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April 8, 2021

In this issue: From Nightlife Exec to Mindfulness Guru | Max Wilbert on the Environmental Movement's Bright Green Lies | 'Black Sheep' Jamie Tran's Turn on Top Chef

FOR MANY, especially in Las Vegas, the pandemic has underlined one of those essential life skills you hope you’ll rarely need: turning a negative into a positive. A year ago, nightlife impresario David Bradley was a rising star on the Strip, widely recognized as “the nicest guy in nightlife.” He had spent eight years climbing through the ranks at Wynn Las Vegas, developing brands, courting celebrities, entertaining nonstop.

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“My whole job was making sure everyone else was okay and having fun, including staff,” he says. It was often glamorous work, and Bradley was good at it, earning the company’s coveted Star of the Year Award.

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But it was also a grind, six days and several nights a week for eight years, so in 2018 he left for MGM Resorts International, where he helped launch a new division as executive director of operations, events, and nightlife. The job offered a chance to regain some work-life balance. “The journey to self-discovery for me started right when I quit the Wynn,” Bradley says, looking back. “You’re giving your soul to people, and while I loved every minute of it, I was drained.”

Then came the ravages of 2020, and his path, as with so many on the Strip and in the community, was irrevocably altered. With the nightlife industry in mothballs, MGM initially furloughed Bradley, then let him go.

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Around this time, his family welcomed its first grandson, Joaquin, and Bradley’s journey to self-discovery picked up speed: “I said, ‘I want to leave a legacy that is something positive and something in honor of Joaquin.’ I realized that it’s my goal in life to leave this legacy.”

It was time to turn the pandemic’s negative into a positive, and Bradley’s vehicle for this would be a small child with an oversized noggin — Big Head Bob, star of The Adventures of Big Head Bob, a childre

n’s book Bradley created in his now-abundant free time. The boy’s awkwardly large head poses challenges in everyday situations — going to the movies, flying a kite, playing soccer: “In sports, he wasn’t welcome to play / “Move, Bob, your big HEAD is in the way!” Classic childhood scenarios of not fitting in: “People treat me like an unwanted toy / I wish I could just be a normal boy.” Bob uses tactics like meditation, breathing, and clear thinking to solve his problems, delivering a message of self-acceptance and inclusion while encouraging readers to “transform your weakness into strength.”

If “nightlife to children’s literature” sounds like the kind of improbable left-turn narrative that the pandemic era specializes in — and it is — this one does have a longer origin story.

“I’ve been drawing this character since I was a kid,” Bradley says. “I would draw a very large head, with the goofy eyes and a small body. It wasn’t really good but I thought it was hilarious. I would draw him everywhere, and I called him Bob.” Some of Bob’s adventures derive from his Bradley’s experiences growing up with reading comprehension struggles that required speech classes. His coping strategies are drawn from his own life, too.

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“He was always taking breaks to meditate,” says Jannie Lam, a colleague of Bradley’s at both Wynn and MGM, who now assists with Big Head Bob’s ongoing projects. “He was a very mindful and positive person, and the meditation would help him deal with stress.”

Unlike Bradley’s, Bob’s head is translucent; you can always see some of the background through it, the idea being that kids can more readily put themselves in Bob’s place regardless of their own ethnicity or other defining features. Bradley is working with artists across the globe to draw Bob in their hometowns, so if you visit his website, you’ll see Bob in Egypt, Asia, and Las Vegas.

After he was furloughed in March 2020, Bradley began taking long strolls on a rooftop walking path that offered a view of his former domain. “Each time I would pass the Strip, I would think, that’s not the future for me.”

But the skills he had developed in the hectic and fluid world of Strip nightlife paid off.  What he didn’t know about publishing, which was everything (“I didn’t know how to edit a book, I didn’t know how to construct a story, I didn’t know how to animate or illustrate”) he made up for with an ability to organize, package, get things done. “My previous jobs in Vegas allowed me to see how to put things together,” he says. “I think being there gave me the tools to accomplish any task. ... I had gotten so good at excelling in chaos.”

Walk into Bradley’s apartment today and you’ll find the outlines of an entire Bob universe in the works — books, board games, merchandise, digital videos, and more. He might be Zooming with classes in Vegas or as far away as Toronto, preaching mindfulness and connecting with educators. 

“The reaction I’ve been getting is telling me it’s all worth it,” Bradley says. He’s donating the proceeds of Big Head Bob to the Clark County School District in honor of Nevada Reading Week — more than $2,500 in the book’s first month. 

If this is a pandemic success story, it’s also, in its way, a pretty good Las Vegas story, too — this city is full of optimists just like Bradley, now working to redirect their upended lives onto new and more fulfilling paths.

“I want people to identify their weakness and create a system and a motion for change,” Bradley says, “to help themselves and the people around them.”

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THE RECENTLY RELEASED book Bright Green Lies: How the Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It is designed to disabuse a well-meaning public of the notion that Teslas and wind farms will save the planet. They won’t, say the three coauthors, Derrick Jensen, Lierre Keith, and Max Wilbert; at best, they’ll slow our inevitable self-destruction. The only thing that can save us is serious lifestyle change. What would that look like? From Thacker Pass in Humboldt County, Nevada, where he’s camped out with other activists protesting a pending lithium mine, Wilbert explains.

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What’s the premise of Bright Green Lies?
"Bright green" environmentalists believe that technological changes can make our culture sustainable, and there’s not actually very good evidence to support this. In fact, the opposite is true. So, our book critiques technological solutions from an environmental perspective. We’re not just saying that solar panels and wind turbines are destructive. We’re saying that they’re actively misleading our movements and pulling us in the wrong direction.

So, I drive an electric car based on the belief I’m helping the planet. In your view, what should I be doing instead?
Cars themselves are the problem and some environmentalists have been pointing this out for decades. Car culture, urban sprawl, parking lots — these things don’t depend on the fuel that powers the car; they’re consequences of the car itself. People need to recognize that we’re not going to buy our way out of the ecological problems we face. In fact, the opposite is true. As long as we continue to invest in the mindset that produces this culture, that comes out of the idea that factories will save the planet, then we’re going to be led deeper into this mass extinction event.

So, what should I do?
People may want rapid transport anywhere they want to go instantaneously, but it may be the case that isn’t possible to do in a sustainable way. And if that is the case, as evidence is pointing to right now, then we need to be asking ourselves, what do we really need? Do we need cars or clean water? Do we need rapid transit options or sustainable food systems that can support our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren? … The question is, are we going to voluntarily change the way we live or continue destroying the living world until it can no longer sustain us, and we have to face the music?

Describe the lifestyle change that saves us.
The only sustainable way to live is local. The food movement has recognized this for years. … We need to apply that to our clothing, housing, transportation, everything we rely on. There are thousands of cultures that have lived in sustainable ways. It’s not a mystery how to live sustainably. You just have to take what the land can generate — for generation after generation.

We need to radically reduce our consumption and the amount of energy we use, because most of it is wasted. Most of the products we use are not essential. They’re not keeping us alive. They’re frivolous. It’s particularly crazy to me that the world is being destroyed so we can keep the lights on in shopping malls and power server farms to mine bitcoin.

It seems like there’s a vast gulf between where we are and what you’re describing.
There is a really wide gulf. Ecological collapse is ongoing. We’re living through it right now, and it’s only because we’re so disconnected from the natural world that we don’t see it. How many people reading this story can name 10 bird species in their area based on their songs? How many people could hear 10 ad jingles and say which corporation they’re for? We’re profoundly disconnected from the world right outside our doors. When that’s true, it’s understandable that people don’t feel the enormity of these problems. Cheap energy insulates us from the impacts of ecological collapse. But if you’re living in Bangladesh, ecological collapse is knocking at your door.

To some people (true sustainability) may sound like a dream. What I want people to realize is the normality of this culture, that’s the dream. The way we’re living now is an aberration in human history, and cultures that live this way destroy themselves.

How does what’s going on at Thacker Pass illustrate Bright Green Lies’ argument?
I first heard of Thacker Pass when I was researching the book. I knew this North central part of Nevada was a special place. So, once I learned this project was imminent, I felt I had to come see it. There are so few environmental groups standing up against these projects, because we’ve been sold this idea that to stop global warming, we need to sacrifice places like this. … Projects like this threaten groundwater and biodiversity, take a place full of life and that can sustain life, and turn it into an industrial extraction zone that would poison the Earth for hundreds of years into the future.

Spell out the connection between a lithium mine and the technological solutions to global warming that you critique.
Lithium America, the Canadian mining company that plans to destroy this place, says, over and over again, that this is a "green mine," because the lithium that would be produced here would mainly go toward electric car batteries. We all know global warming is a serious problem and burning fossil fuels is a main driver of that, so these people believe replacing oil with lithium will help save the planet. But what they don’t recognize is that habitat destruction is a main driver of global warming and the mass extinction event we find ourselves in.

People also need to realize that a mine like this is completely dependent on fossil fuels. This project would burn thousands of gallons of diesel fuel every day. The mining would take place using large diesel-powered dump trucks, move all materials on semis fueled by diesel, and the main ingredient for processing lithium ore is sulfur, which is a waste product from oil refineries.

Thacker Pass isn’t your first Nevada environmental protest, but you’re from the Pacific Northwest. How’d you end up here?
I got involved in Nevada environmental issues when I lived in Salt Lake City and started to fight the Southern Nevada Water Authority groundwater development project, or as the locals called it, “the water grab.” I was involved in fighting that project for six to seven years and spent a lot of time out on the land in … the region that would have been affected by it.

I’ve also been involved in some Piñon-Juniper forest issues in Nevada for a number of years now. The Bureau of Land Management has been pushing pretty aggressive projects they call “restoration,” which involve cutting down/bulldozing thousands of acres of Piñon-Juniper forests across the state. Those projects have been decried widely by a lot of Indigenous communities because pine nuts are an important traditional food source and juniper trees are source of medicine. So, I’ve been working in Nevada for a while now and I fell in love with it. It’s an incredible place. You can drive out a dirt road and find a whole valley where you’re the only human being for miles in any direction. That it isn’t possible in most other states. Most quiet, beautiful, biodiverse places are facing industrial sprawl.

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WHILE FOOTBALL SEASON didn’t go all that well for the Raiders, and it remains to be seen how our beloved Vegas Golden Knights do in this year’s NHL playoffs, Las Vegas now has another hometown talent to root for: Jamie Tran, chef and co-owner of The Black Sheep. Known for her playful, daring take on traditional Vietnamese dishes, Tran is currently showcasing her talents on the new season of Top Chef, which began airing on Bravo April 1. We caught up with her to discuss her thoughts on the experience, what’s new with The Black Sheep, and her penchant for making wacky sound effects in stressful situations.

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Were you a fan of Top Chef before going on the show?
Yes. I watched the first season up until 2009. I was definitely a big fan. My friend asked me in college, “Would you ever be on Top Chef?” And I was like, “Hell no. That's really scary. I don't want to be on TV. I'll never do that.” And then, I don't know. I'm on it now.

What were you doing when the producers approached you?
The restaurant was closed. We were open for take-out. It was the beginning of the pandemic so we shut down. They contacted me around that time.

Was it a surprise?

Yeah, when they reached out, I wasn't sure if I wanted to do it. Then I talked to my executive sous chef and he said, "Just do it." I didn't know. I don’t like competitions. I don't even do local ones like the Back of House Brawl. I just decided if I can do this, I can show them (my staff) that they can do anything. I told that to my executive sous chef.

You were in a bubble throughout the production. Do you think your experience was that much different from a normal season?
Yes. From watching to being on it, it was a lot different. We were in a bubble and we were protected and definitely separated from the whole crew. It was different. We did COVID testing two or three times a week. During the entire production, nobody caught it.

Did you get to see Portland at all?
I don't think we really fully experienced Portland. There was COVID and the Black Lives Matter marches and the fires.

What's it like being in the bubble with no phone or no TV, no knowledge of what's going on in the outside world?
The smoke was apparent from the fires, but everything else, they just kept us focused on the competition.

Were there any guests that you fan-girled out for?
I think all of them. I have a lot of anxiety, so no matter who they brought in, I was like, “Oh my God.”

What was the hardest thing about the competition?
I think my anxiety. It hit me pretty hard. I have performance anxiety since I don't do competitions.

How did you work through it?
I pushed myself through it. That’s why you hear those wacky sound effects. (If you watch the show, Tran makes interesting sounds with her mouth to explain or emote certain things.)

That was your coping mechanism?
My anxiety either makes me a hothead or not a hothead. I talk nonsense. I don’t know.

What was the best part of being on the show?
I made a lot of friends. All 15 of the competitors are all friends. We still talk to this day. Even the people behind the scenes, I'm friends with them as well.

Did you learn anything about yourself by doing this?
I definitely learned a lot about myself. I learned that I still don't like competitions, but even more so, I learned that I can just push through in a situation that I'm not comfortable with.

If they asked you to do a future season—

You wouldn't do it again?
That’s a hard no. It’s not my cup of tea.

What advice would you give future chefs appearing on Top Chef?
Make sure you have cardio. I didn't realize how much cardio was a part of it. Make sure your cardio is up there. There is a lot of running around. Especially on our season because of COVID, you have a lot of space and social distancing. The kitchen was bigger than other seasons. It was a lot of running.

Has your style as a chef evolved because of the show?
The mindset of just working calmly has. My friends on the show helped me with that. I think things through more. I’m processing things and being calmer in the kitchen.

It sounds like it was a supportive environment.
It was definitely a supportive environment. We weren't trying to kill each other. If somebody needed help, from the get go, I would jump in and help them.

Were you ever upset about a judging decision?
I was disappointed in myself in some stuff. Everybody was at some point. You could have done this or you could have done that.

How is The Black Sheep doing currently?
We're still dealing with the pandemic. We're at 50 percent capacity. We're not trying to overfill the restaurant. We're trying to be safe. It's hard, to tell you the truth. Nobody can run at 50 percent or less for all this time. We're a smaller place, so our overhead is not that crazy, which helps us out a lot.

What's different at the restaurant since you reopened?
I changed up the menu because I'm always influenced by my staff. I'm from California originally, so I like to incorporate that style of food. But it's nothing crazy.

I appreciate my staff even more since I came back. I always try to do things that represent them. We eat mole and tamales every Christmas. They bring it to me. So I wanted to put that on the menu. We did a dish on Valentine’s Day representative of that. It's now on our regular menu. Whenever we do a special menu, we pick something from it to put on the regular menu.

What's the dish?
It's a play on a Vietnamese dish that has a chicken leg and cucumber salad and broken rice. So I just did that, but incorporated mole and instead of chicken, I did grilled quail. It’s a comfort dish.

You also recently filmed a segment for a show on Netflix. When does that come out?
I'm not sure. They're still editing it.

That show was not a competition. Do you want to do more TV like that?
I’m more comfortable with non-competition shows. I think being myself is easier. In competitions, I am myself but there is more pressure. It’s less anxiety doing something natural. Competition is not natural for me.

What do you want people to know about you as a chef?
Honestly, when we opened the restaurant, I wanted for us chefs and restaurants in general, I want people to take us people off-Strip more seriously. That’s what we're trying to do off-Strip, trying to make sure we’re seen in a different light. I wanted to represent Vegas to show that we do have talent out here and that we can compete with any other major cities.

You're a good representative for that.
I'm a wacky representative.

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Photos and art: David Bradley, Bright Green Lies book, and Jamie Tran by Christopher Smith; Top Chef still by David Moir/Bravo

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