Care to know how the residents of Las Vegas live? How they learn their trades, hone their skills, pursue their ambitions, and kick back? In a city as weird as this one, those subjects can be more interesting than you'd think.
In Vegas, the American Dream is built on tips -- gratuities. Thousands come here every month because they know that the lack of a college degree won't hold them back as it will in other parts of the United States; that a high school graduate, or someone who never even made it that far, can earn between $45,000 and $70,000 a year just parking cars. Skilled jobs offer potentially bigger rewards. To help newcomers acquire those skills a number of schools and classes have sprung up around town.
Most common are the "dealer schools," where anybody who's reasonably math-savvy and coordinated can learn how to rook all of us vacationers . . . er, I mean deal cards. Some are fly-by-night operations, to be sure, but there's one with such an impeccable reputation and track record that it's considered the Harvard of gaming schools.
That standout, the Casino Gaming School (900 E. Karen Ave., Suites 216, 218, 220; tel. 702/893-1788; www.learntodeal.com), is run from a large second-floor suite at the back of the Commercial Center strip mall. Admittedly, it has no ivied walls or campus. But despite its faceless, somewhat grubby appearance, this is a dedicated center of learning, as intense in its own way as an Ivy League university. And that's largely due to the efforts of owner Nick Kallos, a slight fellow with bristly salt-and-pepper hair and a goatee, who has the looks and manner of a more-groomed Ratso Rizzo, but the enthusiasm, energy, and love of teaching of a Mr. Chips. Nick and his staff of veteran dealers (every teacher here has at least 5 years' experience working in a major casino) patiently teach novices the rules and rituals of each game.
Because the school is always looking for new students, they allow outsiders to come in and audit classes for free. You can stay for an entire morning or afternoon session, or come and go as you please. You don't even have to pretend to reside in the city. The no-nonsense but ultimately friendly Kallos, whose school has appeared in numerous Travel Channel specials, is rightly proud of his operation and welcoming of visitors.
Watching a session has varied pleasures. You'll definitely come away with some strategies for your own gambling. If you're like me you'll also leave with an appreciation for the complexity of the dealer's work. I spent about 10 minutes on my last visit just watching students practicing the mechanics of the job: One fellow pitched cards endlessly on a blackjack table ("You want Ray Charles to be able to read that from across the room," the teacher next to him exhorted) as another worked on picking up the chips without spraying them all over the table (harder than it looks; it's all in the pinkie), while still a third would-be craps "stickman" arched his stick in the air over and over, working to cleanly pull the die aside in a movement that seemed to have as much to do with fencing as gambling. "It's not brain surgery," says Kallos, "but it does take time and practice." Just as intriguing to peek in on are the sessions discussing various strategies for blackjack, poker, and the like. Anyone who enjoys gambling will get a kick out of hearing an insider's point of view on these topics.
Cooking Vegas Style
Haute cuisine is hot in Vegas, with more star chefs arriving each day than Elvis impersonators (well, almost). As Catherine Margles of the Creative Cook School puts it: "Las Vegas has gone from buffet to gourmet. Every major celebrity chef in the U.S. -- Wolfgang Puck, Charlier Palmer, Alain Ducasse, Hubert Keller -- now has restaurants here." For those entering the industry, there's a feeling -- perhaps justified, perhaps not -- that a cooking career in Vegas puts one on the fast track in the culinary world.
It's no accident that the grand prize winner of 2006's reality cooking show, Hell's Kitchen, got the chance to be Executive Chef at a swanky new restaurant in Vegas. Or that a branch of the top cooking school in the world, the famed Cordon Bleu (1451 Center Crossing Rd.; tel. 888/712-0200 or 702/365-7690; www.vegasculinary.com), opened in Vegas in January of 2003. Indeed, those who are serious about cooking careers tend to apply to the Bleu; it also operates sporadic classes for amateurs, taught by faculty members two Saturday mornings per month. Topics are all over the map, from Sicilian cuisine to cake-decorating workshops to food and wine pairings. Unfortunately, the classes are not posted on the website, nor are they consistently held on particular Saturdays. You'll need to call the number above to learn if one will be given when you're in town.
Because it's the luck of the draw whether you'll be in town on one of the dates when le Bleu is offering a class (and to be honest, they tend to sell out far in advance), the second-best option is an impressive operation called The Creative Cooking School (7385 W. Sahara Ave.; tel. 702/562-3900; www.creativecookingschool.com; $99 for 3-hr. class; Tues-Fri 6-9pm, Sat 10am-2pm). Offering a mix of recreational classes and certification courses for would-be pros, it's intimately connected with the Sin City sautéing scene, drawing much of its faculty from the kitchens of the big Strip restaurants. When you take a class here, you'll likely be taught a recipe currently being used at one of Wolfgang Puck's branches, or Roy's, or an Emeril Lagasse venture. Each student leaves with a thick sheath of recipes tucked under her arm, a much better Vegas souvenir than fuzzy dice.
She also may leave with a raft of new friends, as this is not only a learning experience but a highly social one as well. Classes are hands-on affairs, so you'll be cooking in a group of no more than four students, with a maximum of 16 students grouped at four marble-topped cooking islands, as glossy and high-tech a facility as any you'll see on the Food Network. Two TV monitors broadcast the view from cooking cams aimed right into the mixing bowl or frying pan the instructor is using, ensuring that everyone gets a good view of the instructor's technique.
Class topics change by week, but you might find yourself baking (as I did in my last class), or learning how to roll sushi, or creating a gourmet meal in 30 minutes, or making appetizers to go with margaritas (yup, you get to drink 'em). And you not only cook and chat with your fellow students but feast on what you've made at the end, and will probably be given a doggy bag to take home the extras. "It's like a dinner party and a college-level class all in one," says Catherine Margles, founder of the school -- and she's right.
Van Gogh in the Desert
The second "learning just for the joy of it" experience is a most unusual tour . . . in which you don't move for 4 hours. Instead, you go out to some of the most beautiful areas outside of Las Vegas -- Red Rock Canyon, Mount Charleston, the Valley of Fire -- draw up a stool and an easel, and try to re-create what you see before you on canvas. Geared to novice painters, Scenic Pleasure Painting Tours, Inc. (tel. 888/302-8882 or 702/256-8882; www.scenicpaintingtours.com; $200; tours every Thurs and Sat; AE, DISC, MC, V) is the brainchild of artist Loretta Reinick, who began these tours in 2005 and attracts a steady stream of vacationers and locals who simply want to try painting. Reinick, who leads every tour, has an unusual talent for helping totally inept painters -- which is how I'd classify myself -- to quickly understand the fundamentals of the art, create a darn good painting, and have a great time doing it.
She does this by outlining some very concrete steps towards the goal. The first thing our group did was gather stones from our immediate area that mirrored the colors of the landscape. Loretta then squeezed just the primary colors and shades onto our palette -- red, blue, yellow, white, and black -- and had us mix colors until we had several piles of paint that came close to matching the tones of the rocks, and thus our landscape. After simply mixing colors for a good hour (a very Zen, relaxing experience, I might add), she demonstrated how to sketch the landscape on our canvas, concentrating on painting the distance first and then moving forward. After an hour of base painting, we broke for a picnic lunch with wine -- and that sure helped the art-making! -- and then returned to dabbing and molding and streaking. Reinick walked from painter to painter as we worked, offering pointers and advice. Several times, if someone looked nervous about what was on their canvas, she repeated, "It's just about playing with the paint. If you approach it that way, you'll have better results."
At the end of the 4 hours, we looked up from our own easels, startled that the time had rocketed by, and startled, too, by how different each painting looked. This is no paint-by-numbers class; Reinick was able to help bring out each participant's personal style. I have to say, I was so happy with my painting that it's now framed and hanging in my bathroom. Another highly recommended experience. A word about the cost: The tour, as you'll note above, is a full $200, which puts it on the pricier side of the options listed in this chapter. But because it includes lunch, transportation to the site, a lot of expensive materials, and at the end, a frameable painting, I think the price is justified. Couples can save by joining Las Vegas Advisor for $37 and then using one of LVA's two-for-the-price-of-one coupons on this tour, reducing the cost per person to $118 per person, rather than $200.
Plato in the Casino
Beyond the practical learning that goes on in the schools above, there are two experiences that one can have in Las Vegas that move into the realm of learning for learning's own sake. Deep thinking just for the fun of it. Intellectual stimulation as its own reward. Wait, don't recheck the cover of this book, you're still reading about Vegas.
Every Tuesday evening at 7pm, at the Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino, just outside The Reading Room bookstore, with the dinging of slot machines in the background and scantily clad cocktail waitresses in view, a group of strangers meet to discuss the meaning of life. No, really; and it's not a cult, I promise. The group was inspired by a book called Socrates Café by Chris Phillips, which encourages everyday folks to get together and discuss the important issues in life: What is justice? What is truth? What does it mean to live a good life? This ever-changing assemblage -- anyone is welcome to attend, and you don't have to have any knowledge of philosophy to do so -- has been tackling these big questions since the spring of 2004.
Here's how it works. A moderator opens up the discussion by describing what we are there to do. On the night I last attended, there were a lot of first-timers -- some students from UNLV, a tourist, a casino worker, and myself -- so he laid out the basics. "We're here to reclaim our right to think and speak for ourselves," he said, quietly looking around at the group sitting in a circle of chairs. "This is not about furthering any political agenda or religious dogma or selling time shares. We're here to have a good time and practice the art of conversation." We then voted on a topic to discuss, ultimately choosing the question "Does politics corrupt those who engage in it?" and we were off. For the following, too-short hour and a half, every one of the 16 people there spoke, sometimes heatedly, but always civilly, batting big ideas back and forth, agreeing, disagreeing, laughing at one point so loudly that gamblers nearby stared at us all puzzled, trying to figure out what the heck was going on.
It was, without a doubt, the most exhilarating time I spent in the 7 weeks I was in Vegas researching this book, and when I am next there on a Tuesday, I plan to return to the circle. Some participants find it so addictive that they rearrange their lives to attend. A retired teacher told me, "I have to have something intellectual in my life. I quit a singles club just so I can be here every Tuesday."
This article is an excerpt from Pauline Frommer's Las Vegas, 1st Edition, available in our online bookstore now.Talk with fellow Frommer's travelers on our Nevada Message Boards today.