A helicopter hovers above the smoldering San Bernadino mountains as the car speeds West on the 15 highway. I’m riding shotgun in the car of Los Angeles’ most powerful food gossip, Lesley Balla. Our destination: the Wynn Hotel in Las Vegas for the Michelin Restaurant Guide awards party.
As the voice of Eater LA—the restaurant industry’s main resource for insider information–Balla is a powerful media presence that restaurateurs solicit and avoid, depending on the ever fluctuating status of their business operations. Today, I’m hoping to witness what Balla does best, finding stories in the daily details and dramas of every day life in the restaurant business.
Balla fights to keep her car at race-car speed, as the gale force Santa Anna crosswinds threaten to nudge the Honda off the highway. I hold a crumpled tissue against my nose as the dust and wind tickle my allergies and make my eyes well up with false tears. Balla eyes me with concern as she flips on air vent, hoping not to catch whatever ails me.
For two strangers on a road trip, the four-hour drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas offers an even amount of time for two chatty women to get to know each other. The burning hills blur as we compare dining experiences and trade stories about the formative moments that made us dedicate our lives to writing. We cackle as we share off the record stories of lost chefs, addled servers, demanding restaurant customers and restaurant gossip too juicy for either of us to contemplate even writing about.
As we travel the straight path of highway to Vegas, I realize it’s been ten years since my last (albeit brief) visit to the gambler’s city. A decade ago, I stopped in Las Vegas–for the nanosecond it took to lose my one lucky dollar in a slot machine–during a cross-country journey from my home in Massachusetts to an unknown future in writing in LA. In just ten years, glossy food magazines and industry insiders like Balla describe Las Vegas as a culinary city transformed where the all-you-can-eat buffets have been replaced by Michelin starred chefs from all over the world.
By the time we arrive at the towering Wynn Hotel, a causal observer might mistake Balla and I as old friends. We step from the car wearing a matching California uniform of faded jeans, baggy shirts and flip-flops and a road weary look that only four hours in a car can give. Once inside as we check in, it becomes clear that even if Balla never considers me BFF material, I am about to become the very lucky, second hand beneficiary of Balla’s media clout.
A bright-eyed hotel staffer joins us at the check in desk and insists on leading us to our rooms. The chirpy blonde leads us through of Wynn’s ornate lobby of polished gold and mirrors. I wince in embarrassment as I notice the snapping of my rubber flip-flops against the white marble floors. Our tour ends on the 11th floor when the young woman hands us each a set of keys to our two-bedroom suite overlooking the hotel’s extravagant four pools. Within minutes of her departure, a flock of hotel staffers arrive with plates of charcuterie and aged cheeses and lush bouquets of yellow roses and green orchids. Pardon us, they say. Would we mind if they came in? Mind? Are you kidding me?
Though there may be gaming rooms and three-star restaurants beckoning, Balla can think of nothing but blog deadlines. “I’ve got six more posts to do for the day,” she says as she methodically plugs in her laptop and starts typing. “I want to be done in enough time so we can grab some dinner before the party.” I check my watch. It’s 11 o’clock in the afternoon.
From my separate bedroom, I can hear Lesley clicking away at her computer while mid-day sunbathers lounge on white beach chairs eleven stories below us. Feeling guilty for not being a better journalistic side-kick, I scan the Internet for breaking restaurant news. I hope to find a news brief worthy enough to lighten Lesley’s blogging load, but as the hours pass and the shadow of the towering Wynn casts an early dusk on the pools below, I find am no further along in my search than when I started. Every lead I follow tracks back to Eater LA. And, despite my dogged attempts, every possible news source I search has already been picked clean by the woman blogging in the room next to me.
TWELVE POSTS TO PUT TO BED
By five o’clock, I’m still waiting for Balla to finish. For entertainment, I step onto the bathroom scale and, thanks to the fluffy rug underneath, the scale announces a series of false weights for me: 96 lbs., 88 lbs. I giggle at my childish thoughts that maybe, just maybe, the Wynn Hotel is a truly magical place with powers to revert me to my original teenage packaging. My childish dreams shatter quickly, after I move the scale onto the hard marble floor. The balanced equipment tells me in cold, digital numbers that not only am I quite a bit more than 100 pounds, it’s time for me to go on a diet.
With just a few minutes to spare before our dinner reservations, Lesley finishes with her final post of the day. She’s glowing as she steps into the room wearing a crisp black jacket and midnight-blue jeans. Her hair is wavy, like a Roman goddess, and she smiles like a woman sprung from jail. “Let’s get a glass of champagne!” she says as she sashays out of the room and makes a beeline for the elevator.
We talk about the months she spent researching the restaurant, hotel, and nightlife scene in Las Vegas for a project she once worked on as we walk the footbridge to the Palazzo Hotel. Half way across the bridge she stops. “My shoes are already killing me,” she says with a frown. Then, in the blink of an eye, she shrugs and keeps walking at her usual break-neck pace. “Guess I’ll just have to start the night with a martini, then.”