Birth of a Food Writer

How does a law school graduate in New York City become a respected dining critic in Las Vegas? Hint: It took a lot of passion and a little bit of dumb luck.

Joël Robuchon gives a book and a little love to Vegas Seven dining critic, Al Mancini.

Joël Robuchon gives a book and a little love to Vegas Seven dining critic, Al Mancini.

It was the kickoff event for Vegas Uncork’d, and some of the best chefs in the world were assembled at Hakkasan for a photo op. Standing to the side, I felt a tap on my shoulder and turned to see Joël Robuchon—arguably the most respected and intimidating chef on the planet. He did what he does almost every time he sees me: pointed at the new colors in my Mohawk, gave me a thumbs up and had his assistant take a photo of us together to post on his Facebook page.

Yeah, I’m living the dream: celebrity-chef pals and all the truffles, caviar and foie gras I can handle. Everyone I know wants my job. The truth is, the path that brought me here has been driven mostly by dumb luck, career setbacks, insecurities and even spite—not the typical road map to a dream job.

Mancini eyes dinner

Mancini eyes dinner.

I grew up in South Jersey, where Chinese food was as exotic as it got. I was in my 20s before I ever sampled sushi. My first visit to a world-class restaurant came at the age of 21. But that night at Windows on the World atop the World Trade Center was about proposing to my future wife, so I paid little attention to the food. It would be six years before my next taste of haute cuisine.

Things changed drastically when we moved to New York City in 1991. Ethnic cuisine was plentiful and cheap, which meant a lot after I lost my job managing a recording studio and began flipping pizzas and pouring beer for $5 an hour at the famous punk club CBGB. My friends and I discussed the new Nirvana album over Indian food and ate Ethiopian raw beef with our fingers before catching Sonic Youth’s latest set. From Ukrainian to Israeli, I devoured it all.

The next unlikely step in my career evolution came when I enrolled in law school in 1992. My three years there helped me refine my writing skills. But just as important was the fact that I stood out as a total freak. At the time, my long, jet-black hair and facial piercings were considered pretty wild for law school. And while I excelled academically and had numerous friends, there was always a sense that I didn’t quite belong.

One of the paradoxes of my unconventional look is that while many people think I cast myself as an outsider (see: the aforementioned long hair, piercings and Mohawks, as well as tattoos on my head and a 6-inch goatee), I’ve never tolerated the idea that I don’t belong in certain social situations. So when I heard two more affluent classmates talking about the legendary New York restaurant Le Cirque, of which I’d never heard, I was wracked with insecurity. I could not stand the fact there was a world in which they were comfortable and I was not.

I bought dining guides and food publications (the Internet was still in its infancy) and began educating myself, so if the topic of fine dining came up, I could contribute to the conversation. And on the day of my graduation, when my parents wanted to take me to dinner, I suggested Daniel Boulud’s restaurant, Daniel. I could only secure a 5 p.m. reservation, so we had to rush there from the Lincoln Center ceremony to make it.

By the end of the meal, my life had changed. The food, the service, the atmosphere—every aspect of the experience spoke to me. Regardless of the circumstances that had led me there, this was a world I had to know better. When I decided not to practice law, instead taking a job as a rock ’n’ roll reporter for ABC News Radio, my wife and I celebrated at Le Cirque. And for the next several years we kept a piggy bank on top of our refrigerator to save up for fine-dining excursions.

Mancini rocks long hair during his law school days.

Mancini rocks long hair during his law school days.

Despite my growing love of all types of food, I never imagined I’d earn a living writing about it. When ABC News moved me to Las Vegas to cover entertainment, I decided I also wanted to write for a local paper to feel like part of the community. The first job I landed was reviewing strip clubs for an alt-weekly magazine. When that job ended, the editors of CityLife approached me about writing for them, and the first opening they had was as a restaurant critic. Offers from other publications soon followed.

As the years passed, I found my passion for music had been replaced by a passion for food and food writing. If I had band interviews scheduled at the House of Blues, I’d kill time between them not in the club, but in one of Mandalay Bay’s restaurants chatting with the staff. While pop stars answered questions in the Billboard Music Awards pressroom, I went online looking at Michael Mina’s latest menu, planning my post-show meal. When the recession forced ABC News to eliminate its full-time Las Vegas correspondent, I finally made the shift; from that point on I’d be a food writer first. In the four-and-a-half years since, I’ve helped create three editions of a Las Vegas dining guidebook, dabbled in the world of food TV and penned hundreds of articles, including writing for Vegas Seven since last fall.

All in all, not bad for a guy who couldn’t even pronounce “foie gras” in his college days.


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