Tag Archives: susan feniger

Taste of the Nation LA, You Got The Flava

Hungry Hungry Hipsters

Hungry Hungry Hipsters

For anyone who still questions Los Angeles’ legitimacy as a food town: It’s a good thing you didn’t make it to Taste of the Nation LA yesterday in Culver City’s Media Park. Because it would have blown apart every preconception you have, like Gallagher on a watermelon (dated reference?).

Kerry Simon and company

Kerry Simon and company

LA is an incredibly complex food town, and its strengths are so far flung, geographically and philosophically, that it’s easier to find the weaknesses. You just follow the hype. But what may sum it up best, if not quality of ingredients and blending of cultures, is the flexibility between haute and street. It’s a booming trend now, but I do think LA–perhaps the fancy food truck capital of the country (even if Portland was there first)– may “get it” it much better than other cities. How else to explain that high-end spots like Hatfield’s and Patina could go cheek-by-jowl with Jitlada’s family-style Thai and Starry Kitchen’s clubkid Crazian at TOTN, and everyone was in on the joke.

What it's all about

What it's all about

Considering the entire event is a fundraiser for child hunger (via Share Our Strength), I felt terrible not finishing half of the bites I tried. But really there were so many impressive, creative, pretty, delicious things to eat, I had to try and pace myself. And still, I teeter on the edge of a cataclysmic food coma as I write.

The Spare Room sips with style

The Spare Room sips with style

I could blather forever, but let me just hit up some personal highlights before they fade:

Gorgeous lamb chops (each differently done) from LA Market and Culina…Fig’s beef tongue bahn mi, an amazing tamale from Rivera…perfect paella by Joe’s…a complex short rib dish by La Seine’s Alex Resnik…that hellagood fried chicken from Lex Social…awesome tacos by both Loteria and Ray’s and Stark…killer spicy chicken skewers from Mo-Chica…a complex short rib dish from La Seine’s Alex Reznik (of Top Chef repute)… a toast with I think a foie gras custard dip at Street… and other great nibbles from Chaya, Church & State, City Tavern, Craft, Lukshon, and Hatfield’s. Hey, even amazing food starts to blur at a certain point. But that quinoa and kale by M Cafe was still my favorite.

Alex Resnik: Killin' It, Kosher at La Seine

Alex Resnik: Killin' It, Kosher at La Seine

Several upcoming places also offered previews, including Michael Voltaggio’s hotly awaited spot Ink (though his booth was only available to VIPs…boo!), Mo-Chica sister Picca Cantina, Nancy Silverton’s Short Order, fonuts, and Pour Vous, a new bar filling the old 40 Deuce space.

Speaking of blurring, I blame the many fine beverage options, including La Descargas sexy daquiris and other killer cocktails from The Spare Room and Pasadena’s hot 1886 … The Bruery’s Belgian Trippel ale with Thai spice, nice brews from Eagle Rock and Firestone Walker, and a deadly Golden State float at the beer block… and of the several impressive small-volume wineries pouring, I particularly enjoyed a nicely balanced Sauv Blanc and structured Cab from Santa Barbara’s Grassini, an uncommon 100% Cinsault from Sonoma’s Frick, and Pinots from Baker Lane and La Fenetre.

La Descarga's sexy shaker girls

La Descarga's sexy shaker girls

Did I mention the star chefs? Besides Kerry Simon, Top Chefs Voltaggio and Resnik and Hells Kitchen’s Sively, the revived Mary Sue Milliken and perennial partner Susan Fenniger were in full effect, as was Mark Peel, Sang Yoon, Joe Miller, Eric “Elvis” Greenspan … Alas, Mario Batali and Rick Bayless did not represent.

If you attend any number of these kinds of tasting events, you start to be able to recognize when they work well, and when they don’t. TOTNLA hit a lot of high marks: the selection of participating restaurants was very strong and varied, there was a nice sampling of California wines, local beers, and some very serious cocktails by some of our best mixology bars, some fun desserts; the charity and auction aspects were well represented if you were interested, but easily avoidable if you felt you “gave at the gate.” It was also a good size, and though it was sold out, it still wasn’t overcrowded, and the location had incredibly convenient parking (free 2 hours covered lot across the street). And despite a certain unavoidable amount of corporate sponsorship, obnoxious branding was kept to an impressive minimum. Egos were, in almost every case, clearly left at the door.

Spicy Peruvian chicken skewers from Mo Chica. Mo, mo, mo.

Spicy Peruvian chicken skewers from Mo Chica. Mo, mo, mo.

In fact my only criticisms were that water was a bit hard to find at first (turns out nearly every booth had a jug, but they didn’t always make them available) and there weren’t enough garbage cans. Oh, also, the VIPs were given reusable plates, but for the rest of us, each bite was given out on a disposable paper plate which, biodegradable, recycled, whatever it was, it was still wasteful. Those are very small complaints, though.

EGStarryNguyen

Starry Kitchen's Nguyen Tran needs to take himself way less seriously.

It was also nice to put faces to names of media colleagues including Laurel House, Joshua Lurie and even Jonathan Gold–though the event was far from press-saturated, owing to the fact that we all had to have our tickets “sponsored” (no freebies, and who can whine when it’s for a good cause). On that note, an extra thanks from me to Kerry Simon, whose SimonLA and LA Market both held their own in a sea of serious talent.

I almost wish every other foodfest planner had seen this, because kids, this is how it’s done.

Bite This: Vegas Uncork’d Year Five, 2011

Denise Trucello's photo of the Uncorking... I wasn't there (though glad they took my suggestion from last year)

Denise Truscello's photo of the Uncorking... I wasn't there (though glad they took my suggestion from last year)

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.

Julian Serrano Gets Sudsy...check out the faces ;) credit: Denise Trucello

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.

What did Guy Savoy just tell Hubert Keller? His first quarter profits? His deal with Caesars? lol pic: Denise Trucello

What did Guy Savoy just tell Hubert Keller? His first quarter profits? His deal with Caesars? lol (with Payard, Richard and Gagnaire) pic: Denise Truscello

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.

Ilona, perennial Maitre'd of Restaurant Guy Savoy, who's somehow eluded John Curtas' hot hostess watch, despite being...well, see for yourself.

Ilona, perennial Maitre'd of Restaurant Guy Savoy, who's somehow eluded John Curtas' hot hostess watch, despite being...well, see for yourself.

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.

Chef Carlos Guia of Wynn Country Club. Eat anything he offers you, even if it's a cracker.

Chef Carlos Guia of Wynn Country Club. Eat anything he offers you, even if it's a cracker (that's not a cracker, btw).

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.

Susan and Mary Sue, forever the Two Hot Tamales, IMHO. So great to see them still working together and smiling.

Susan and Mary Sue, forever the Two Hot Tamales, IMHO. So great to see them still working together and smiling.

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…).

Caesars Mixologist Eddie Perales, overdoing it, as is his style ;) These were lemon meringue coolers, I believe.

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?

Chefs Charlie Palmer and Michael Mina, actually hanging out and talking NOT for the cameras.

Chefs Charlie Palmer and Michael Mina, actually hanging out and talking NOT for the cameras.

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.

Comme Ca Vegas' obsessive new Exec Chef, Brian Howard (his "tasting" had three parts--see what I mean?)

Comme Ca Vegas' obsessive new Exec Chef, Brian Howard (his "tasting" had three parts--see what I mean?)

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.

She's got some balls, eh?

She's got some balls, eh?

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.

Chef Masa... it's like he knows his carpaccio is the best bite of the whole event

Chef Masa... it's like he knows his carpaccio is the best bite of the whole event

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?

Just three world famous Frenchmen hanging out, chatting about... who knows, showgirls? ramps? why Americans eat so much cow?

Just three world famous Frenchmen hanging out, chatting about... who knows, showgirls? ramps? why Americans eat so much cow?

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.

If you don't know who the giant in this pic is... his name is Jet Tila.

If you don't know who the giant in this pic is... his name is Jet Tila.

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:

Huffington Post

Eater

New York Post

Vegas Deluxe by Robin Leach

The Feast

*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.