While I’m no stranger to debauchery and a firm believer in sensual pleasure, Las Vegas was built for indulging on a frequency that few other places in the world can match. Taking a Jacuzzi in our Caesar’s Palace suites required filling a small pool that even made the cowboy feel a touch guilty for watering down in the desert. As six of us graduated from Hollywood’s set to Vegas, the sheer magnitude of everything – from cocktail bills to Greek statues – was transposed on our Food Network Star experience. The limelight just turned a blinding shade of neon green: it’s go time, baby!
This was my first trip to adult Disney World, because let’s be honest, it’s a playland for grownups with cash. Though my own purse didn’t swell in size, the experience of seeing my face on The Strip’s marquees made me feel like I’d already won the jackpot.
So while everything felt shiny and new, I took on the approach my mom taught me at an early age: play the part. As one of four children, our big family always traveled on a shoestring, cramming into one room at budget hotels. As an identical twin, we often pulled the “there’s only three children” trick, taking turns walking into the lobby. When we weren’t fighting over the covers at night, we spent our days admiring ornate lobbies or borrowing pool time and beach space at fancy resorts. How? We walked in with an air of “belonging,” a warm smile and kindness. This held true when we also wanted a taste of local life hidden away from tourists. We played the part. We attempted to dress like the locals (no Hawaiian shirts, please) and became genuinely interested in the food they were cooking, their family stories or the structure of their homes. These are skills that many travelers study, and they will take you places you have never gone before.
But for all our efforts to adapt, travelers never make light of Murphy’s Law, which simply states, “anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.”
Luca, Back from the Dead
Luca’s surprise entrance is the first fork in the road. It will be lovely to have his sweet smile, calm persona and Italian roots around, but it also means the journey just got longer and harder with seven in the pack, and Luca’s been fighting on Star Salvation to earn his street cred and climb back to the top.
Double High Fives at the Bacchanal Buffet
Writing a food blog has helped me become a culinary wordsmith. People come back to your blog when a post varies from the usual “delicious,” and they especially drool over stories that tell them why the beet found itself in a pickle. But speaking descriptions and stories aloud to Giada across the table requires fast thinking that I wasn’t sure I could muster on the spot. When Giada said I would taste a selection of Classic American dishes, I think everyone’s heart jumped a bit, whether in sympathy or competition. But considering one of my passions is to refrisch American comfort dishes, I was excited to take this on and resigned to share the first sensations and memories that came to mind, out loud, without thinking too much. It worked, and I scored a double high five in approval before moving on to the next round! It seemed I’d set out on my Vegas adventure with luck on my side.
And fortune continued to be on my side when the pool party got underway. By Vegas I had already gotten the memo that “farm-to-table” wouldn’t fly for my POV. So, I decided to subtly change gears in a way that would play on my experience traveling with family, which is the inspiration behind “food with roots.” This is still a focus on celebrating ingredients, and the stories they tell of land and culture.
I didn’t want my travels to be mistaken for a life that was lavish. I was raised in an eclectic but tightknit family that was geographically spread apart. My parents saved all year for family holidays, and when I graduated from college I did the same. I worked tirelessly to fund my travels in favor of living out of a backpack instead of Wall Street’s cubicles. Travel and living abroad is a lifestyle choice that is chock-full of adventure and novelty, but it is not for everyone. So, I wanted to bring two of my favorite beach trips to the sunbathers at Caesar’s Palace.
With the tipsy partygoers wiggling their dial of doom while wading water, I panned out in the top half of the pack for my presentation. So you can imagine my disappointment when only a few stragglers came to sample my fare. Enter: Murphy’s Law.
I had wanted to share this special dish in a way that was authentic, the way it would be served on the coast of Thailand. When I’ve held pop-up dinners in Ithaca, like Sense & Savor, the do-it-yourself experience is always a hit. I agree with the judges that I may not have made the best choice for partygoers interested in ease and pleasure, but I still believe the average partygoer is capable of dressing their food with texture (peanuts), acidity (lime) and chili (spice). My dish was not so alien from a taco buffet or the selection of hamburger fixin’s one might find at a backyard barbecue. After all, isn’t a Food Network star meant to teach people about food? Or is this the stuff of a bygone TV era…?
I had really wanted to use shrimp, but quickly realized that an hour would dwindle fast if I had to peel and devein each one. So I switched gears, knowing I would take a risk with squid. I erred away from too many tentacles, making 95% of my skewers with the more familiar calamari rings. I thought the judges would be pleased with a serving that had tentacles in tact, but it didn’t stop me from getting tangled. Lessons learned: read the crowd, and serve the judges what the guests are eating, the same dish they’re meant to be judging.
(By the way, Coley is no less a savvy marketer with her prosciutto stunt than the cowboy who added curry powder to a bottle of Heinz for his “homemade” ketchup. We do what we can under pressure when our first goal is to market the dish!)
The Hot Seat
This is my third time on the brink of elimination, and I’m beginning to feel frustrated beyond belief. How did I end up here after winning the buffet round and wooing the dials of the partygoers? Why am I at risk of going home when less than 5% of America is voting me back to Ithaca? Unfortunately, there’s little time for pondering potholes, and I’m grateful for yet another week to conquer Vegas.
My Man Chris Kyler
Chris is one of the kindest people I know, with a true understanding of hardship that always gave him an acute sense of appreciation for this opportunity. We all have our woes and inner demons, but none of us has suffered the fear of being homeless or in true battle. I mean come on, this guy is BRAVE. He did an Obama impersonation that is unrivaled by any comedian, and jumped onto the podium in the middle of a pool – what a balancing act! Chris’ faith in humanity and love for family permeated his attitude. He works hard to support his wife and two children, driving his mobile kitchen to all walks of events around the DC-Metro area. He’s a Cuthroat Kitchen champion, and I have no doubt his cooking chops are solid. In fact, we’re scheming on how to get his mobile sensation to Firelight Camps for a Food Network Star feast soon! But first, stay tuned for his Shitake Chip recipe on my blog next week! Read Chris’s exit interview.
While in suspense, enjoy these links!