A Gust of Degustation: Vegas Uncorked 2010
Food festivals touting Star Chef appearances are nothing uncommon these days—they take place seemingly everywhere from Aspen to the Bahamas—but in Vegas, they like to do things a little bigger. Which is why Bon Appetit’s fourth “Vegas Uncork’d” fest (up and down the Strip May 6-9, 2010) not only featured healthy quotients of local and international celebrity chefs, but in particular, the active participation of four of the most revered cooks alive today: Alain Ducasse, Pierre Gagnaire, Joël Robuchon and Guy Savoy. All of whom, of course, have restaurants in Las Vegas.
I’m happy to say this is the third year I’ve attended, and each time has yielded new treasured experiences, though some imperfect aspects of the event also persist. One thing both wonderous and frustrating: the number of activities and meals taking place over roughly 72 hours make it impossible for one person to attend all (regardless of cost), and many unannounced elements make it difficult to know what will be truly special until it’s already in motion. Readers interested in digesting the entire weekend will have to piece together different reports...including some of my favorites:
The festival began as the four aforementioned musketeers gathered for a photo op mid-afternoon May 6, with downtown Las Vegas Mayor Goodman (the Supervisors of Town of Paradise, where
the Strip is actually located, typically remain off-camera) and Rao’s chef Carla Pellegrino (who makes good eye candy—surely she knows she’s not in their league) on the balcony of Ducasse’s mIX at theHOTEL.
They then joined some 40-odd other Vegas chefs (including just-awarded James Beard Foundation Best Chef, Southwest, Claude LeTohic) inside for a daunting group shot, before Ducasse kicked off the event officially with a traditional champagne sabering. I’ve seen this clipping off the cork of a champagne bottle with a ceremonial saber done many times before, and it usually takes several clumsy attempts. Mssr. Ducasse executed it with two short and one long stroke, as if he was buttering bread.
That’s one way you get to be Alain Ducasse.
(Oddly, this event was private for press and insiders only. Why, in a town that loves photo ops—during a week when the Miss USA ladies were popping up practically everywhere on the Strip—was this monumental event hidden not only from the public but even Uncork’d ticket buyers? Then again, if it weren't private, I wouldn’t have had the unique experience of taking the elevator back down with Joel Robuchon instructing his staff en Français like de Gaulle going into battle.)
Afterward, Caesars Palace hosted four “Masters’ Series” dinners, all of which were repeats from previous years (perhaps because they sold well—and this year, all sold out). Though I didn’t attend any, having eaten at all four restaurants (Mesa Grill, Bradley Ogden, Guy Savoy and Rao’s) I can say with confidence which were probably best (hint: the most and least expensive). On the other hand this Boston couple apparently spent $722 to attend Bobby Flay’s Mesa meal. What can I tell them? That they could’ve spent the same amount and had probably two of the most memorable meals of their lives here? That if they had chosen to dine with Savoy, Robuchon or Ducasse, not only would those chefs have spent more time with them than apparently a passing handshake at the table, but also lavished them with extra course after extra course? But I digress.
The first evening capped with a great, very reasonably priced event, “Shinkansen to Shibuya,” at which dozens of sakes—some very unusual and rare—were sampled alongside Shibuya’s great robatayaki (cooked live) and sushi. Being able to count the North American Sake Institute’s Tiffany Soto among my good friends, I’ve covered some ground in this territory. But even Shibuya soms Eric Swanson and Alysia Wrenn (who offered me personal guidance) admitted there were a few here they’d never tried. I attempted to entice Sage’s Shawn McClain and his Chef de Cuisine Richard Camarota to sip Brown Sugar Umeshu or Silent Stream, but the Chicagoans felt safer with the Sapporo. Serious sake snobs might have been put off by the house music and fur bikini’ed go-go girls. But hey, this is Vegas. Get used to it. (Look for my full tasting review here on EscapeHatchDallas.com .)
Friday morning began with a “Culinary Conversation” between Bon Appetit EIC Barbara Fairchild and Starchef Wolfgang Puck, (Bellagio’s Fontana lounge) at which WP entertainingly reminded us that he’s not just a worldwide brand but still a passionate chef, gourmand…and stand-up comedian. He admitted he isn’t able to experience many new chefs’ cooking—and is pretty strongly against the food truck thing—but is far from out of touch with trends.
“We don’t have any new ingredients,” said Wolf, “we just didn’t see them before.”
And on In N Out: "For what it is, it’s good, but I wouldn’t go there to eat it."
And before the audience Q&A: "I like questions about food and sex, and how they’re related..."
Afterward, as Puck hosted a lunch at CUT (others concurrent included Valentino, Pinot Brasserie and mIX), Joel Robuchon gave a cooking demonstration at his L’Atelier. While the event was staggering—imagine having one of the world’s most awarded chefs ever tell you how to cook your meat & veg (even other chefs would clamor for this)—L’Atelier’s open kitchen is ill-designed for such a situation, and most attendees had to watch the close action on video monitors, to augment the Chef’s fumbling translator. Still, $135 with a full lunch and autographed cookbook? Bargain.
“Cooking is an act of delicacy,” Robuchon philosophized. “If you do something for a customer, do it like you would for your girlfriend or family.”
Overlapping these was an organic wine lecture by Bellagio Wine Director Jason Smith, MS, which I would’ve liked to have seen, followed hard by an Akira Back sushi class, cocktail class with mixologists Tony Abou-Ganim and Wynn’s Patricia Richards (loved this event last year), and a chocolate pairing with Smith and Bellagio Pastry Chef Jean-Marie Auboine.
With samplings from more than 50 restaurants around Caesars Palace’s Garden of the Gods pool deck, the Grand Tasting that evening offered an embarrassment of culinary riches—but the
emphasis might be on embarrassment there. For while it was a daunting, almost endless offering of food, wine and other treats (Vosges chocolate!), it was arguably a victim of its own success. A claimed 2300 attendees (not counting 75+ chefs and their staffs), showed the newly expanded Caesars pool deck to be a still-inadequate space, and nothing at the event was done to allay huge human traffic jams in front of some stations (particularly City Center row). Not even Chef Hubert Keller’s DJing skills could get people moving .
Considering how many disappointed voices I heard, here’s hoping it doesn’t become a victim of its own success (Why so much free space is devoted to tasting tables of rather ordinary wines, while too many restaurant booths are crammed in close quarters makes no sense).
Still, I was able to get in early enough to sample many remarkable bites, from Guy Savoy, Wynn Country Club, Dos Caminos, to off-Strip stars Vintner Grill and Rosemary’s, and the “sushi ghetto” of Roku, Marssa and Nobu poorly placed behind the Infiniti car display (Didn’t see them? Can’t say I blame you, there was almost no way of knowing they were there). Some highlights:
•Bradley Ogden’s lamb sausage
•Mesa Grill’s scallops on the half shell
•Cat Cora’s lamb & tapenade burger (yes! One of the best lamb burgers I’ve ever had, really)
•Sirio’s raviolo with asparagus sauce
•Valentino’s home made pasta with rabbit meatballs--and gelato
•Switch’s wagyu tartare
•Lotus of Siam’s curry beef (only #5 hot, tho)
•Union’s tuna tartare “pizza”
•Silk Road’s ice cream push-up pops
Afterward came the annual celebrity/chef blackjack tournament outside at Encore, won once again (3rd year in a row) by Wynn’s Paul Bartolotta. It’s not for me to question, but the next morning, Shawn McClain did grumble a bit about getting bad hands… (he was just KIDDING)
That was before the second Culinary Conversation, between chefs McClain, Pierre Gagnaire, Julian Serrano, Laurent Tourondel and Bon Appetit’s camera-ready editor Andrew Knowlton. Some of Andrew’s questions were good, some odd (“Why aren’t there more female chefs?” Hm, maybe you should have invited one!) but he never quite started the conversation promised. Certainly this discussion could have gone much longer.
Still, we discovered Serrano originally wanted to be a footballer, McClain grew up with a mom who "Was everything the ‘50s brought to cooking--vegetables in a can, lemon juice in a bottle,” and Gagnaire, in rough English, said "For me, this job was a mistake! Then I realized it was a fantastic way to meet people.” Serrano finds his inspiration just spending hours in farmers markets, while Gagnaire said all the knowledge in the world won’t make you a good chef “if you don’t have the sensibility.”
Serrano disabused the notion that getting fresh ingredients in a desert town was any challenge. Thanks to the proximity of California, “You order produce 10 at night, and it’s here at 10 in the morning, same as any other city.”
Of coming to Las Vegas, said McClain: "To be showcased in a city that has so much talent concentrated was
impossible to resist.” And for his fellow new CityCenter star Gagnaire, "To be in Las Vegas for me is incredible. Today I find Vegasmore exotic than Tokyo."
Saturday continued with the “Ultimate All-Star” Interactive Luncheon, a great event where Wynn/Encore chefs show everyone how to cook a dish, and one person from each table actually cooks it with the help of a sous chef. This one might have been a little anti-climatic from last year (at least for me—in ’09 I got to cook with Daniel Boulud, who then sat down at the table and ate my squab. Cleaned his plate, too!) but when talents like Bartolotta, Alex Stratta, David Walzog and Frederic Robert are in charge, you’re getting a treat.
And we did: steak tartare from Walzog, sweet pea risotto from Stratta, classic salt crust fish from Bartolotta, and a raspberry trifle (with sherbet and candy bars) from Robert. When we all chopped basil at the same time (including Vegas Channel 8's Denise Valdez at the next table, and That 70s Show's Laura Prepon nearby), and the Beethoven ballroom filled with its amazing earthy perfume, that was a Proustian moment. And Robert really ought to have an event of his own, focusing on the incredible breads his pastry shop creates unique for every Wynn/Encore venue. Think about it for next year, Uncork’d.
(Walzog, by the way, wouldn’t give me a single hint about what’s in store for the space where DB Brasserie is in Wynn after Boulud leaves later this season and Walzog takes over. But I’m predicting something [American, fishy and “approchable” (read: Gastro-pubby). Even though I’d like to see a more adventuresome concept, say...a tribute to the Turkish Bosphorus. But I digress.)
Overlapping that event was an interesting seminar with winemaker Jim Clendenen (Au Bon Climat), reviewer Pierre Rovani, MS Smith and Bon Appetit’s Steve Olson about wine ratings at Bellagio, then a Payard pastry demonstration at Caesars which I’m sure was great (I’ve seen Payard do these twice—he’s fantastic).
Meanwhile at Mandalay Bay, Rick Moonen’s RM Seafood hosted a very cool demo collaboration between Moonen, Keller and Border Grill/Too Hot Tamales semi-legend Susan Feniger—three diverse talents you’d never expect to get on so well. With the temporary stage open to the casino, onlookers were free to gather and watch (and arguably get a closer view than you could inside). It’s a concept RM’s Top Chef Master should repeat—perhaps even with Rick’s kitchen dream team, Adam Sobel and Gerald Chin.
The big event that evening was a “Fashion Feast,” pairing the best chefs of Bellagio—Vegas’ first starchef-centered property—with fashions from the property’s high end shops. Even with food from Todd English, Michael Mina, Serrano and Le Cirque’s David Werly, it was one I was happy to miss. A property-promotional ballroom meal doesn’t really seem in the spirit of Bon Appetit, IMHO.
But one I’m glad I didn’t miss was the surprisingly intimate Charlie Parker/Alain Ducasse Mandalay Beach party, which was truly a marvel; first to see how each approached the task, then to see the chefs and their staffs interacting with the relatively intimate crowd, Moonen, and each other (much wine and Patron was poured to help).
Palmer roasted a pig, served fantastic grilled lobsters, bacon-wrapped monkfish medallions and softshell crabs. Ducasse served more elegant fish and delicate vegetable terrines. And lastly, Megan Romano scooped her own silky ice cream (black raspberry—yum).
With an entirely different flavor, the Joe Bastianich-hosted “Palazzo after hours” Rock and Roll pool party was also fun. Mario Batali’s partner joined a Zeppelin cover band (featuring Antrhax’s Scott Ian), while Batali Exec Chef & salumist Zach Allen manned the B&B salumi station, First Food brought sliders, and Lagasse Stadium had wings. Rene Lenger, Akira Back, Scott Linquist and Carla Pellegrino made the scene as well. Naturally, several nice wines were poured too (even a supple brachetto).
Sunday morning, Robuchon and Aureole both hosted Mother’s Day brunches, but by then I was, as my friend John Curtas texted me, “restaurant’ed out.”
For foodists and restaurant hounds, an event like this also offers an opportunity to view the differences in approach between chefs, and their interest in interaction. It’s a fascinating thing to see four of the world’s most admired chefs: Ducasse, Savoy, Robuchon and Gagnaire in a room together, and it’s notable how much each of them gave of their time throughout the weekend—certainly in contrast to a Bobby Flay, who seemed to spend a lot of time in front of the cameras, though after two security men helped him through the crowd (?) at the Grand Tasting, I did witness him actually serving.
Contrast this with Steve Martarano—not known to give his Vegas outlet lavish attention—at his GT booth (rather than the press line) actually making fresh mozzerella himself. He even taught me how to do it. But hey, don’t get me wrong—Todd English, who helmed the Saturday dinner, apparently couldn’t turn up a day early for the GT, Emeril Lagasse, who has more restaurants in Vegas than any town outside of NoLa, was a no-show once more, and when was the last time Nobu Matsuhisa (who’s trained half the sushi-slingers here) made his presence known?
By the same token, it was almost bizarre to see how negligibly most of City Center’s new star chefs spots were involved. Yes, Gagnaire was ever present—but why didn’t his restaurant host a single event? (curiously, he had a private lunch for local press only just the day prior.) Sage’s Shawn McClain, Masa’s Masa, Silk Road’s Martin Heierling along with the chefs of Sirios. Union, Jean-Georges and American Fish manned booths at the GT but had almost no other involvement (exception: American Fish's Michael Mina represented his Bellagio restaurant at the Fashion Gala). That’s inexplicable, and a loss for both attendees and City Center. There were a few other local talents—Ago’s Marco Porceddu, N9ne’s Barry Dakake, Nove’s Geno Bernardo, Raku’s Mitsuo Endo, maybe even Hussong’s Noe Alcala—who were notably absent, but that’s just one man’s opinion. Perhaps next year they’ll find a way to include them, and the incoming Cosmopolitan resort talent like David Myers.
More obvious is how uneven the celebrity presence has always been at this festival. Having interviewed dozens of A-List Hollywooders, I can tell you bigger names than Laura Prepon (no offense) would love to eat their way through a weekend like this—and for that matter, why didn’t more Vegas stars trot around (I only saw Jersey Boys' Frankie Valli, Rick Faugno, and magician Nathan Burton. Heck, this might be the only Vegas event Holly Madison has missed in months)?
Vegas has always been a bit bipolar about community-building, but our culinary offerings are now, ironically, a more unique element of Vegas than it’s heritage, gaming. If we don’t nurture this community, and build it, it will wither. And that includes nurturing a local community of sophisticated, passionate restaurant-goers. To do that, Uncork’d really ought to consider opening up some of the “ancillary” events, at least making them inclusive to attendees of others ($50 to see Puck talk, accompanied by coffee and danish? $150 to watch the blackjack tourney?) or including other free events. Perhaps the book signings within the Grand Tasting could inhabit a separate weekend-long “pop-up” store?
But you gotta break some eggs to make an omelet, as they say, and Vegas Uncork’d remains a fantastically creative high end food fest that reflects the absolute best this Star Chef city offers. It just needs a little more time in the kitchen next year.
Follow me on twitter: @vegasstarchefs
More from Las Vegas Weekly's Sarah Feldberg:
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED MAY 2010