Food is everything right now. It’s the new rock’n’roll. It’s the new sex. It’s the new black. It seems ridiculous to point out that it hasn’t always been such a big deal—after all, humans have always eaten, haven’t we?—but for you newbies, food has not always been such a constant hot topic (which means, it also won’t be this way forever). By the same token, food festivals are everywhere, loaded down with whatever star chef talent is available (pity their traveling schedules these days), at least in the overweight-but-obsessed-with-dieting US.
Boy am I digressing. Focus, dude.
Here’s the thing: though coastal city snobs can continue to sneer, few if any cities can come near to rivaling the chef star power that is available in Las Vegas, where over the past 15 years, a fine food scene of remarkable breadth, depth and sheer volume has been gathered at the major resorts—and increasingly off-Strip, too. And the best representation of that scene, the best assemblage and celebration, remains Vegas Uncork’d by bon appetit.
I want to hold my thoughts for a minute just to list the array of world-renowned and locally respected culinary talent who participated this year (Nationally recognized talents in ALL CAPS): TONY ABOU-GANIM, Zack Allen (B&B), Akira Back (Yellowtail), PAUL BARTOLOTTA, Steve Benjamin (L’Atelier du Joel Robuchon), James Benson, ERIC & BRUCE BROMBERG, Kim Canteenwalla (Society), Stephane Chevet (Shibuya), TOM COLLICCHIO, SCOTT CONANT, ALAIN DUCASSE, SUSAN FENIGER, Jennifer Fournier, OSAMU FUJITA, PIERRE GAGNAIRE, Carlos Guia (Country Club at Wynn), Martin Heierling (Sensi), Scott Irestone (Wolfgang Puck B&G), Masa Ishizawa (Okada), JEAN JOHO, Michael Jordan (Rosemary’s), HUBERT KELLER, Eric Klein (Spago), Gary LaMorte (Andre’s) Claude Le-Tohic (Joel Robuchon), Rene Lenger (Switch), Joesph Liebowitz (Stratta), SCOTT LINQUIST, Phillip Lo (Jasmine), MARK LoRUSSO, STEVE MARTORANO, NOBU MATSUHISA, JEAN-PHILIPPE MAURY, SHAWN McCLAIN, Sven Mede (American Fish), MARY SUE MILLIKEN, MICHAEL MINA, RICK MOONEN, Robert Moore (Jean-Georges), DAVID MYERS, BRADLEY OGDEN, STEVE OLSON, CHARLIE PALMER, FRANÇOIS PAYARD, LUCIANO PELLEGRINI, Eddie Perales (Caesars mixologist), MICHEL RICHARD, PATRICIA RICHARDS, JOEL ROBUCHON, TAL RONNEN, Megan Romano (Aureole), RICHARD SANDOVAL, GUY SAVOY, Ralph Scamardella (TAO Group), Matt Seeber (Craftsteak), JULIAN SERRANO, Theo Schonegger (Sinatra), JASON SMITH MS, David Spero, ALEX STRATTA, MASA TAKAYAMA, Drew Terp, Jet Tila (Wazuzu), JACQUES TORRES, David Walzog (SW Steak/Lakeside Grill), and Edmund Wong (Bellagio Executive Chef). GORDON RAMSAY, currently negotiating a new restaurant with Caesars, also made an appearance, I’m told.
I mean, wow. Between them, enough James Beard Foundation awards, Michelin stars, Mobil/Forbes stars and AAA diamonds to fill a nebuchadnezzar. Really.
Now in its fifth year, Uncork’d seems to remain an underregarded festival on the national scene. Politics may play some part in that (A lot of media tend to sneer at giving attention to an event so heavily sponsored by another media brand) but this year, it must be said, the festival hardly defended itself.
Why? What was so different about 2011? Well, on one hand, not much—and that’s the problem. Masters series dinners pretty much followed the same pattern they have every year (I won’t single out names, you can see the schedule on the official website), with the notable exception of Bobby Flay’s Mesa Grill, that has always been the most popular of these dinners… I guess Chef Flay wasn’t available for the event this year.
Other events included luncheons with Joel Robuchon, Julian Serrano and Michael Mina, and brunches with Guy Savoy and Susan Feniger/Mary Sue Milliken, all of which I’m sure were wonderful. A Mandalay Beach “BBQ” with Charlie Palmer and Alain Ducasse, that was a clever twist last year, was repeated with the addition of Rick Moonen, and I’m confident that was also fun. A multi-chef $395.00/plate tribute dinner to Paul Bocuse was regrettably cancelled a few days prior.
But, not to sound overly jaded, these are just fancy meals with very well known and established chefs. What has made Vegas Uncork’d so essential in the past has been its very unique presentations: Jean-Phillippe Maury creating a multi-course dessert before our eyes; Rick Moonen, Susan Feniger and Hubert Keller demonstrating together; Wolfgang Puck having a frank and uncensorsed conversation with Barbara Fairchild; all the chefs of Wynn cooking a multi-course menu with you [Yes, I made squab with Daniel Boulud two years ago—and he ate mine!], just to offer four strong memories. This kind of stuff does not happen every day, to say the least. No other festival that I know of has done these as creatively or as plentifully as Uncork’d has.
Those were notably pared down this year. There was a “Chef Showdown” between Akira Back and Martin Heierling, and I was happy to see three wine-related events on the schedule…though why every one featured Bellagio Wine Director Jason Smith is a head scratcher (he is an eminently qualified MS, and head of the biggest wine program anywhere…but there also happen to be a dozen other Master Sommeliers in town, and many more qualified professionals available). The only significant new event along these lines was Viva Las Vegan, a demonstrational buffet lunch at Wynn where Steve Wynn himself, Tal Ronnen, and the property’s estimable restaurant chefs explained their very groundbreaking vegetarian/vegan food program. I’m writing on for TheGourmetBachelor.com site.
There was a wine dinner at Theo Schonegger’s Sinatra in Wynn with Tina Sinatra pouring her family’s wines–that I imagine was also special…but I haven’t heard a word about nor seen a single photo from. Seems like more journalists attended the Chef Black Jack tournament, for some reason (Note to self: remember to cover the big BBQ during the World Series of Poker coming up…).
Speaking of journalists, instead of Wolfgang Puck or Pierre Gagnaire, this year we had a culinary conversation with local food critic/reviewers John Curtas, Max Jacobson and Al Mancini [hyperlinks to their summaries of the event]. Now, with apologies to my colleagues and friends (I’m sure they’ll agree), while I know they have valuable insights–and thanks for mentioning me, Al—we had Nobu Matsuhisa himself here… rising TV star Scott Conant… the uber-hot Bromberg brothers…and instead we get a dialogue with three local critics?
Other than the veggie luncheon, I was not able to attend any of the above, owing to my own schedule and the rather steep a la carte costs of each*. In case you’ve ever wondered, this is not a cheap ticket, friends, which is why I feel justified arguing that it should be as unique and unforgettable an experience as possible. The Grand Tasting alone was $200 a person—five dollars more than a similar and certainly as lavish event at Pebble Beach the week prior.
And yet, the Grand Tasting was, of course, as always, a remarkable feast of fantasy. Of the dozens upon dozens of bites offered, my favorites included Masa’s carpaccio, Guy Savoy’s soup, and others from Comme Ça, Sage, Wazuzu, the Country Club, Social House, and notably generous portions from Society and Mesa Grill. Wine selections were also notably improved this year with names like Chateau Montelena, Duckhorn, Ferrari Carano, Frei Brothers, J. Lohr, Paul Hobbs, Silver Oak, Ste. Michelle—to have these labels poured freely is definitely something.
Unfortunately, the Caesars “Garden of the Gods” pool area, while quite pretty in normal circumstances, continues to be a very imperfect venue for this event, making the flow confusing, and meaning many booths are given unfortunate positions. Navigation is not easy, and signage year after year remains bizarrely lacking (how they think anyone is going to study a pamphlet map with food in one hand and a glass in the other is beyond me). One of the most special aspects this year was a fantastic mixology lounge hosted by Tony Abou-Ganim and Steve Olson, and featuring the talents of Patricia Richards and Eddie Perales, that should’ve been mobbed. But judging by the numbers there, and reactions from many people I talked with afterward, very few people even knew it was there.
Now, look again at the list of participants above and ask yourself, what did most of this talent actually do during the event? Well, as far as I can tell… they took a lot of pictures together. And they stood at their booths while their chef de cuisines handed out amuses. Is that really the best way for these truly great chefs to represent themselves and what they bring to Las Vegas?
When it comes to the planning and orchestration of this festival, there are so many “cooks in the kitchen” it’s hard to say where the fault or credit lies for its strengths and weaknesses, though that in itself might be a big part of the problem. A food festival needs to be run by people who truly love food, who understand the strengths of the available participants, and who want patrons to have a fantastic food experience, period. Other considerations that come with it, while valuable to the festival’s economic health, need to be treated secondarily. I personally feel it’s a huge misstep to have such an important event in town, and yet have virtually no publicly viewable elements to it, for a number of reasons.
There’s nothing wrong with Uncork’d (as the saying goes) that what’s right with Uncork’d can’t fix. This could and should be the greatest food festival in the world, an annual event in Las Vegas important enough that perhaps it even rivals the porn star convention!
After all, food is the new sex, right?
Some other coverage of Uncork’d 2011:
*Uncork’d’s public relations team was gracious enough to credential me to a few things, but only the Grand Tasting was of genuine interest. Wynn PR invited me to the Vegan event as well. My thanks to them both.