I thought we could start with your professional backgrounds. Clint, can you start us off?
C: I grew up in a butcher shop. My family’s had butcher shops in Reno since 1932, so 85 years as a family business. I got involved when I was 5. Then I went to work in a deli, and when I was 14, the guy that was cooking there left one summer, and said, ‘Hey guess what? You get to run the kitchen.’ So I started cooking professionally at 14. I opened a catering business in February 2010, sold that last June, became a partner in Mellow Fellow restaurants in Reno, sold off everything I had, gave away the rest, and hit the road in January. And now I’m sitting in Prague.
Having adventures over a world away. How about yourself, Natasha?
N: I’m first generation American on my dad’s side—he’s Russian. I’m a native Nevadan, born in Las Vegas and moved up here when I was 3 or 4 years old. Went to Wooster, went to UNR and then graduated with an international relations degree. I was intending on being a diplomat in the UN, but I found the UN a touch frustrating for my ‘like-to-see-action level,’ so I shifted largely into events and PR. I spent about 15 years doing public relations and marketing, and just left in November 2017 and went out to pursue a freelance (writing) career.
The first Reno Bites Week was in 2012—what was the idea behind the event originally?
C: I started traveling around big food cities like Portland and San Francisco and LA; they have these food weeks going and I just thought that Reno was close to being ready to have something like that. I met Natasha in the radio world, just casually, and I knew she loved food, she was in the marketing and PR side. We had lunch down at Old Granite Street and I presented the idea to her and said, ‘We might not make any money but it will be fun!’ She left saying, ‘I’ll think about it,’ and then she texted me from the car five minutes later saying, ‘Yeah, I’m sold.’ [laughs]
N: [laughs] Yeah, that was a tough sale.
Reno has been building its culinary reputation for a while. Natasha, what was your experience like with food in Reno when he first approached you with the idea?
N: I had worked at Artown, I’d worked in the Reno Air Races, I’d worked in big events; but most of my PR career was doing public relations for hospitality organizations and businesses outside of this area. So I’d worked with Michelin star restaurants, I’d worked with resorts like Mammoth, Squaw, Catalina Islands; all kind of big destinations and all of them were food-driven. It was a burgeoning thing, in terms of getting that farm-to-table movement going—making gourmet more friendly for the average person.
Reno, for the longest time, was defined by chain restaurants and casino buffets. So that first year that Reno Bites Week happened, what went into the planning and what did you have to change for the years after?
C: I reached out to fellow chefs and restaurants—went to people that we trusted and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this idea.’ In the first year, just like anything, we had some stumbles but overall a great success. We had our goofy little Chef Showdown, which has now turned into a big event.
The first year took place in a parking garage next to SoDo–or what was SoDo, now it’s Washoe Public House. It was a little bit scrappy and fun, but it worked. Then we did some surveys last year that allowed us to really make some changes: We’re going to two weeks (instead of one) and we got rid of some events that restaurants thought were getting in the way of their regular day-to-day business.
N: We also had to educate the customer base in terms of what we were creating for them. Part of our mission was always to drive customers into the restaurants for the authentic experience. In this town, there are a lot of events that invite restaurants out of their [buildings] and to big ballrooms full of chefs offering samples of foods. We didn’t want that. We wanted to encourage people to go out and explore these little, great restaurants, but in their own setting—in the chef’s happy place. With the ambience that they contribute on top of the food.
So how does the event work for restaurants involved? I read that they’ll be offering $10, $20 and $30 dining options.
C: Sometimes we’ll have, like, Yosh’s Deli do a sandwich and a drink for 10 bucks, which is a big 20 percent discount off their regular menu. And on the $30 end, you might have a three-course at a place like Washoe Public House, or you might get two pizzas and some wings at Noble Pie. That makes it easier for customers to find a local restaurant that fits what they’re looking for. From the restaurant’s point of view, it makes it easy for them. They can take a good selling item from their menu, put a discount on it and fuel the fire. Or they can make something brand new if a chef wants to do something fun, and put together a special menu just for Reno Bites.
Since it’s entering its seventh year, maybe you guys could tell me some of your favorite memories from events past?
C: The second year at Campo, when Mark Estee still owned it, they did a tasting of ‘awful.’ So it was kidneys and brains and all the off-cuts, but it was just awesome. Even as a butcher my whole life, I tried some new stuff there that I hadn’t tried and that was super cool. Also the Chef Showdown just amazes me every year, as a chef especially. We give them four ingredients, and they’re in little tiny home kitchens, but they put amazing plates together, so I love seeing that.
N: Two of my favorites were certainly the foie gras dinner (the first year at Campo); that was insane. California had just made it illegal, so we actually went over the border for PR to get the word out. Estee did seven courses of foie gras—seven courses of foie gras!—like foie gras ice cream for dessert. It was so indulgent. The other was Dinner in the Dark. Ben Deinken from Tournant, which is a pop-up, did a multi-course dinner in the dark. Everyone ate blindfolded so you really had to engage your other senses—it was really amazing.
What can we look for this year?
N: We are only going to have three events this year. The Walk-a-Bite is one of the ones we’re going to keep, and we’re going to put it in Midtown this year. And we’ll have the Chef Showdown and the kickoff event. We’re going to keep it limited so that people can really get out there and enjoy the restaurants themselves.
Awesome, we’ll be looking forward to the turnout. Thanks again to both of you for taking the time to speak with me today.