Chew on this: Columnist says food could spark city's rebound

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Insight logoIn his column for LasVegasWeekly.com last week, Steve Friess, a freelancer for the New York Times, Boston Globe and Time magazine, suggests that the city may be flubbing its best opportunity to give a boost to its sagging economy. Friess wonders why the city in general and the M Resort in particular haven't capitalized on their starring roles in the sixth season of Bravo's "Top Chef."

He says chef Hubert Keller of Fleur de Lys and the Burger Bar at Mandalay Bay has benefited from his appearance on the "Top Chef" spinoff "Top Chef Masters." "The results of this exposure have been dramatic for Keller, whose Fleur de Lys opened in 2002 and has generally underperformed compared with both in-house competition from Aureole, Mix and StripSteak and vs. the top tier of Guy Savoy, Alex, Picasso and Robuchon," Friess writes.

"Keller's TV exposure, however, has prompted a fairly radical turnaround. The pudding's proof: Fleur had greater revenues in August 2009, while open five days a week, than it did in August 2008 open seven days a week."

So far so good, according to Friess.

"The place was packed on my recent visit, and the place was library-dead during my two prior meals there. But something was also missing, so I asked Keller the question I've wanted to ask many people as Vegas' 'Top Chef' moment hits its halfway point: 'If so many of your guests are mentioning "Top Chef" when they come in, how come you don't have a "Top Chef" menu?' The generally exuberant Keller fell silent."

Friess goes on to question why Keller held a "Top Chef"-themed event in St. Louis, where he has another Burger Bar as well as a steakhouse, "but not in Las Vegas, where the show set its entire season and millions of tourists visit?"

Full-fledged head-scratching ensues.

"And yet it was difficult to browbeat Keller, since, bafflingly, the entire culinary scene of Las Vegas has been mishandling its most important exposure ever and the city's most potentially game-changing pop-cultural moment since MTV's 'The Real World' took up residence at the Palms lo those many years ago. This is Las Vegas, the world capital of self-promotion and hype. How is it possible that this city could be, seven episodes into the season, failing this miserably at exploiting this opportunity?"

Let the browbeating commence.

Friess says no restaurant has created a "Top Chef" menu, nor has any tourism marketer sought to capitalize on the millions of eyes glued to the tubes Wednesday nights. Friess saves his most biting criticism for the M Resort, opened in March at the southernmost end of the Strip, noting the absence of anything "Top Chef"-related on the property's blog or Twitter feed.

Tough medicine to be sure, but Friess has a point. What happened to Vegas' penchant for shameless exploitation? Precisely when the city needs another signature catchphrase to ignite interest, it doesn't seem to be using the gift it's been given.

In fairness, tourism officials haven't been sitting idly, unleashing several marketing campaigns, none of which has captured the cultural zeitgeist like "What Happens Here Stays Here."

But Friess doesn't think Vegas has completely missed the bus: "I'm strident about these points because, halfway through, it's not too late to course-correct. These are rough times for this city's tourist sector, and 'Top Chef' provides an amazing gift, exposure of an upscale kind to a moneyed demographic of folks who love to travel and eat out but who still view Vegas as tacky."

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