Whenever anyone asked me if I wanted to go to Vegas I always thought – “I don’t gamble – so what am I going to do there?” But when the opportunity came up to attend the Food & Wine All-Star Weekend in the fabled Sin City – featuring some of America’s greatest master chefs – it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. And seriously, who could say no to Canada’s own Gail Simmons from Food & Wine Magazine and co-host of the weekend event?

This year’s 2nd annual extravaganza took place at the ARIA Resort and Casino and the Bellagio Resort and Casino. With hotels as magnificent as these serving as the backdrop and so much great food, it’s nearly impossible to describe it all in one article. This piece tells the story of Day 1. To get the full story, be sure to join us next week to see how it wraps up.

Getting There
Unless you’re within a few hours’ drive of Las Vegas, there’s really no way to get there but to fly. In my case, it was Continental from Toronto to Chicago to Las Vegas. I took an early morning flight on Friday so I could get the lay of the land before the event kicked off that night. Chicago’s O’Hare airport may be one of the busiest in the world but my transfer was so smooth and efficient, I had time to grab a leisurely coffee at Starbucks between flights.

As the flight approached Las Vegas, I looked out the window and was quite struck by the dry, jagged and tortured landscape. I remember thinking that this was as close to landing on the moon as it gets. Then, just as everyone says – seemingly out of nowhere – up pops this glass and steel mirage in the desert: Welcome to Vegas, baby!

When I got off the plane I thought maybe I’d stepped into a movie set. The ARIA hotel had sent a driver to get me in what must have been a 25-foot space-age silver stretch limousine. I felt like a rock star already. And that was just the beginning of what would be a veritable feast for the eyes and palate over the next 48 hours.

Arriving at the ARIA
Everything in Vegas is big. And then there’s the ARIA. This hotel sits on what seems like an entire city block. Of course you need that kind of space when you have 17 restaurants, 9 bars and lounges, 7 boutique shops, 3 pools, a spa, a convention centre, a casino and the Elvis Theatre – and let’s not forget the gorgeous waterfall installation that runs a third of the length of the hotel and falls in beautiful and mesmerizing patterns.

The lobby at the ARIA is an exquisite blend modern architecture, daylight and natural materials in various earth tones. It’s so beautiful you don’t actually mind if you have to wait a few minutes to check-in. From the time you enter the lobby you’re welcomed and catered to by a small army of staff whose job it is to make your stay a pampered experience. There are very personable and knowledgeable people diligently patrolling the front desk area to greet you and ask if you have any questions while you wait to check-in. Check-in was fast and thorough. There’s even a concierge manning the guestroom elevators. The elevators themselves are configured so that each services only a handful of floors. It’s clear the hotel and the whole process is all about bringing ease and comfort to your life during your stay and letting you know you are being cared for.

The first thing I noticed in my room was the floor to ceiling windows taking up an entire wall and giving me an awesome view of the Strip, with the mountains as a backdrop. The ARIA’s AAA Five Diamond status ensures that even the standard rooms are top notch. However, what really makes these rooms so unique is the technology working behind the scenes. There is a small, almost TV-like screen on my bedside table that is actually a touch screen computer. With that, the hotel says, I can customize the room features based on my personal preferences.

The first thing I did was set the alarm to wake me up at 6am. However, this was no ordinary alarm clock. My wake-up call was a combination of music and the drapes automatically opening in time to catch the sunrise from behind the mountains. As I waited for the sun, the climate control system brought my room to a comfortable 71 degrees. That’s just for starters. This bedside panel let me program the dimmable lighting, room temperature, television/video systems, music, wake-up calls, draperies, and requests for services. If I leave the room and come back after a day of adventure the room responds to my swipe card opening the door and resets the room to your chosen preferences as you walk in. TV on, music on, temperature up, lights dim, curtains opened or closed – you name it. Welcome to the era of The Jetsons … I forgot to check if it also made martinis!

Sky Suites Reception
Alright – off to the first event of the Food & Wine All-Star Weekend. The kickoff was a welcome reception in the ARIA’s tres chic Sky Suites, with the world-renowned restaurateur, Sirio Maccioni, and Executive Chef, Vincenzo Scarmiglia from Sirio Ristorante, who demonstrated his one-of-a-kind limoncello flights. There was the classic limoncello topped with a coconut meringue, a mixed berry ‘cello topped with meringue and fresh fruit and a killer truffle and chocolate ‘cello topped with a sinful morsel of chocolate cake. The secret to these ‘cellos is the choice of fresh fruits, like lemons brought in from the Amalfi Coast, and the willingness to mix flavours that create a startling pleasure when they hit your palate. Joining the party was Master Mixologist Darren West from Jean Georges Steakhouse. His Calamansi and Cherry Yuzu cocktails using home made syrups and sodas were out of this world! Darren took the words ‘refreshing’ and ‘flavorful’ to a whole new level.

Dinner at BARMASA
BARMASA is the western outpost of Masayoshi Takayama, chef and owner of Masa – the 3-Michelin starred restaurant in New York City. Walking into the restaurant at night tells you right away that this is going to be a very special experience. I was immediately affected by the sense of calm and serenity that the room gave off. It was the perfect canvas for the culinary works of art that followed.

Chef Masa’s artistry lies not just in what you see on the plate – some of which he has actually designed himself to complement the food – but more importantly in the range of flavors, sometimes subtle, sometimes powerful, which he fuses together. Take for instance the Kegani Sunomono, made with Hokkaido’s famous “Hairy” crab, topped with chrysanthemum petals and served with a 2010 Woolaston Sauvignon Blanc from Nelson, New Zealand. Chef Masa had me eating flowers and wanting more. Mind-blowing! Or the Toro (Tuna) Tartare, topped with caviar and paired with a Lucien Albrecht Cremant de Alsace. Big flavors in a small package. Double mind-blowing! Maybe you prefer Kawahagi (Trigger fish) with finely sliced white truffles and a very subtle Matsunoi Tokubetsu Junmai sake, from Niigata.

It’s impossible to write about all the food we ate here and through the weekend. But, I can’t forget about the Lobster Sashimi and shaved cucumber salad in a white soy vinaigrette, topped with finely chopped chives and tempura flakes – washed down with a 2008 Olivier Leflaive, Les Stilles, Bourgogne Blanc. It was a veritable thing of beauty! I was almost ready to hide out the rest of the weekend in BarMasa.

Red Carpet
What’s an all-star weekend without a red carpet? For fervent foodies, it’s a chance to see and talk with their culinary idols and maybe even swap a few secret recipes. There was a cavalcade of celebrity chefs more than happy to mix it up with the crowds that came to meet them. Wine expert, journalist and author Anthony Giglio together with Food & Wine magazine’s Gail Simmons served as hosts on the red carpet and through the weekend. Top Chef alumni Sam Talbot, Angelo Sosa, Hosea Rosenberg, Stephanie Izard and Yigit Pura were all there. They were joined by veteran chef superstars Jean Georges Vongerichten, Sirio Maccioni, Masa Takayama, Shawn McClain and Julian Serrano. Working alongside these masters are their all-important executive chefs Richard Camarota, Sven Mede, Vincenzo Scarmiglia and Rob Moore. These are just some of the incredible talents we met on red carpet night.

After tearing ourselves away from the glamour and excitement of the red carpet and the cocktail welcome reception for those attending, we indulged in a classic element of Las Vegas nightlife: the big time musical. Viva ELVIS, created by Cirque de Soleil, is a tribute to the life and music of Elvis Presley. Imagine the King’s greatest hits together with Cirque’s gravity-defying acrobatics and a stage exploding with powerful dance and colourful costumes. If you can’t make it to Memphis, this is the next best thing.

All-Star Nightcap
Capping off the night – a nightcap at either Union Restaurant & Lounge or The Deuce Lounge, where you could mingle with the celebrity chefs, perhaps play some blackjack. We were treated to some very delectable late night desserts by Yigit Pura, winner of Top Chef’s Just Desserts, Season 1.

With all those sweets and the company of so many foodies, it’s a wonder I didn’t stay up for the night. But, with the three-hour time difference from Toronto, a long day behind me and a full schedule ahead of me I decided to close it up for the night and be rested for a big Day 2. Besides, my high-tech room was waiting to send me off to a dreamy sleep and a morning sunrise spectacle.

If you’re a serious foodie, you’ll want to read my Day 2 account. You won’t believe what these people can do to beef and fish.


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