Journalist Heidi Knapp Rinella is retiring after more than two decades of keeping the review journal’s readers updated on the food, faces, and business moves of the Las Vegas dining scene. Her tenure at the newspaper coincided with the remarkable expansion of the city’s dining scene, and Rinella was there to cover it all as Las Vegas became an internationally recognized food destination. Her career has been marked by awards – including three critical writing awards from the Nevada Press Association – but even more so by the respect of her peers and readers. She will be missed.
However, we couldn’t have her leave the editorial office forever without undergoing an exit interview – a final digestif, if you will.
What is your most important takeaway from 22 years of experience in the Las Vegas restaurant scene?
That the profession is one of the toughest and at the same time fulfilling for the people who choose it, with the most successful ones devoting themselves to it at a level that can rival a religious vocation. And that this is a community of warm, caring people, which is nowhere more evident than in the hospitality industry and RJ readers who are interested in food and eating. In contact with probably thousands over the years, there have been very, very few negative interactions, and when my daughter died in an accident nearly 12 years ago, the number of people – casual friends, distant acquaintances, and absolute strangers – was who contacted a consolation turned to me that I cannot even put into words, and I can never quite express how grateful I was and remain. This city will always have a very special place in my heart.
Was there a Vegas dining trend that you particularly liked? One you didn’t?
I love the ever increasing diversification and experimentation of all kinds, even if it is less successful. I also love the fun fusion combinations that have come about that see the similarities in the kitchen in ways that people can learn from.
Disliked: The ubiquity of kale. I always hated it, always will hate it no matter how many times people try to lipstick this particular pig.
You must have had a few memorable encounters with chefs …
Probably what I liked most was hearing their stories – when Wolfgang Puck told me that when he opened Spago in the Forum Shops in 1992, people started queuing in the open kitchen as if it were a buffet. Spago opened during or just before NFR and he said he had never seen so many cowboy hats and thought it always was. He said he was afraid the restaurant would never make it, so he would go home every night, have a bottle of wine, and then return the next day. Little did he know he was going to change Las Vegas.
Who was the greatest character you met?
I would say it must be the late Jay Hamada, and I say that with the greatest affection. The son of a Japanese naval officer who was unemployed after the end of World War II, Hamada knew he had to go his own way and became an athlete and dancer. Fortunately, his friendship with a multi-million dollar Kobe businessman, a corpulent man who was a frustrated dancer himself, led Hamada to lead a Japanese cultural group whose US tour included an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. He came to Las Vegas in 1962, started out as a dishwasher and bartender, and eventually had nine restaurants here. He was great fun talking to and he could still do the balancing act at the age of 72. (his favorite Austrian dish) when he saw me.
There are so many, mostly good ones, but also a few bad ones. Probably one of the most memorable dishes of my career, however, was while I was still living in Florida and a friend challenged me to try a restaurant specialty, white chocolate and mead scallops. It was unexpectedly tasty and reminded me that even the most unlikely combination could work. Once in a while.
Is there a now closed restaurant that you would like to return to?
That should be Pamplemousse on East Sahara Avenue. I loved everything about this grandiose look back: the fact that Bobby Darin inspired the name, the house-like arrangement that arose from being in an old house, the elegant service from waiters in tuxedos, the unfathomably elaborate raw food basket served for dinner and the faithful reproduction of French classics that never got boring. # 2 should be Andres French Restaurant downtown.
Do you have a favorite food that might surprise people when they find out you love it?
Every Christmas season I have to bake my grandmother’s stollen, which contains the dreaded candied fruit. Over the years I’ve been the only one in the family who will eat it. I think it will die with me! Conversely, I will never eat squab. I believed my great grandmother who said it was just pigeon.
Which restaurant will you visit first in your retirement?
This question reminds me of people who asked me what my favorite restaurant was, which came up a lot. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to reveal it, but it would change with the day, the hour, my mood, the cravings, etc. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been a regular in a restaurant and probably never will. There is just too much to see.