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Review-Journal food writer Heidi Knapp Rinella has left the table

After more than two decades of keeping Review-Journal readers up to date on the food, faces and business moves of the Las Vegas dining scene, journalist Heidi Knapp Rinella is retiring. Her tenure at the paper coincided with the remarkable expansion of the city’s restaurant scene, and Rinella was there to cover it all as Las Vegas grew into an internationally recognized food destination. Her career has been marked by awards — including three first-place awards for critical writing from the Nevada Press Association — but even more so by the respect of her peers and readers. She will be missed.

However, we couldn’t let her leave the newsroom for good without submitting to something of an exit interview — one last digestif, if you will.

What’s your main takeaway from 22 years of covering the dining scene in Las Vegas?

That the profession is one of the hardest and at the same time most fulfilling for the people who choose it, with the most successful ones dedicated to it on a level that rivals a religious calling. And that this is a community of warm, caring people, with that nowhere more apparent than in the restaurant industry and the R-J readers who are interested in food and dining. In contact with probably thousands over the years, negative interactions were very, very few, and when my daughter died in a crash nearly 12 years ago, the number of people — casual friends, distant acquaintances and absolute strangers — who reached out to me was a comfort I can’t even verbalize, and I can never fully express how grateful I was and remain. This city will always hold an immensely special place in my heart.

Was there a trend in Vegas dining that you especially liked? One you didn’t?

I love the continually increasing diversification and the experimentation of all kinds, even when it’s less than successful. I also love the fun fusion combinations that have arisen, which recognize common ground in cuisines in a way people can learn from.

Didn’t like: The ubiquitousness of kale. Always hated it, always will, no matter how many times people try to put lipstick on this particular pig.

You must’ve had a few memorable encounters with chefs …

I guess what I mostly liked was hearing their stories — like when Wolfgang Puck told me that when he opened Spago at the Forum Shops in 1992, people started lining up at the open kitchen as though it were a buffet. Spago opened during or just before NFR, and he said he’d never seen so many cowboy hats and thought that was how it always was. He said he feared the restaurant would never make it, and so he’d go home each night, drink a bottle of wine and then go back to it the next day. He had no idea he was about to change Las Vegas.

Who was the biggest character you encountered?

I’d say that would have to be the late Jay Hamada, and I say that with the utmost affection. The son of a Japanese naval officer who found himself out of a job when World War II ended, Hamada knew he’d have to make his own way and became an athlete and dancer. Luckily his friendship with a millionaire Kobe businessman, a corpulent man who was a frustrated dancer himself, led to Hamada leading a Japanese cultural group whose U.S. tour included a spot on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” He ended up coming to Las Vegas in 1962, starting as a dishwasher and bartender, and eventually had nine restaurants here. He was a blast to talk to and could still do the splits at age 72. And in a nod to my Austrian heritage, would blurt “Palatschinken!” (his favorite Austrian dish) when he saw me.

Memorable dishes?

There are so, so many, mostly good but a few bad. Probably one of the most memorable dishes of my career, though, was when I still lived in Florida and a friend dared me to try a restaurant’s specialty of scallops with white chocolate and mead. It was unexpectedly delicious, and reminded me that even the most unlikely combination could work. Sometimes.

Is there a now-shuttered restaurant you wish you could return to one more time?

That would have to be Pamplemousse on East Sahara Avenue. I loved everything about that terrific throwback: the fact that Bobby Darin inspired the name, the warren-like layout that arose from it being in an old house, the elegant service from waiters in tuxedos, the unfathomably elaborate crudite basket served with dinner, and the faithful renditions of French classics that never got stale. No. 2 would have to be Andre’s French Restaurant downtown.

Do you have a favorite food people might be surprised to learn that you love?

Every holiday season I have to bake my grandmother’s stollen, which contains the dreaded candied fruit. As the years have passed I’ve ended up the only one in the family who will eat it. I guess it will die with me! Conversely, I will never eat squab. I believed my great-grandmother, who said it was only pigeon.

What restaurant will you visit first in your retirement?

That question reminds me of people asking me my favorite restaurant, which happened often. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to disclose it, but that it would change with the day, hour, my mood, cravings, etc. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been a regular at a restaurant and probably never will. There’s just too much out there to experience.

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