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So you want to get up close and personal with Iron Chef Morimoto and his famous chef friends? Pal, do I have the food festival for you.
Growing up in Edmonton in the 1980s was not particularly fruitful for someone interested in food. I mean that both in the sense that there wasnt tremendous diversity of choice and also that there wasnt a lot of fruit. But every July, Sir Winston Churchill Square, our city's concrete-and-more-concrete agora, transformed into a Taste of Edmonton, a pre-food-truck explosion of stalls representing a cassoulet of vibrant cuisines and ingredients that would parachute into town for a 10-day celebration before packing up and leaving us for another 50 weeks of Mr. Sub. I was thinking about a Taste of Edmonton not that long ago as I strolled around the pools at Caesar's Palace for Vegas Uncorkd, the famed food festival that lands in Sin City every May. As I popped from station to station I thought: This is just like a Taste of Edmonton¦ except instead of some high schoolers serving up greasy green onion cakes, It's Gordon Ramsay serving up tenderloin. But other than that, you know, the same.
Okay, so Vegas Uncorkd is not really like a Taste of Edmonton, but to be fair, It's not like any other food festival anywhere. Whereas some festivals try to focus on one sort of food or emphasize close connection with a particular chef, Uncorkd emphasizes¦ everything. The roster is so vast that it allows for the entire spectrum, from those who are losing their minds seeing Lisa Vanderpump's dog, Giggy (and, trust me, this was neither a small nor shy contingent) to those who like the throwback elegance of Macallan whisky paired with the legendary steak from New York's Old Homestead restaurant.
I approached Uncorkd much the same way I did my undergrad: I perused the courses, waited so long to choose them that a lot of the cool ones were taken and, throughout it all, drank maybe a bit more than I should. The options run the gamut of the foodie bucket list: you can make truffles with Christina Tosi of Milk Bar, craft sushi with Nobu Matsuhisa or cook family meals with Gordon Ramsay. And this isnt a bunch of people in a lecture hallyou actually get knee deep in dough, rice or lard with them in a way that's both amazing and disconcerting at the same time. you've half-expecting Ramsay to lose it and start calling you a donkey in front of everyone (spoiler alerthe's a bit of a sweetheart in real life). You rub shoulders with your heroes, learn some solid prep techniques and probably throw back free glasses of bubbles in the process. But It's at the Grand Tasting, cascading around the pools at Caesar's, where all these disparate elements come together.
The event starts like an upscale running of the bulls, except with no bulls. At the appointed time the gates open and a throng of people make their way to the spread in a sort of controlled chaos that throws me just off-kilter enough that I almost bump into a life-sized cardboard cut-out of Giada De Laurentiis. Except the cut-out then moves, and I realize it is actually De Laurentiis , handing out antipasti to everyone as they come in, flashing her million-megawatt smile. And that's minute one.
The rest of the affair plays in a similar pattern of What the hell is going on here? Guy Savoy offers up a sizeable taster of his legendary artichoke and black truffle soup (a full bowl of which would set you back a cool $75 at his restaurant). Ramsay has a series of stationshe has five (!) different restaurants in townwhere he patiently glad-hands the mob of star-struck patrons who are devouring his steaks and stout burgers. Bobby Flay is serving barbecued lamb tacos and Guy Fieri is fist-bumping everyone who samples his lobster mac n cheese. But amidst all this star power there exist quiet (well quiet-ish) moments with legendary non-TV chefs, such as Charles Phan of San Francisco's Slanted Door, who seems bemused by the whole scene, or local Ken Aoki, whose sushi burritos are legendary to Vegas residents. The event theoretically ends at 10, but at 11 the vibe is still buzzy and the patrons still buzzing. I'm milling about with a group of newfound friends when someone blurts out, Calvin Harris comes on in three hours! with the tone one might use when announcing, Ive just discovered the cure for blindness. And so, the party continues.
The next day a different cast of equally high-wattage chefs shows up for the slightly more low-key Picnic at the Park, which is a more intimate tasting, notwithstanding that Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto, Roy Choi and Michael Mina are all on hand actually cooking and serving their food. By now I'm inured to the star power and am just eating, heavily, in 38-Celsius heat with a solid four hours of sleep under my belt. If the previous night was a high-wire carnival, today is more like a chill beach day. For chef and patrons alike. Morimoto is even rocking a white-shorts look, and he and the other chefs are mostly casually milling about with the crowd, answering questions and posing for the odd pic. The reverie is interrupted once in a while by someone hopping on an exercise bike that's been hooked up to a blender and pedalling it at full speed to make a margarita solely by their own sweat. Earned drinks taste best, especially at noon.
The evening ends in the quiet elegance of Guy Savoy's tucked-away temple to gastronomy. Savoy stands apart from many of the attendees in that his fame has nothing to do with TV or Instagram, but instead comes from the old-fashioned toil it takes to earn three Michelin stars; since opening his restaurant in 2006 he's been the unquestioned king of classical fine dining in town. At the public events, It's clear that the other chefs are in awe of the perfection Savoy brings to bear, and It's fitting that dinner at his restaurant closes the event. there'sa hushed reverence as he presents a classic seven-course tasting menuoctopus carpaccio, foie gras, butter-poached lobster all show upand the freneticism of the strip recedes as the full Gallic court press plays. Savoy comes out for a subtle bow, and that's it.
It's the perfect end point to a weekend of culinary excess. Understated, subdued¦ Geez, the In-N-Out Burger is open until 3 a.m. barks one of my dining companions as we're making our way back to our rooms. And, when in Vegas¦