July 21, 2011

Behind the buffet line…

Posted in Between Us column, Business, Travel at 5:20 am by dinaheng

If you love tasting a little bit of this and a little bit of that, the Bellagio Buffet in Las Vegas is the place to be… and if you look behind the scenes, you’ll understand why.

While many buffets suffer from heat lamp exhaustion and unimaginative menus, the buffet  at the Bellagio offers a varied selection of freshly made items from cuisines around the world, as well as traditional American favorites. 

On a recent visit, I watched fresh offerings rotate through the line constantly, with no dish sitting more than 15 to 20 minutes before being replenished with fresh fare. Now that’s how you keep customers coming back for more.

“At 10 p.m., we still have people paying to come in, so the entire line is restocked for the last half hour,” explains Executive Chef Gerald Harrington, who oversees the buffet. “Whatever’s not eaten at the end of the day on the line gets thrown out because you don’t want to contaminate anything. We have large dumpsters of organic scraps that go to a pig farm.”

Leftovers that have not been put on the line go to the employee dining room, which I can attest — after a sneak peak — looks better than most casino buffets in Vegas.

A walk through the kitchen was a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at how soup is prepared and stored, how fruit is cut and plated, and how intricate garnishes are put together. You think it’s hard cooking the Thanksgiving turkey?

Imagine preparing 1,000 to 2,000 lbs. of crab legs, 800 to 1,000 lbs. of shrimp, and 500 lbs. of prime rib a day, not to mention all the side dishes, salads and accompaniments. Mashed potatoes are made four to five times a day (that’s Yukon gold with heavy cream and butter). Ice shrinks, so the cold stuff under the sushi must be changed three times a day.

Nearly 5,000 guests a day are served what must be the best food deal in the casino hotel.

The all-you-can-eat buffet features fresh seafood, live-action cooking stations with meals made-to-order, selections from China, Japan, Italy, Mexico, and more at prices — that in Vegas — are quite reasonable.

Open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m., breakfast costs $15.95, lunch is $19.95 and dinner is $29.95. A gourmet dinner on Friday and Saturday nights is $36.95, and brunch is $24.95 ($29.95, with champagne). Kids ages three and under eat free.

“We try to change things with the seasons,” Harrington says. “I grew up in New England, so I like the apple, the maple, and will try to incorporate fall thinking through the year. A lot of things that you do in a restaurant, you can’t do in a buffet. If you put risotto on the line, it doesn’t hold well. So we cook our pastas al dente. Once they sit in the steamer tables, the sauce soaks them.”

Formerly the quality assurance chef for the hotel, Harrington knows what needs to be changed with the seasons. A couple of weeks ago, green beans were at their best. Now, it’s asparagus. The hotel buys from farmers in Mexico, following crops up the West Coast to the Napa Valley area, to ensure that vegetables are at their best. Winter crops come from Florida and South America.

“People love buffets because it’s six to seven restaurants in one,” Harrington says. “They get to pick up whatever they want. There are some people who only want the fish or sushi, and pile up on that. Our most popular items are the crab legs, rack of lamb, and Chilean sea bass.”

If guests have food allergies, some items can be cooked to order. Harrington notes that one regular customer always asks for a plate of salmon with nothing on it, so a chef will grill eight to nine pieces of salmon for him with no seasoning or butter.

That evening, my sister Linda, friend Michael, and I sampled the buffet for ourselves. In the mood to nibble, I tasted as much as my stomach could hold, and couldn’t have been happier. The prime rib and Chilean sea bass were my favorites, along with a three cheese tortelloni with sorrel, which was wonderful. The grilled asparagus and maple-glazed carrots were great, as was the bok choi and fusilli with eggplant and smoked mozzarella.

My only complaint would be that the leg of lamb was undercooked. It was so rare, my knife couldn’t cut it. Michael said his shrimp was a little mushy from sitting on ice too long, but everything else was great. Linda, who has a very discerning sweet tooth, thought the sugar-free cheesecake was excellent. Michael and I voted for the tiramisu.

Before leaving, Harrington suggested that I try a red velvet apricot, which I’d never had   before. It had to be the most delicious apricot I’ve ever tasted.

“Seeing people try something for the first time is great,” Harrington says. “I tell folks, try it. You’re at a buffet. You can leave it on your plate if you don’t like it. The biggest part of my job is walking the floor and talking to guests. It makes the long hours worthwhile.”

There were more dishes in the buffet than anyone could possibly eat in one sitting. Be warned that if you go during peak mealtimes, the line to get into the buffet may be long.

But it’ll be oh, so worth it.

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July 14, 2011

One Drop makes a difference

Posted in Between Us column, Entertainment, Politics, Spirituality, Travel at 6:43 pm by dinaheng

Guy Laliberte has seen the world from a place most can only imagine. Today, he’s using what he saw to create greater awareness of the water issues facing humanity and the planet we live on.

Laliberte, founder of Cirque du Soleil, became Canada’s first private citizen in space when he journeyed to the International Space Station in September 2009. Knowing that his celebrity would draw attention to the space voyage, Laliberte decided to make a “Poetic Social Mission” out of his adventure.

The artistic event he created, presented simultaneously in 14 cities while he was on the space station, centered around water issues around the world. He established ONE DROP, a nonprofit organization that aims to eliminate poverty by providing access to clean water, and has made it part of his personal mission to create a better world.

“GAIA” (Assouline, $65), a new art book curated by Laliberte, shares more than 150 photographs of Earth taken by the Cirque founder from the International Space Station. All proceeds from the book’s sales will benefit ONE DROP, which aims to provide education, adapted water-access solutions and microfinance lending in developing countries to encourage sustainable development.

“Water is the source of life, and one person dies every 20 seconds from lack of access to clean water,” Laliberte says. “Whether it’s global warming, health care or biodiversity, water is at the center of our most pressing issues.

“There’s less clean water on the planet today. We’re using it in abundance, and we don’t regenerate it. With our current climate situation, there will be massive migrations, and in the near future, it could be the greatest crisis humanity has to face.”

The book, which pairs photos of the planet’s colorful and varied surface textures with inspirational sayings by noted people of all nationalities, is a beautiful reminder that Mother Earth is home to us all.

The words of Khalil Gibran, Galileo Galilei, Rachel Carson, Rumi, and Norman Cousins join with Chinese, Nigerian and Native American proverbs, a traditional Gaelic blessing and more to give voice to images of the Earth’s terrain that seem to come from heaven’s imagination.

“It was an amazing experience and privilege to go up into space,” Laliberte says. “I took pictures like any traveler, and when I started to share the pictures with friends and family, they validated that there was something more there. I met with Prosper Assouline, who produces the best hardcover books in the world, and ‘GAIA’ was born.”

Laliberte believes that companies should incorporate social activism in their business models, so at Cirque du Soleil, one percent of revenues support Cirque de Monde, a program benefitting at-risk youth around the world.

He says Cirque’s goal is to reach the same level of commitment — with another one percent of revenue — for ONE DROP. The ONE DROP effort, however, will be more active outside the company with fundraising events and partnerships with global groups like Oxfam International.

“We live in a global community, and I hope that ‘GAIA’ will bring different states of reflection to people,” Laliberte says. “The text carries strong meaning. Some words are more poetic, and some are strong statements, like the idea that the Earth provides enough for the needs of everybody, but not for everybody’s greed.

“We cannot be blind to the fact that the Earth is not balanced. There are millions who wake up who don’t dream about being millionaires. They think about having enough food and water to survive the day. Our survival will depend on our capacity to connect. To me, more than anything else on Earth, there needs to be more love.

For more information on ONE DROP, check out http://www.onedrop.org/en/default.aspx

July 6, 2011

‘Torchwood’ returns to save the day

Posted in Between Us column, Diversity, Entertainment, Television at 7:33 pm by dinaheng

Captain Jack Harkness is one of the smartest, sexiest, and most charming heroes in television sci-fi. That’s because John Barrowman is one of the smartest, sexiest and most charming men… anywhere.

All right, I’ll stop drooling now.

“Torchwood: Miracle Day” premieres Friday, July 8 at 10 p.m. Eastern on Starz, continuing the adventures of the immortal Captain Jack, who once ran the Torchwood Institute, a secret British organization that investigated the strange and bizarre.

Now, when a new danger faces the planet, Captain Jack and his former colleague Gwen Cooper (Eve Myles) team up with American C.I.A. agents Rex Matheson (Mekhl Phifer) and Esther Drummond (Alexa Havins) to unravel the mystery behind a global phenomenon that threatens Mankind’s existence as we know it.

For suddenly, nobody dies. People continue to age, they can get injured and become sick, but they don’t die. Captain Jack, a time traveler from the 51st Century who knows the pros and cons of immortality all too well, finds himself in the middle of it all, trying to help others cope with what he’s lived with… well, forever.

“Some people will rise to the occasion and deal with it,” says Barrowman, sitting on the set in Burbank during a break in filming. “Others won’t. We have population issues, food issues. If you were decapitated, you’d still be in pain and alive, but couldn’t have your head reattached. It’s not a good thing to be immortal. There’s a lot of hurt and pain and sorrow that comes with it. Jack  knows this because he’s immortal.”

In the third season finale of “Torchwood: Children of Earth,” which ran on the BBC, Captain Jack sacrificed his grandchild to save the human race, and decided that Torchwood should stay underground because of all the destruction it’s caused. Barrowman says if Starz had not brought “Torchwood” to the United States for a 10-episode run, the show would likely have continued on the BBC as a five-episode mini-series.

“Loyal fans were afraid it’d change if it came to the States, but we’ve kept the heart and soul of the show,” Barrowman says. “He’s the same Captain Jack — he’ s dark with a lot of secrets, but he sticks to his guns and his word. He’ll do anything to save the planet and the human race, and if that means sacrificing something, he’ll do it.”

Captain Jack is also a bisexual action hero, something that Barrowman says will be  new to American audiences.

“In the UK, sexual orientation doesn’t matter on television,” says Barrowman, who is openly gay. “Characters are not looked at as being gay or straight. We have pre-watershed hours, before 9 p.m., where sex on screen is limited, but I love it that young men and women come up to me in the supermarket and say that Captain Jack is their hero.”

Barrowman, who holds dual U.S.-British citizenship, was born in Glasgow, Scotland and immigrated to the United States with his family at age 8, when his father was put in charge of the Caterpillar Tractor factory in Aurora, Ill. A love of music led to roles in musical productions on London’s West End and Broadway before he moved into television.

Also an accomplished recording artist, author, and TV host, Barrowman says he had the best of a European upbringing while learning the American work ethic of working hard and striving to achieve your dreams.

“My dad never handed things to us on a silver platter,” Barrowman says. “I was involved in sports, musicals, hung out with girlfriends who were cheerleaders, and was well traveled.

“I came out in my early 20s because I figured it was time I was honest with everybody. It was no surprise to my family. There was an adjustment period, but you have to allow your parents to have that adjustment period.”

Barrowman says he realized as he became a public figure in the UK that he could become a voice for those who don’t have one. He began to speak up, and not just about gay issues.

“I want to help integrate change in the world,” Barrowman says. “I have a platform, and I’m not afraid to express my opinions. I support cancer charities, rescuing homeless dogs, and support a children’s hospice near my home in South Wales.

“I’m very involved with the government in the UK, and have been invited to discuss sexual orientation issues at 10 Downing Street. It’s about live and let live. I’m not going to shove anything down your throat. I’m just fighting for my rights as a human being and an individual.”

Along the way, Barrowman will be fighting the villains on “Torchwood: Miracle Day,” no doubt winning over American fans with his… um, obvious charm.

“Captain Jack is omnisexual — known for his relationships with women and men,” Barrowman says, with a rakish smile. “This season, ‘Torchwood’ will be more edgy than before. There’s more darkness and trauma in store for Captain Jack, but as these new events happen, he also comes back a happier guy. It’s going to be great.”