, trial lawyer (in four different states), bon vivant, American explorer, world-traveling womanizer, galloping gourmand, avid cook, fashionista, oenophile, pretty good golfer (back in the day), inveterate snob, public servant — is ten times more interesting than anything Donald Trump or Beyonce has to say. People become famous because all they’re interested in is themselves. It’s much more fascinating to talk to someone interested in something other than themself, be it chess, restoring old cars, or the Hawley-Smoot Tariff Act of 1933. I give comedians a pass, since to be a good comedian, you have to be tuned in to all sorts of things. I don’t worship comedians but I admire them.
Back problems – Never had ’em – unlike every other adult male friend of mine. My dad didn’t have them either, so I’m hoping my DNA stays strong on this one.
Foot problems – Ditto.
Attraction to crowds – The attraction of hanging out with large groups of strangers, for the sake of saying you were “there” has never appealed to me for one second.
Concerts – A boring, uncomfortable way to listen to songs that sound better on your car radio. Surrounded by dullards (see above). If that’s not bad enough: Port-o-Lets.
Attention to service in restaurants – I don’t care if a waiter pours soup on my head, as long as it’s good soup.
Friends – I haven’t hung with a posse since I was a public defender. I haven’t had an entourage since my golfing/lawyer buddies in Danbury, Connecticut in the 80s. I have a few friends that I hook up with in short spurts, but I’m more of a loner than you might imagine.
Money – I don’t give a shit about money. Never have, never will. This is something each of my wives has taken great pains to point out to me over the years.
Kissing ass – I’ve failed at many things in my life, but one thing I’ve never done is kiss anyone’s ass to get anything. When I was a very young lawyer, I once kissed my boss’s ass to keep my job. I didn’t like the taste of it. It’s often occurred to me that I might have gone farther in my legal career if I had sucked up to more people…or even one person. I’m not proud of many things in my life, but this is one of them.
What people think of me – One of my ex-wives lived in mortal fear that people were talking about her, or knew too much about her. There are less than a dozen people on earth whose opinion of me means anything to me.
Rudeness – The only people I’m rude to are people who accost me on the phone or on the street.
THINGS I COULD HAVE BEEN MUCH BETTER AT
Getting the fuck out of my own way
Keeping my opinions to myself
Shutting the fuck up
Doing anything responsible with money
Exercise – I’ve tried; I’m still trying, but this is a body built for comfort, not speed.
Eating less sugar
Eating less bread – Sugar I can do without, but bread? Never.
Writing – I’m a good writer; I can be interesting and clever on occasion. I can even make people laugh. But I’m not a great writer. To be a great writer (to be great at anything, really) you have to do it all the time. If I did it all the time, it would be a job. I love writing too much to make a job out of it. I like to think of myself (Warning: Obscure golf reference coming up!) as the Robert Tyre Jones of food writers. Bobby Jones was an amateur golfer in the 1920s-1930s. He was every bit as good as the pros (and much better than most of them) but he never turned professional. He loved his sport too much to turn it into a paycheck — because, among other things, there was no $$$ to be made in professional golf back then. (Sound familiar?) But he never had any doubt how good he was. I am the Bobby Jones of food writers and I know it. Of this I am quite proud.
People are always asking me what do I look for in food, i.e. how do I know (or at least think) something is good, or great, or far from either.
Developing a palate for great food isn’t hard (it’s a lot easier than learning golf, or the piano), but you need two things (three, really): obsession, exposure, and experience. You can’t get anywhere trying to be a gourmet if you eat junk food, fast food, or cheap restaurant food. So, yes, there’s a fourth thing needed to do it right: money.
That’s not to say that people of modest means can’t become expert tasters, but only that, unless you get exposed to the best the world has to offer (be it in the freshest fish, the best wine, or the finest cured ham), you’ll always be playing in the shallow end. The best of anything — in life, sports, music, food, etc. — establishes a benchmark by which all others are measured. The whole point of training your taste buds is too see how things measure up.
So, let’s say you’ve been in training for a decade or so, what do you look for? (Ed. note: Anyone who thinks they can properly judge food and recipes after being a “foodie” for a few years has rocks in their head. What you like to eat has nothing to do with how good things are.)
Think of food: a meal, a dish, or a glass of wine like you would a song, a symphony, or a string quartet. Every ingredient should have a voice, but nothing should drown out the others. There should be a seamless blending of texture and flavor – whether it’s pheasant Souvaroff or a taco — and all should blend into an harmonious whole.
What you look for is balance, length and integration. Layering and complexity are important, too, but are an easy trap that too many (chefs and diners) fall into when they search (too hard) for sophistication.
The trick in tasting food and judging recipes is the rapid discernment of whether something works or does not. Just as a musician (or music critic) can quickly tell if something is out of tune, so does a food critic take a bite and tell you if the bread is a few hours too old, or the sous chef had too heavy a hand with the tarragon, or whether the vanilla-lime-picked pumpkin seed-foam brings anything to the salmon party.
The way to start refining your palate is to start with salt and bread, and then move on to seafood. (Salt brings balance to food, and sharpness to flavors – too little and the percussion isn’t keeping the beat, too much and the lead guitar is hogging the spotlight.) As someone once said, “Salt is what makes things taste bad when it is not on them.”
Bread — warm, cold, toasted, plain, an hour or a few days old — teaches you all about texture, flavor, and ripeness in one delicious package. Different grains impart different aromas. Crusts and crumb come in a dizzying assortment of densities and crackle. Start buying different kinds of really good bread, and really thinking about what you’re tasting and smelling, and you’ll be on your way to sharpening your senses.
Seafood, like certain birds, is something of a blank canvas, which is why chefs love to play with it. But taste a lot of oysters and you start to see how the brininess of a Wellfleet differs from the sweetness of an Olympia. The dense meatiness of a Dover sole is a far cry (and two oceans away) from a bland Hawaiian escolar, and once you’ve had a wild turbot (or Copper River salmon in May), tilapia will be consigned to your trash bin. (Once you taste the real deal in salmon, the farm-raised stuff will suffer the same fate. I wouldn’t eat a piece of farm-raised salmon if it was being served to me on a naked Hedy Lamarr, circa 1938.) You may never acuity of some Japanese epicures — who, it is said, can detect whether certain fish were caught on their northern v. southern migration around the Sea of Japan — but if you pay attention to every morsel, the subtle distinctions start coming into focus.
Knowing degrees of doneness cannot be overemphasized. If professional chefs have a blind spot(s) it’s their inability to judge when something is seasoned properly (too much salt and too little everything else) and, due to the intensity of their work, recognizing when something has been fired too long, or needs a few more minutes on the flame. (They also screw up potatoes and various vegetables. All. The. Time.) Restaurant cooking is not conducive to the proper treatment of vegetables, and most chefs, privately, will admit this. Chefs are masters of organization and speed, but too often, in the heat of battle, their senses can leave them. And just as artists are the worst judges of their own (and other’s) work, so too are chefs not always the best evaluators of what is on the plate.
A successful dish gets everything right: temperature, seasonings, strong primary flavors complimented by subtle but necessary accents. You know that drum fill or vocal bridge in your favorite song (or the ascendant chorus in Ode to Joy)? The music wouldn’t be the same without them. It is the recognition of how these pieces fit, within seconds of the first time you taste them, that is the razor’s edge of the trained palate.
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,