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Neon Museum Lights Up History

Billing itself as “the world’s largest collection of neon signage,” the outdoor Neon Museum in Las Vegas proclaims itself to be “Part history. Part art. Completelyawesome.”

Its own sign pays homage to Las Vegas: The first “N” is from the Golden Nugget font, the “E” from Caesar’s, the “O” from Binion’s and the final “N” is from the Desert Inn.

The letters share the stage with the stars from the Stardust and the starburst from the “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas” sign.

Enter the visitor’s center and you’ll find yourself in what used to be the La Concha Motel lobby, a shell-like building designed by Paul Revere Williams, the first African-American member of the American Institute of Architects. The mosaic lobby sign is original to the motel and has been restored.

Step out into the museum’s Boneyard for a guided tour and you’re surrounded by a mish-mash of signage.

A sign for a dry cleaner leans up against an arrow pointing the way to wedding information. The sign for the Liberace Museum is comprised of his distinctive scrawl, which turns hot pink when lit.

Elsewhere stands a hodgepodge of signs for La Concha Motel, the Silver Slipper and the Stardust. Standing guard is the baby duck from Ugly Duckling Car Sales, its body made of neon tubing. A short stroll away, stands the 30,000-bulb Benny Binion’s Horseshoe sign.

No doubt the most familiar will be a version of the Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas sign, designed by Betty Jane Willis. (The original sign is almost nine miles away, on the southern end of the Strip.)

Only seven of the museum’s assemblage of some 200 signs have been restored, although several more, including signs from the Riviera and the Sahara, still work. The museum doesn’t expect to restore all the signs, only to keep them from deteriorating further.

Our tour guide explained how the signs were made and how they fit into Las Vegas history.

Because each glass tube has to be made by hand, neon signs are expensive and difficult to repair, she pointed out. For the most part, they have been replaced with LEDs.

The Boneyard also offers a night tour, when the lights are turned on. And a gift shop replete with photos from a bygone Las Vegas, as well as retro — and kitschy — souvenirs.

New York City: Mabel Checks In

Living room at Ink48's Hudson River Suite; courtesy of hotel
Living room at Ink48’s Hudson River Suite; courtesy of hotel.

It can be daunting for a little dog to travel to the big city. Especially when said pooch –– all 10 pounds of her –– isn’t shy about giving bark to her concerns when strangers approach. Hardly the ideal way for man’s best friend to make a good impression when arriving at a New York City hotel, boarding the elevator or greeting the maid at turn down.

Fortunately, Mabel, my Chihuahua-terrier mix, has learned to quickly adapt to new surroundings and show courtesy as a guest (by adhering to a personal policy of no accidents). Since she never wants to be left behind, my husband and I try to bring her on our travels whenever possible.

A veteran of jaunts to the Jersey Shore, coastal New England and the Berkshires, Mabel recently joined us on two separate overnight trips to pet-friendly hotels in Gotham.

Here’s what we learned from taking her to the city that never sleeps –– fortunately, she did.

The Suite Life The humans in the pack enjoyed getting an upgrade from a standard queen room to the Hudson River Suite at Ink48, a Kimpton property in a far west corner of Hell’s Kitchen. We settled right in to a living/bedroom combination that seemed bigger than a typical one-bedroom apartment in NYC. Little Mabel, however, seemed overwhelmed by the space, which also featured a long wall of floor-to-ceiling windows. To ensure her comfort level (and no barking while she was alone), we set up her bed with food and water in the spacious bathroom –– with the glass door closed, it became her den.

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A typically compact guest room at The Marlton; courtesy of hotel.

New York-Size Is Right-Size On another visit to NYC, we stayed at The Marlton Hotel, a boutique property in the West Village that’s affiliated with Tablet. The room proved more typically New York-sized –– just big enough for a queen-size bed, with plenty of space underneath for a small dog to explore; night tables and a small ottoman. (In fact, The Marlton restricts the size of its doggie guests to 30 pounds.) Mabel immediately took to the compact quarters, and enjoyed curling up under (and on top of) the bed.

Sniff Test As any dog owner will attest, finding a spot for your dog to conduct its business is a crucial piece of business when visiting a new place. The Marlton is situated about two blocks from Washington Square Park, which Mabel immediately initiated as her turf. In contrast, the far West Side location of Ink48 is largely a concrete jungle of car dealerships and commercial buildings. The absence of nearby green space –– coupled with residual snow from a recent winter storm –– made the going difficult for Miss M.

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Mabel relaxes in her guest bed at Ink48.

What, No Room Service?! Unlike some properties that charge as much as $50 a night for a pet, neither hotel imposed a separate fee for bringing Mabel. Instead we just had to sign a form accepting responsibility for any damages (there were none). Ink48, as part of Kimpton’s pet program, went several steps further, by providing a Mabel-sized bed, water and food bowls and a mat. In both cases, Mabel dined in room on her favorite meal of kibble, topped with some roasted chicken.

Noises Off Although the humans found Ink48’s location to be convenient to Hell’s Kitchen and the Theater District, Mabel was not amused by the rumble of the constant traffic along 11th Avenue. With trucks ranking just behind mail carriers, Fedex and UPS delivery people, among her least-favorite things, Mabel never completely found her outdoor mojo. In contrast, the small scale (and lightly trafficked streets) around The Marlton made it seem as if she were back home in similarly scaled Philadelphia.

 

 

 

 

Oslo: A Design District Emerges from the Fjords

PHOTO COURTESY ASTRUP FEARNLEY2 Photo Nic Lehoux
Astrup Fearnley Museum

Oslo intends to ban all private cars from its city center by 2019. One district, Tjuvholmen (pronounced tchuv-holmen), set on a spit of land jutting into the Oslo Fjord, offers a preview. Here, only taxis and delivery vehicles can pass through an electronic gate and venture into the narrow streets of this revitalized neighborhood.

Although warehouses, docks and shipping offices have long been established in the area, its somewhat isolated location kept Tjuvholmen from taking off.

In the last decade, however, Oslo began a major waterfront redevelopment initiative and private developers stepped in to transform this former gritty district into one of the city’s most upscale cultural and residential areas.

Most visitors to Tjuvholmen arrive by buses, trams or ferries that stop in nearby Aker Brygge. From there, a five-ten minute walk leads to the little bridges that cross into Tjuvholmen, where the stunning, three-year old Renzo Piano-designed Astrup Fearnley Museum awaits.

The museum, which moved into the new building from its much smaller downtown location in 2012, houses the Astrup family’s private collection, including Norwegian and international artists like Damien Hirst, Anselm Kiefer, Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Matthew Barney, Alex Israel, Cindy Sherman and Charles Ray.

The roofs of the three timber-cladded Renzo Piano buildings resemble blowing sails. Some of the galleries have huge windows overlooking the sea, as if you were standing on the bow of a ship.

The Thief Hotel
The Thief Hotel

To bed down in this area, try The Thief, so-named not because of its high room rates, but because 18th century Tjuvholmen was known as “thieves’ island” and served as the site for criminal executions.

As one might expect in art-filled Tjuvholmen, The Thief has its own curator, Sune Nordgren, who oversees the 100+ museum quality artworks that are displayed inside and outside the property, including Sir Peter Blake’s collages in the suites and Richard Prince’s huge ink jet on canvas piece, “Cowboy – The Horse Thief” in the lobby.

Elsewhere in the district, upscale art galleries, including Galleri Brandstrup, Galleri Pushwagner and Stolper+Friends, have arrived, along with numerous restaurants, outdoor cafes, and brightly colored, design-driven residential buildings.

Nearly all face the sea, Oslo’s most precious asset.

London: The Details Matter at the Ham Yard

The lounge; images courtesy of the Ham Yard
The lounge; images courtesy of the Ham Yard

The Ham Yard, a luxury boutique hotel near Piccadilly Circus in London, gets the details right. Built on a site that has been little used since the destruction of the London Blitz, the 91-room Ham Yard has the feel of a sophisticated urban resort, with many inviting spaces. These include a lively ground-level restaurant and bar, a private cinema, four-lane bowling alley and a gym with a “hypoxic” studio to help condition the body for mountain-climbing. Notably, a Zen-like spa also offers a full menu of massages and treatments from which to recover from said workouts.

The Buzz The Ham Yard attracts an international set that’s dressed in smart designer duds, but doesn’t flash its success. The restaurant-bar scene on a weekend night was dominated by bright young things in their 20s and 30s, while the private spaces of the hotel skewed a little older and included some families.

The Location The Ham Yard is steps away from the Piccadilly Circus stop on the London Underground, yet mostly cocooned from the attendant crowds, thanks to its placement within its own, greenery-infused courtyard. The location is within a 15-minute stroll of the National Gallery of Art, the Church of St. Martin in the Fields and the West End theater district. On weekend nights, a raucous party scene erupts on the streets around the property, but it didn’t interfere with my sound sleep.

ham yard-roomThe Look The design by co-owner Kit Kemp, who is a decorator by trade, is chic yet comfortable: Bright fabrics, artwork and lighting are inspired by Morocco and other world cultures to contrast with traditional English furniture and bathroom fixtures. The unusually spacious (by London’s shoebox standard) guest rooms are lit by floor-to-ceiling windows and feature granite or marble-lined bathrooms with heated towel racks and glass-walled stall showers.

The Meal The restaurant’s seasonally driven, small-plates menu offers dishes that are flavourful without being fussy, such as sea bream with cider-steamed mussels, cabbage and bacon, and sirloin steak paired with a kale pesto. For breakfast, you can opt for fruit, cereal and breads, or something cooked, such as the protein-rich slow-roasted Sicilian sausage, beans, tomato and basil. The convivial bar scene flows easily into the restaurant, so those seeking a more intimate setting might want to find a table in the adjacent conservatory-like space.

Bells & Whistles The ground floor library lounge, with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, overstuffed sofas and inviting wing chairs, conjures a more tranquil mood away from the bustling public spaces. I relaxed there post-theatre with a single-malt scotch from the honesty bar, marking down what I’d imbibed, so it could be billed to my room.

Ch-ch-changes? This new-construction hotel gets almost every detail right on the inside and should be applauded for not mimicking London’s traditional architecture. But compared with the sophistication of its interior spaces, the shopping mall-like blandness of Ham Yard’s ho-hum brick exterior is disappointing.

Branson: A Little Bit Flashy, A Little Bit Country

 

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The Strip; images courtesy of the Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau

I wasn’t sure what to expect from a recent first-time trip to Branson, Mo. I heard that Branson could be like stepping into the past, with an ultra-patriotic, mom-and-apple pie vibe. But I also heard it was a bit like Vegas, with dozens of showrooms hosting flashy, colorful performances.

It turns out both things are true, but Branson is more than the sum of its parts. A four-day visit had me hankering for a longer stay, as this is a destination with something for everyone: live theater, amusement rides, good dining, plenty of shopping and beautiful scenery, courtesy of the nearby Ozarks. But what really set Branson apart for me was the scope of its entertainment scene –– the city has nearly 50 showrooms clustered along its “Strip” –– and the reasonable prices: Most evening performances cost less than $35.

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Cassandre Faimon-Haygood

During my short visit, I tried to sample a range of Branson acts. I started with dinner and a performance on the Showboat Branson Belle, an 1880s-style paddle-wheel boat that offers a two-hour cruise on Table Rock Lake. The fast-paced variety show featured host/comedian/magician Christopher James, singer Cassandre Faimon-Haygood (who married into one of Branson’s well-known performing families), a four-man dance/clogging troupe called Rhythm and a terrific male vocal group, the ShowMen.

Wanting to make the most of my time, I checked out a second show that same night –– the acclaimed sibling act, The Haygoods. These seven brothers and one sister are tremendously talented musicians, singers and dancers. Between the humor, high-energy choreography and their musical talent, I quickly understood why this family act has been a Branson favorite for more than a decade. The night we caught their show, fiddler/singer Kayliann Lowe was filling in for the Haygood sister; she did such a fantastic job I’m not sure many people in the audience even realized she was an understudy.

While many of the theaters and performances feature elaborate stage sets and special effects, a more intimate show at the Little Opry Theatre at the Branson IMAX absolutely charmed me. Originally produced by Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Company, Smoke on the Mountain is a two-act musical comedy set in 1938 in North Carolina. It follows the fictitious Sanders Family Singers as they perform at a Baptist church’s Saturday Night Gospel Sing. The show expertly mixes comedic moments with more than 30 old-time gospel tunes, sung by a very talented –– and very funny –– cast.

I also enjoyed Branson’s popular tribute show, Patsy Cline Remembered, starring C.J. Newsom as the legendary country vocalist. Note: This is not a play about Cline’s life, rather a straight-out musical tribute featuring a capable, respectful singer with a strong backing band, cleverly called The Re-Cliners.

My only critique of Branson is not having enough time to see more of its stage talent. Next time, I’ll stay longer.

Marrakech: A Stroll Through the Souks

 

IMG_3832A journey through the core of the Marrakech medina begins at Djemaa El-Fnaa the central square.

At first glance, the square is nothing more than controlled chaos. Men with snakes wrapped around their necks play instruments to entice the other cobras lying on the floor, while monkeys tied to chains flip and claw at passersby.

Women shrouded in bright scarves beg for money, flashing toothless smiles while offering henna tattoos in exchange for coins.

Dodging through these street performers leads me to the souks. A labyrinth of stalls blinds my eyes with lustrous pashminas and enormous woven tapestries.

Carved, bronze lanterns sway in the warm breeze, reflecting slivers of blue and green onto the cobblestone streets. The aroma of spices is intoxicating.

Tucked back, an unassuming antique shop draws the attention of several tourists. Standing amidst the narrow, long space — filled with over-sized ceramic vases and hand-painted wooden screens — is Sharif, owner and antique connoisseur.

His suede wing tip shoes glide quietly on the floor, as he gestures to a set of stairs, enticing customers to explore another room filled with an incredible collection of mirrors, some tucked behind layers of forgotten masterpieces, others with small hinged doors adorned in elaborate carvings and rich rust colored stones.

Photos by Barrie Cohen
Photos by Barrie Cohen

Just beyond Sharif’s shop, a large, open showroom stands, revealing a stark, white interior.

It doesn’t look like much, but deep within this shop lies thousands of the most magnificent hand sewn Berber rugs.

A young male employee files in, carrying a silver tray with mint tea. Others stand with arms behind their backs, waiting for instructions. Moustafa, the Chateau de Souks manager, waltzes in, removing his glasses and extending his hand.

He begins his spiel, reciting the ancient history of Moroccan rug making, gesturing to his employees to begin pulling out intricately woven rugs in bold hues of crimson and saffron and deep blue.

Outside, the once vibrant streets turn dim as the sunlight fades. Faint chimes ring out in the distance, signaling the hour of prayer.

The air cools, bringing darkness, concealing Marrakech’s most sensational treasures in the shadows.

 

Heidelberg: Higher Education

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Photos by Ann Yungmeyer

Best known as home to Germany’s oldest university, founded in 1386, Heidelberg has many other historic attractions.

Chief among them is its Castle, perched on a hillside and overlooking the Neckar River Valley. A partially destroyed medieval fortress, it’s touted as Germany’s largest, most picturesque ruin.

Open for tours and accessible by a modern funicular from town, the castle houses the largest wine barrel in the world, with a capacity of about 222,000 liters.

I stood on top of it, then headed to the castle terrace for the awe-inspiring views that help give Heidelberg a reputation for beauty and romance.

More postcard views are found along the Alte Brucke (Old Bridge), immortalized in numerous poems and paintings.

Our tour guide, an American living in Heidelberg, told us that Thomas Jefferson, while serving as U.S. ambassador to France, walked across the Alte Brucke to christen it when it was completed in 1788.

A less frequented Heidelberg gem, but worth a visit, is the Benedictine Monastery Neuberg, about a 40-minute walk from town, or less by riverboat taxi.

Founded in 1130, the monastery is still active today and offers tours of the grounds and its Klosterhof brewery. Visitors are also welcome at 5:15 morning Prayer and chanting of psalms.

IMG_2966_3Klosterhof Neuberg brews unpasteurized, bio beers in the monastic tradition and ages the beer in whiskey barrels.

We cleared our palates between samples with the delicious regional specialty bretzel – a cross between baguette and pretzel.

Later, we enjoyed a traditional abbey lunch of soup, salad and fresh baked bread in the Klosterhof restaurant.

Near the monastery, a scenic hillside path called Philosophers’ Walk has inspired many scholars with its terrace gardens and peaceful landscaped nooks. Who could resist a stroll on such a path of intellectual inspiration?

From the mind to the heart, Heidelberg has it all covered.

In 1863, the city’s best known chocolatier, Herr Knosel, created a candy known as the Student’s Kiss, a token for university students to give to the young ladies in finishing school whom they wished to court.

The chocolate is still made in the family tradition at the original confectionary, owned by a great granddaughter of Knosel.

A sweet ending to a delightful visit.

 

 

 

New York City: Experience the Row

The lobby; images courtesy of Row NYC
The Row NYC lobby; images courtesy of the hotel

As the old show tune goes, “You gotta have a gimmick.” For the Row NYC, the hook is to offer boutique-style amenities at tourist-hotel prices in the heart of New York’s theater district. Formerly the Milford Plaza, it reopened last spring following a $140-million refurbishment. The two-story lobby is now set up as a café/lounge/restaurant space, with an upscale newsstand stocking international magazines, snacks and drinks. Complimentary Mac computers in the lobby, free WiFi in the guest rooms and toiletries from Pure by Gloss round out the contemporary vibe.

The Location The high-traffic zone along Eighth Avenue near the Port Authority Bus Terminal isn’t the most scenic spot in Manhattan, but for convenience, it can’t be beat. Broadway theaters, Rockefeller Center and Midtown shopping are all nearby, while Central Park is within an easy stroll. Multiple subway lines converge at Times Square.

The Buzz There’s definitely plenty of scene in the lobby, where guests congregate along the modern, back-lit grand staircase, as well as a mezzanine space fronting 8th Avenue. The crowd leans toward young European visitors, sleek business types and the occasional granny on a holiday package.

King guest room
King guest room

The Look The hotel’s pop-art inspiration starts in the public spaces, where Ron Galella, one of the first paparazzo-style photographers, has supplied original digital artworks, and continues with guest rooms decorated in a minimalist aesthetic with swaths of color inspired by the subway lines –– orange, in my case. Row NYC also includes practical amenities not always found in such design-centric spaces: nightstands with lights on both sides of the bed, a desk with an ergonomically friendly chair and adjustable light, and a luggage rack big enough for two rolling bags, with storage cubbies underneath.

The Meal There’s no shortage of great dining options nearby, including a Hell’s Kitchen outpost of the popular ramen restaurant Ippudo. For those who wish to eat in, the District M lobby restaurant and bar starts the day with eggs, oatmeal and pastries and breads sourced from Payard, Balthazar and other top purveyors. By night, the space morphs into a dining destination for Neapolitan-style pizza, cheeses selected from Murray’s in Greenwich Village and charcuterie, paired with house-made cocktails, wine and craft beer.

Bells & Whistles Just off the reception area is Iconic M, a branch of Soho News selling magazines from around the world and serving as a de facto minibar (guest rooms don’t have them) and source for toothpaste and other necessities. Although not quite as convenient as raiding one’s own larder for a late-night snack, the shop is much softer on the wallet. Drinks, granola bars and other snacks are priced comparably to what you would find in a drugstore or bodega.

Ch-ch-changes? Although the hotel aims for the personal touch, some niceties get lost in the largeness of it all. I asked for and received a 1 p.m. check out –– the regular time is noon. When I returned at 12:30 to pack up, I found myself locked out. Three trips to the front desk later, I still couldn’t get in. Finally, security came to the rescue. The front desk staff apologized, but since I was on my way out, I sensed my situation didn’t rank as the biggest priority.

Liverpool: My Own Magical Mystery Tour

tct-penny laneThis wasn’t my first pilgrimage to the Beatles’ hometown of Liverpool.

As a hardcore fan who as a child first glimpsed the Fab Four on The Ed Sullivan Show, I visited this industrial city two hours north of London back in the ’90s. But with all the attention being paid to the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ U.S. debut and having a free day during a trip to London, I decided to return.

To pack in as much Beatlemania as possible, I opted for the popular Magical Mystery Tour, which offers several outings each day.

The two-hour experience provided the perfect overview of the boys’ hometown. The dayglow-colored bus –– painted to look exactly like the one in the Magical Mystery Tour movie –– looked ridiculous, but we true devotees were proud to be seen in it.

Our guide, a down-to-earth local with plenty of Liverpool’s trademark “scouser” humor, waved to various townspeople as we tooled around. The ride came complete with piped-in Beatles songs to correspond with the plentiful related sights.

Some were of the slow-down-and-get-a-quick-glance variety –– the childhood homes of Ringo Starr and John Lennon; the Empress Pub featured on the cover of Ringo’s first solo album –– while others were full-fledged photo-op stops. The latter included Penny Lane, Strawberry Field, George Harrison’s very modest childhood home and Paul McCartney’s more middle-class one, which is now part of the National Trust. We also learned about their upbringings –– Ringo and George came from rather poor families; “Working Class Hero” John Lennon, raised by his Aunt Mimi, had the most well-to-do family.

Our guide kept things lively with plenty of anecdotes, pointing out, for example, the former department store where George Harrison worked briefly before getting the boot for absences after late-night gigs.

tct-cavern club-editThe tour even included free admission to the most hallowed spot of all for Beatlemaniacs, The Cavern Club (left), where the boys first gained a following and were discovered by manager Brian Epstein.

From the Cavern Club, which had a stage area even tinier than I imagined, I strolled back to the Albert Dock. There, I whiled away a few more hours wandering through The Beatles Story museum, which has two locations with different exhibits in each one. The many displays replicate important places and experiences in the Beatles’ history –– like the Mona Best-owned Casbah Club, where the-then Quarrymen practiced and performed early gigs with original drummer (and Mona’s son), Pete Best.

But I found more intriguing original artifacts, such as a soulful, mysterious love note George Harrison wrote to a post-Beatles era girlfriend.

The next time I visit Liverpool –– and there will be a next time –– I plan to continue this day in the life exploration of one of my favorite bands.

 

 

 

Montreal: Savoring Poutine

tct-poutine

The French fry –– hand-cut, sometimes twice-fried and hopefully well-salted –– has reclaimed its rightful place as a food group. We can thank the ubiquitous gastro-pub for the fry’s comeback, along with the proliferation of higher-quality, fast-food joints and the enduring popularity of the classic steak frites.

In Montreal, this bad-boy spud takes us farther down the junk-food rabbit hole as the anchor of the local specialty called poutine. This dish consists of a pile of fries –– or frites, naturellement –– gone delightfully wrong with the addition of cheese curds and brown gravy.

When my partner and I planned a brief trip recently to visit our nephew, Joseph, a first-year student at Montreal’s McGill University, we put poutine at the top of our must-eat list.

For our initial foray, we visited one of Montreal’s most famous poutine spots –– La Banquise  –– a 24-hour diner that has been keeping its fryers going constantly for nearly a half-century.

La Banquise, which is situated in the neighborhood of Le Plateau-Mont-Royal, serves up more than 30 different kinds of poutine. “La Classique” is the base platform for zipped-up versions like “La Reggae” (ground beef, guacamole, diced tomatoes and hot peppers), “La Danse (chicken, onions, bacon and pepper sauce) and “La Kamikaze” (merguez sausage, hot peppers and tabasco).

Similar to the cheesesteak stands in my native Philadelphia, La Banquise is atmospheric, but not a place to go just for the ambiance. It’s a destination for college students and twenty-somethings, multigenerational family groups and tourists, and everyone in between, all rubbing greasy elbows in a downscale dining room with artful grafitti on the walls.

The poutine at La Banquise hit all the right salty-rich notes –– and didn’t lead me to reach for the Pepto. While toppings are a highly personal choice, I can strongly advise against the corn dogs. Stick with more, um, organic choices like the smoked meat, and you’ll be fine.

But I wasn’t done with poutine yet. For a second, seemingly counter-intuitive experience, I went high-end. At Garde-Manger, a dimly lit bistro in Old Montreal, I savored poutine studded with succulent chunks of lobster The latter combo helped chef-owner Chuck Hughes claim Canada’s first victory in Iron Chef America.

It proved a winner for my palate, but I knew my sampling was far from over. With three years to go before my nephew graduates, I’ll be back for more.