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Authors: Daniel Duane

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“Isn't that it?!” Dad said, laughing on his hospital bed. “It's got to be like only twelve guys in the world even know about your guy. Why are we like this?”

We heard a knock on the room door. Then it opened and we saw his friend Gene, a rail-thin divorce lawyer and weekend musician with the stooped hep-cat carriage of the veteran jazz man. After Gene, a guy named Blumberg stepped into the room—huge, florid, a bon-vivant golfer with a white convertible Mercedes, gorgeous shirts, and bone-white hair swept beautifully back from his tan forehead.

“Danny!” said Blumberg, in his deep, kind, booming voice, eternally charming an imaginary audience. “What a pleasure to find you here!”

“Hey, fellas.”

After a few preliminaries with my father—How's the food?
Nurses treating you okay?—Blumberg turned again to me. “Your dad tells me you're quite the cook, these days.”

I smiled.

“Well, tell us. What's next? What's your next big food adventure?”

I hadn't yet confessed the Vegas trip to my father, and I felt nervous about doing so: he just wasn't a Vegas guy, and Liz's father, Doug, had signed up to come, as had my old liquor-exec buddy, Jon. I thought the Doug part might hurt my father's feelings, given that he and I had not been away together since our climbing days. So I watched my father's face for disapproval as I said I'd gotten this magazine assignment to eat every top-drawer steak in every one of nine white-tablecloth restaurants in the course of thirty-six hours, while quizzing each and every chef on how they worked their magic: As Liebling once put it, articulating the boundaries in which a culinary researcher must operate, “Each day brings only two opportunities for field work [lunch and dinner], and they are not to be wasted minimizing the intake of cholesterol. They are indispensable, like a prizefighter's hours on the road.” With this in mind, I'd confronted the fact that eating only a single lunch and a single dinner per day would force my mission into a tedious, dreary, interminable week in Sin City. If I doubled up, however, or even tripled or quadrupled up, I could turn the whole mission into a culinary blitzkrieg.

I told my father and his friends also about my developing theory that Vegas was a place that simply had to exist somewhere on earth, so fundamental were the human hungers on which it thrived—Greed, Lust, and Gluttony, the Fun Three of the Seven Deadly Sins. (Who'd build a resort based on Hate, Wrath, Envy, and Sloth?) But what made Vegas so peculiarly American, I told
my father and his buddies, was the crazed free-market competition for a piece of the action. Back in the 1950s, this meant opening a gambling hall and selling cheap steaks only to watch the next guy start paying his cocktail waitresses not to wear shirts; so now you're flying over to Paris and importing an entire French titty show, except then some other casino's putting up a three-hundred-foot neon sign the suckers can't miss. And so on, until you've got exact replicas of the Eiffel Tower competing with the entire Manhattan skyline and full-scale pirate-ship battles in which huge British sailing frigates genuinely sink in vast manmade lagoons, despite the fact that we're in one of the driest places on earth.

Gene and Blumberg, it turned out, were old Vegas hands, and they'd been going there since the days of the all-you-can-eat buffets, but they'd also watched the big change in the late 1980s, when Steve Wynn figured out that high-class restaurants were yet another way to wow the yokels—especially if the chef had done some time on TV. One thing had led to another, and Vegas had become a nonstop culinary talent show with unlimited funds, with nearly every big-name American and French cheflured into opening at least one Las Vegas restaurant, sometimes several. The de rigueur Vegas meal had remained the big steak, but all these culinary geniuses, motivated by a perpetually spree-spending male clientele, were now engaged in a decentralized, unplanned, un-monitored, and yet nevertheless world-historic celebrity-chef death match to create the finest, most decadent, most luxurious beef steaks ever experienced by humankind.

This was not a gross overstatement: the newly built $2 billion Wynn Hotel and Casino, to name a single casino, had both the Country Club (self-billed as the “new American steak house”)
SW Steak house, which offered a 42-ounce chile-rubbed double
rib eye for $98—a single portion of which could have provided a generous and fairly typical half-pound steak portion to each of five hungry men. Slice it up for stir-fry, throw in some broccoli, and you could feed a Laotian village. But only a block away, at the even newer $2 billion Palazzo Hotel and Casino, fully three of six brand-spanking-new restaurants were also wildly ambitious and expensive steak houses. Morels, a so-called French Steak house, whatever that meant, offered, among other things, a 10-ounce “A-5 Wagyu strip steak frites with parmesan & truffle
pommes frites
and foie gras butter,” which was about as turbocharged as pure steak decadence could possibly get and doubtless somehow still a bargain at $185. In any other city, that dish would have qualified Morels as the go-to beef-lover's temple par excellence, but Morels was absolutely outclassed
within the same casino
, by Wolfgang Puck's CUT, where the appetizers included Kobe steak sashimi, Prime sirloin steak tartare, and bone marrow flan, and where the steak list offered the discriminating carnivore the opportunity to compare corn-fed Illinois Prime dry-aged twenty-one days with corn-fed Nebraska Prime dry-aged a full thirty-five days, and to compare a crossbreed of Japanese Wagyu and American Angus with purebred Japanese Wagyu, just to be sure you were on top of the key distinctions.

“The way I see it,” I told those guys, in the hospital room, “the very future of steak is currently being defined in Las Vegas, and it's my duty to go eat it.”

My father did look a little nonplussed by all this bullshit, and he made a light joke about cholesterol, but I was ready for this, too: my own cholesterol had been rising for years, I confessed. And I knew also that “grassfed” was a dirty word in Las Vegas steak houses, and that I would therefore be gorging on the equivalent of morbidly obese adolescent animals slaughtered moments
before they would've expired from their own toxic adiposity. But I'd been reading Pollan's second food-related bestseller,
In Defense of Food
, at about that time, and I'd come across his chapter about the lipid hypothesis, the whole idea that saturated fat clogs the arteries, causing heart disease and turning us into fat people. To be fair, Pollan begins
In Defense of Food
with his now-famous exhortation to “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” But I'd been much more excited by his dazzling midbook endorsement of yet another book that I'd run out and bought:
Good Calories, Bad Calories
, by Gary Taubes, a monumental assassination of the lipid hypothesis. All over the world, according to Taubes, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British colonial doctors working with hunter-gatherer peoples eating their traditional diets had observed a total absence of the diseases of civilization—obesity, diabetes, heart disease. These doctors had also observed, however, that any time hunter-gatherer groups moved into a colonial capital, adopting a Western diet, they quickly came down with all of these ailments. As for the cause, well, their traditional diets had ranged from the Masai's eating nothing but cow's blood, milk, and beef to Eskimos living on seal blubber, so the dietary culprits behind the diseases of civilization simply could not be cholesterol or saturated fat. Taubes then documented, with almost pathological thoroughness, the shoddy science that had made the link between saturated fat, cholesterol, and heart disease in the first place. The overwhelming preponderance of evidence, Taubes demonstrated, pointed rather at foodstuffs universally absent from hunter-gatherer diets but ubiquitous in the Western world: flour and sugar. As a meat-loving man with dangerously high cholesterol, I took this to be the best dietary news ever delivered to mankind. So long as I cut out the cookies and the bread—the stuff that was actually killing me, in other words—I could devour all
the meat I could stomach, at every single meal, and I didn't even have to worry about how happy the animals had been, before the bolt gun punctured their crania.

Gene and Blumberg positively loved this rap. Plus, they knew all about the great chefs I hoped to meet: Savoy, Robuchon. They'd also tasted enough Kobe beef to understand the big price tag at a lot of these restaurants. This, in turn, gave my father the joy of seeing old buddies engage with his son, even throwing out their own anecdotes of excess, like one from Gene about snorting Russian caviar through a hundred-dollar bill, at a Scottsdale golf resort.

I countered with a fabulous meal I'd eaten recently with Liz, at a two-Michelin-star place called Cyrus, where a caviar cart cruised constantly among the tables.

“Wait,” Blumberg said, “are you not aware that I'm an investor in Cyrus?”

I was not.

He looked lovingly askance at my father. Then, to me, he said: “And how about Gary Danko?”

I drew a blank. I knew Gary Danko was among the finest restaurants in San Francisco—my in-laws had taken me there—but I had no idea why Blumberg was mentioning it.

“Your father has not told you that I'm an investment partner in Gary Danko.”

“Dad,” I said, “how could you not have told me these things?”

My father laughed, enjoying the reprimand.

Blumberg said, “And what about you, Danny? Have you ever thought of opening a restaurant?”

“Ah …”

“Well, you should. You certainly could, you know? It's only a matter of financing. And I bet you'll learn a lot in Vegas—perfect
research! I think we ought to talk when you get back. Go out in the city, huh? I could hire a car. We'll eat in all my favorite places. I'll show you around, you know? Introduce you to some people.”

As I drove home that day, I thought of a line from Bill Buford's book
Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany
. Mario Batali asks if Buford wants to open a restaurant of his own, and Buford realizes that he does not: “When I started, I hadn't wanted a restaurant,” he writes. “What I wanted was the know-how of people who ran restaurants. I didn't want to be a chef: just a cook… . I didn't want this knowledge in order to be a professional; just to be more human.”

But even if I didn't follow up Blumberg's financing offer, I knew I would feel grateful for the way he'd celebrated my cooking love right in front of my father. It emboldened me to share more about all this with my father, and it helped my father to be more receptive, especially on the night he came back from the hospital, shortly before my Vegas trip. After weeks of institutional foods, fluorescent lights, and those bare-assed hospital gowns that make you feel like an incontinent baby, he got carried into the home by a team of medical-transport guys. My mother had rented a hospital bed and paid to have it installed in the downstairs den, among my father's banjos and guitars and poetry books, so that he wouldn't have to climb the stairs while his back healed. He was still suffering torrential nerve pain, shuddering agonies that swept up and down his left leg, leaving him speechless with pain, but at least he was surrounded by his own walls, with his own wife as the only nurse he needed. I made him the best steak I could, that night—a so-called Outside Skirt Steak, or Bavette, with caramelized shallots from a recipe in
. I poured my father a good
California Cabernet, too, and he savored it all like nobody had ever savored a meal of mine. And while I watched him chew every bite, the meat and wine reminding him that he was still a man, with grand pleasures still ahead in his life, I realized that he'd always been my most important audience, the only person who could truly validate my obsessive tendencies. Mom celebrated them, to be fair, and she always let me know that she admired the results, but only my father was similar enough in nature to help me believe that my compulsions came not from dysfunction or narcissism but rather from a healthy impulse to find joy and curiosity in everyday life.

So that's the spirit I carried to Las Vegas, allowing me to kick off the mission, only hours after our plane touched down, by ordering every money-shot steak available at Bobby Flay's Mesa Grill, deep inside the Caesars Sports Book. With the calm, serene confidence that I would survive the test ahead, I led the boys onward to Jean-Georges Vongerichten's Prime Steak house, at the Bellagio, where we showed up for the first of that night's dinners, and for the trip's first bite of Japanese A5 Kobe, the single most expensive and high-status animal protein consumed by humans (roughly $400 per pound retail, for filet mignon). Taken from the Wagyu breed of cattle raised in the Kobe region of Japan, A5 is the highest pedigree for Kobe beef. Mystery shrouded the exact breeding and rearing techniques, which were carefully guarded both by the Japanese Agriculture Ministry and by the handful of small ranchers who actually produced A5 Kobe, but various reports described cattle in total confinement and darkness, serenaded by soft music to keep them absolutely relaxed, with their weight supported by belly straps, and feeding eternally on beer and rice, with regular sake-rub massages to soften their muscles. The result was less like fat-marbled meat than like meat-marbled
fat, or like some entirely different food you've never dared dream might exist.

“May I recommend a small-batch American bourbon, perhaps?” This was our Prime waiter's opening move.

“Hey, I've got a question for you,” replied my friend Jon. “What's your view on pairing whiskey with beef?”

“Well, sir, the conventional wisdom holds that a properly grilled steak, with a properly charred exterior, can support a whiskey neat.” He paused to clear his throat, and it was obvious the man loved the theater of all this. “But if, on the other hand,” he continued, “you're considering a more subtle cut, such as a filet mignon, it's generally considered desirable to add a little branch water.”

BOOK: How to Cook Like a Man
4.78Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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