Monday, August 29, 2011

David Chang, Culinary Artistry, and the Problem of Chefs Selling Out in Las Vegas

Momfuku Ssam Bar in New York's East Village is a singularly unique and hip restaurant that has turned head chef David Chang into a culinary star. The pork-centric Korean/Japanese/French/Italian/whatever Chang and his crack staff can imagine menu is a constantly evolving wonder of deliciously indulgent and inventive tastes, all of it presented at prices far below that of similarly hot, celebrity chef driven restaurants. And instead of tasteful design and servers wearing suits, the restaurant is alive with energy, led by the enthusiasm of the tattooed and pierced, T-Shirt wearing staff that cooks and serves your food.

Also, there is a gloriously cheesy painting of John McEnroe in full 80s glory inexplicably hanging on the wall.

When I visited the red-hot restaurant on my New York adventure, I ate Chang's famous steamed buns filled with pork belly (which live up to the hype), jowl terrine (indulgent, wrong, and delicious), roasted lamb loin and belly topped with dripping egg yolk (soft and salty heaven), and the most gloriously delicious and utterly, totally different slices of carrot cake I've ever put in my mouth. It was one of the best meals of my life, with food that defies classification from one of the hottest and most exciting young minds to burst onto the culinary scene in years.

As if the amazing and outside the box food wasn't enough, Chang also has a hilariously unhinged public persona, as his media appearances are often peppered with F-Bombs, self deprecating rants, and tirades against overrated Food Network chefs and the entire celebrity chef culture in general (even though he is indeed a part of said culture).

With his restaurant's daringly inventive food and punk-rock cool mixed with his own high profile persona and "who gives a crap" bravado, a David Chang restaurant would fit in perfectly in Las Vegas. Though the chef has admitted that the idea of Las Vegas is intriguing to him, no official plans have gone forward for a Sin City link in the slowly yet surely expanding Momofuku line of restaurants (Momofuku restaurants are planned in Toronto and Sydney, so it's not as if the chef is averse to expanding his empire beyond his beloved New York City).

A Chang restaurant in Vegas would be a real win for the city, but it might be a matter of bad timing with the economy in the toilet. Investors might be nervous taking a chance on a chef who takes such outlandish risks with his food and has such a volatile personality, and it's probably a safer investment in the minds of many to open another Wolfgang Puck or Emeril Lagasse restaurant on The Strip instead. Just because you can score with discerning foodies in Manhattan's coolest neighborhood doesn't mean that success will translate with the tourists who frequent Vegas restaurants.

And it's also might be a question of personal integrity... can such an outspoken, punk rock-style chef open in Vegas without losing some of the street cred he's earned through his F-Bomb laced rants and provocative Tweets? Basically, I'm wondering if you can enter into the artifice of the Vegas restaurant scene and still remain an artist, or if you're automatically watering down your brand when you open amongst the glittering facades of The Strip?

Vegas is a hard town to remain true to one's vision, but since Vegas features restaurants from Hubert Keller, Michael Mina, Guy Savoy, and Chang hero Thomas Keller where the chefs have been able to control their visions and innovate even as they compete in a crowded marketplace, it is doable.

A Momofuku restaurant could fit in with the side of Vegas that the young and artsy have started to occupy, the people who attend First Friday events and drink at The Double Down. A hipster and foodie approved David Chang eatery could be a God-send to a place like The Cosmopolitan, so eager to prove that they're cutting edge and cool to the "curious class" demographic that they're desperately courting (a plan that's not working as the resort reported a big loss at the end of the last quarter). Whatever he decides, Chang has the kind of clout and media buzz at this point that he could open a restaurant in Vegas on his own terms. Hopefully one day soon Chang will unleash his wild culinary imagination on The Strip.

One can only imagine what his rants will be like after he spends some real quality time in Sin City.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Can The Book of Mormon Succeed in Las Vegas?

I just returned from New York, shocked to discover that the Manhattan skyline doesn't really feature a winding roller-coaster track, but still as enamored with the city that never sleeps as any young and artistically inclined Los Angelino usually feels after visiting a city that for some reason causes a major sense of inferiority in Southern Californians. And while I missed the medium-sized Earthquake that created a Twitter frenzy on the East Coast, New York was electrifying, a city that is unbelievably exciting, fast paced and easy to traverse without a car, with cool things to do on every corner at almost any time of the day. It also feels more like the traditional idea of a city-city than the strange urban sprawl that is LA.

Also, Billy Joel is from there... but maybe that's just important to me.

I'd go on about the awesomeness of my NY trip, from the incredible exhibits I saw at MOMA to the mouthwatering meal I had at David Chang's Momofuku Ssäm Bar to the super-chill hike I took along the brand new High Line Park, built on a decommissioned elevated train track. But this is a Las Vegas-centric blog, so I'll focus on something Vegas relevant... The Book of Mormon.

I'm not much of a musical theater guy. I don't hate the genre, but it's not my particular bag. South Park and Team America creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, however, are musical guys. Their first feature was the little seen Troma-piece Cannibal! The Musical, South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut featured a brilliant collection of profane Broadway (and Disney) style musical numbers, and even their action movie satire starring marionettes, Team America featured villain Kim Jong-Il singing about how he's only evil because deep down in his heart he's so "Ronery." So it came as no surprise when it was announced a few years ago that Parker and Stone were teaming up with the writer of Avenue Q to create their own original Broadway musical.

What did come as a surprise were the rapturous reviews, the astounding number of Tony nominations and wins, and the fact that the show is sold out approximately until the end times. Being a very well connected internet personality (or just because I have a friend whose dad knows a guy), I was lucky enough to score tickets to the show during the week I was in New York (I would have been lucky to score tickets to the show during a week I wasn't in New York, though said tickets would have been less useful and purchased more for bragging rights than anything else).

I don't really need to go into an in depth review of the show... I'll just say that it's as profane, funny, wickedly satirical, surprisingly sweet, tuneful, and joyful as the reviews have indicated. Parts of the show left me gasping for air (because it was so funny, but also because scary looking ski-masked ushers walked through the theater and water-boarded audience members at random), and I've been listening to the soundtrack nonstop on Spotify (that's not strictly true... at the moment I'm listening to Steely Dan on Spotify, but still, I've listened to the soundtrack a lot).  The New York Times did a fine job explaining why The Book of Mormon is an absolute must-see in their hyperbolic (yet not so hyperbolic because the show deserved the heaps of praise it received) review. The question I want to explore in this blog post, dear readers, is if The Book of Mormon can thrive in its inevitable Las Vegas run where so many other shows of similar hype and hilarity have failed.

Comedic musicals Avenue Q, Spamalot, and The Producers all took similar paths to critical and box-office success as Book of Mormon in their initial Broadway runs, winning Tonys, receiving gushing reviews, and playing to sell-out crowds every night.  Yet the shows never found real solid footing when they landed in Las Vegas. Spamalot and The Producers (with David Hasselhoff and Tony Danza in key roles) lasted barely a year. The heavily promoted Avenue Q played for only nine months at The Wynn, unable to generate word of mouth due to tourist turnaround in Las Vegas.

So can The Book of Mormon succeed where these other comedic musicals have failed? Broadway style productions can breakthrough in Las Vegas, as evidenced by the three year and counting run of Jersey Boys at The Palazzo and the Vegas-ized Phantom at The Venetian, which has been holding steady for half a decade. The Lion King has done decent business in Mandalay Bay for two years, though it's scheduled to close at the end of the year. Will Book of Mormon be able to replicate the success of these Broadway hits or will it go the way of We Will Rock You (the Queen jukebox musical that took place in an oppressive corporate future where bland pop music is the only thing allowed on the radio and a hero rises by singing the songs of Freddy Mercury which came to him in a dream and was as awesomely ridiculous as it sounds)?

Book of Mormon, I think, has a good chance to actually survive the harsh Vegas climate of desert heat and less than hip tourist-filled audiences. While most young people don't go to Vegas to attend shows and are more commonly there to party, the musical created by the South Park bros may be tempting enough for them to get tickets. And even the least savvy midwestern tourists have heard of Book of Mormon, which is Broadway's biggest hit in years (and has gotten more media coverage than any show on Broadway in years outside of Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark, a flaming train wreck of a show complete with a ludicrously pretentious plot, actors falling from rafters, and singing super heroes, making it the focus of much less positive press), so a Vegas production will have a decent shot of succeeding. It's also a much less costly production to mount than most Broadway spectacles, so a Sin City version is probably a very good investment.

One of the big questions is how will the Mormon community react to the show? The musical is a profane story about two young Mormons on a mission to Uganda, and while it makes gleeful fun of some of the religion's stranger rituals and foundational stories, it ultimately is sweet-natured and makes an argument for belief (even in the craziest ideas) helping people in tough situations. The content is profane, but the show is ultimately something that Mormons could walk away from feeling good about. Las Vegas was originally founded by Mormons (a little known fact since it was eventually taken over by mobsters and turned into a gambling town nicknamed Sin City), and still has a significant Mormon population. The town is also close to the Utah border and about a half-day's drive from Salt Lake City, the center of the Mormon universe (and the focus of one of the funniest songs in the musical). Despite all of that, it's hard to imagine the Mormon population embracing the show, with content that is probably too edgy for most Mormons to get around and enjoy the generally positive message.

The proximity to so many Mormons could attract a few curious church-members who want to know what all the fuss is about, but the very, very blue show will probably be a bit much for them, just for the vulgarity of the content even if the message ultimately shouldn't offend them. Opening the show in Vegas could lead to protests (which only generates publicity and could help the show more than hurt it), though the opening of the original Broadway production was met with a statement from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints that read "the production may attempt to entertain audiences for an evening, but The Book of Mormon as a volume of scripture will change people’s lives forever by bringing them closer to Christ,” a reaction that implies the church has no interest in turning the show into a lighting rod of controversy. The church most likely won't advise their members to attend the show, but it doesn't seem like they'll encourage protests.

For the rest of us, Book of Mormon is a vulgar and hilarious night of theater, entertaining for those of us that don't really like musicals and apparently a miraculous throwback to the joys of the medium for those who do. It could easily succeed where other comedic shows have failed in Vegas as one of Broadway's hottest tickets in years, and the rude, crude, tuneful and good-natured show migh just fit right in and play in Sin City for years.