Spotlight on John Curtas

John Curtas & Me!Here’s another “Blast” from the past! This was the interview I did in 2008 with John Curtas, our own intrepid restaurant critic who has gone on to bigger and better things, including Iron Chef America judge, author, and separated-at-birth celebrity!  Since he is now in the rarefied realm of the autograph giver, I thought I’d rerun it.  The photo is from the day we talked, and while we’re both a little more road weary, you wouldn’t mistake us for anybody else.  Well, me, anyway.

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Technically, this interview should appear on MirePoix Vegas, but I just had to present it here because John is a Wineaux as well as a Foodie. So here we go!

If you’ve ever seen John Curtas on Channel 8 or listened to him on KNPR radio, you already know that he’s a high-energy, dynamic, and animated person. I can tell you from my brief, in-person experience that this is not an act. What you see on TV is exactly what you get in person. He and his long-suffering lovely girlfriend, Alexandra, met me at Starbucks, and the hour or so that we spent there flew by in camaraderie, laughter, and fun.

He’s a very fit 5’ 9”-ish. He has dark eyes that are always flashing from idea to idea, and a very direct manner that is both disconcerting and engaging. His face is a readerboard, and there is absolutely no artifice or pretense about him. I never once stopped smiling.

We exchanged food stories, horror stories (all about food), our favorite places to eat, wines to try, and just talked about “stuff” in general. I was surprised to find out that he hadn’t really been interviewed by anyone before, so I decided to do it, presenting him with a few questions that I felt that his fans would appreciate.

How and/or why did you decide to become a restaurant critic?
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. And in 1995, Las Vegas was the land of the blind as far as restaurant and food writing was concerned. Spago had been open for 2+ years, Palm was still our best steakhouse, and MGM was starting to bring hot chefs here: Trotter, Lagasse, Mark Miller…and no one in the local media was paying attention! So I started writing to the R-J, the Sun and KNPR (the only outlets I thought would pay attention) about having a restaurant critic. It took a while, but Nevada Public Radio gave me a test run of a few weeks on the air, and the rest is history. It was five more years before the R-J hired someone to cover the food scene in town.

How do you decide on a restaurant to review?
I pick places to review based upon the following factors: Are they doing something new, different or interesting? Are they likely to be open a year from now? Will the public be interested in knowing about the place? Does it provide some geographical and other food diversity for my readers, watchers and listeners? Is the QPR (quality to price ratio) substantial? Is something about the place just so good or so famous that it needs to be mentioned? I’d much rather review an excellent local joint like Settebello or Sen of Japan than anything Mario Batali is doing, but people want to know about the superstar as well as the under-the-radar places.

Have you ever gotten food poisoning during any of your assignments?
Salmonella Surprise is an occupational hazard. It’s happened to me twice. Once from oysters (not really salmonella – just bacteria that occasionally gets into shellfish), and from a plate of Polish-Middle-European sausages and meats that came highly recommended by my successor at Las Vegas Weekly magazine. The place was out of business less than a year later (see rules above). I tell people: beware of hole-in-the-wall joints doing everything on the cheap….no matter how “authentic” they appear to be…..although amazingly, I’ve never gotten sick from any Chinese/Southern Asian restaurant, and some of them are best not looked at too closely.

Do you visit a restaurant a few times before writing about it?
I occasionally write a positive review after only one visit, but I never write a negative review without going at least twice. I ate at Mesa Grill five times before barbecuing it and Carnevino three times before giving it the grilling it deserves.

Do you cook?
I was an avid home cook for twenty years before I started reviewing restaurants…and a world-class restaurant goer for most of that time as well. Just like being a District Court Judge, I think you need substantial experience in the field before you can start passing sentences on other people’s conduct.

Have you ever gotten so inebriated while doing a review that you forgot what you ate and how it tasted?
The older I get, the less intoxicated I become no matter how long the meal and how much the vino is flowing. As essential as alcohol is to the wonderful alchemy of wine, I find it to be an annoyance that I put up with by chugging massive amounts of eau minerale au gasseuze (Pelligrino et al). To me, it’s all about the flavors and sensations of the food and the wine, and anything that interferes with that pisses me off….instead of getting me pissed.

Now that you’re famous, can you go into a restaurant incognito? Do you wear a disguise?
I’m so well known on the Strip that I can’t go anonymously anymore….and don’t even try to. For eight years I went undercover, and then all the big hotels hired p.r. guys and gals to scope out the food writers and my jig was up. I can still duck into neighborhood joints and anyplace in Chinatown (multiple times) and no one there will have a clue what I’m doing – (even when I’m snapping dozens of photos of the food). At this point though, I’ve been to so many places, and spent so much of my own money, that I hope I’ve built up enough credibility that people know I’m giving an opinion that hasn’t been bought and paid for.

Which is more important – the food or the service?
People always get mad at me for saying this: but I couldn’t care less about service. Service is so fungible and organic it’s unfair for me to say “the service is good/bad/etc.” If the waitron dumps soup on my head, I don’t care (as long as it’s good soup). To me, the food is 80% of the experience, decor 10%, service even less than that – although I realize those numbers are reversed for many diners.
(Note from Irene: We Disagreed Violently over this one. If I’m spending a lot of money at a place, I want to be treated like I – and the money I’m spending – matter!)

Do you look at the way that the restaurant treats its other clientele when you’re doing a review?
That being said, I DO pay attention to how other customers are being treated…..how long it takes to get the menus/food/bill to them, water re-fills, how the sommeliers are chatting them up, etc…. A real test for me is to watch how a young or unsophisticated couple is treated in a relatively sophisticated restaurant. If the staff is making them feel special (and not out-place), even when the waitrons know they might get a 12% tip, then I’ll give a major shout out for the service.

When it comes to other critics, do you have a particular pet peeve about what they do? Or more than one pet peeve?
My biggest peeve in this town is how almost all reviews (including the R-J, Weekly, Citylife, et al) are based on a single visit. There is no way to take the proper measure of a place (especially a major, expensive Strip restaurant) after only one visit. My second peeve is the cult of the comp, as in: I called the restaurant, told them I was coming with 3 friends (or my wife…) and we ate and drank for free with the tacit agreement that I’d write something positive about the place. Both of my peeves would disappear if most reviews began: I went to L’Income de l’Atelier aux d’Argent the other night with my girlfriend for my first and only time, I was on a total comp from the restaurant and here is my review of the place…. but good luck waiting for that! As I like to say, I’m the only restaurant critic in town who puts his money where his mouth is.

Hm. I’ve written about restaurants after only one visit. I look at it the same a first-time customer would. I’m giving them a chance to prove themselves. If they blow it, I won’t be back.
The difference is: what you’re talking about is just giving an impression of a place (after one visit), versus actually critiquing and analyzing the food based on hundreds or thousands of similar meals. One is just giving an opinion (educated or not) the other is an actual, researched review.

Touché. I’ll give you that. I think that locals especially appreciate a more in-depth review because they’re looking for a place where they can go with a measure of confidence that their money won’t be wasted.
And I’d like to add one thing to the question about pet peeves about other food critics: this town is and was stuck in the cult of “The King Has No Clothes….” No one writes anything negative….or truly critiques the restaurants. The powers that be control the message so powerfully that most media outlets just want to appease them and continue to get the “everything’s great and wonderful in Vegas” message out….at the expense of good writing and journalism. Al Manicini and Heidi Knapp Rinella try to be honest and critical, but they’re stuck with audiences that want them to review pancake houses and cheap ethnic joints, and editors that are catering to that base (and I mean base) audience!

Who were your inspirations for your interests in food? Any particular heroes?
For cooking: Jacques Pepin, Julia Child and James Beard.
For eating: Antoine’s in New Orleans started my affair d’cuisine in 1964 (it was crabmeat bubbling in sherry sauce – I was 12).
For reviewing: Calvin Trillin, Craig Claiborne, Seymour Britchky, Alan Richman, John Mariani.

Any additional comments or advice for those who aspire to become critics?
Aspiring critics need to do four things: eat a lot, cook a lot, read a lot and travel a lot. And have an adventuresome palate. If there are some things you simply don’t/won’t eat – find something else to write about. I loathe beets but eat them all the time. One of these days some chef’s gonna convince me why anyone bothered to dig them up in the first place.
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While we didn’t get into the pros and cons of beets (which I happen to love), we looked at our watches, wound everything down, and had to run our separate ways. Even on weekends, schedules call!

In that short period of time, an admiration turned into friendship. John is a delightful man who just wants to see Vegas food brought to a higher level on a real basis – not just “The Strip” hype.

My favorite place to find John, of course, is on his website, Eating Las Vegas. He has something to say nearly every day, and it’s always good!

He also has his own spot on Channel 8, Restaurant Picks by John Curtas, where he gives a quick two-minute review on something food and local.

And of course, there’s the place where I first discovered John – on KNPR’s Food for Thought. For those of you outside of the local area, there are videos on the Channel 8 site and MP3 and Real Audio recordings on KNPR.

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