It’s a Tuesday evening in June, and the dining room at Hard Rock Hotel’s Culinary Dropout looks more like a biker bar than a restaurant. The crowd is heavily tattooed, many dressed in T-shirts and leather vests adorned with matching skull-and-knife logos. At the bar, they enthusiastically throw back shot after shot.
But this rowdy, boisterous group isn’t a motorcycle club. They’re a cross-section of the local food scene, from a celebrity chef to grunt line cooks. And they’re here to cheer on their friend and “leader,” Christian Dolias, as he competes on The Food Network’s Chopped. As a group, they’re known as CutThroat Culinary, and they’re quickly changing the way Las Vegas chefs view kitchen culture.
Over the past year or so, The CutThroat Culinary logo has been popping up all over the local dining scene. You’ll find chefs sporting their T-shirts every week at the Saturday Night truck stop, where Dolias regularly lends a hand to organizer Jolene Mannina. The group has hosted several successful pop-up dinners. And it serves as impromptu caterer at events like the Life Is Beautiful announcement party and the upcoming Motley Brews beer festival. But all of this begs a simple question: Exactly what is CutThroat Culinary? The answer depends on who you ask.
Dolias, who originally conceptualized the idea at home in 1999, sometimes compares it to either a biker club or the Rotary Club. His emblazoned leather vest lists him as president, and he refers to Chef Jesse Moreno of the MGM’s exclusive Mansion as his vice president.
But Naked City Pizza owner Chris Palmeri, who attended the viewing party in a CutThroat Culinary T-shirt, and recently collaborated with the group on a pop-up dinner, sees it differently. “I know some of them consider it a club, and that’s cool, [because] it’s kind of like a little brotherhood or sisterhood,” he concedes. “But for me it’s more of a mind-set.”
“I’m not 100 percent sure [what it is],” says supporter Rick Moonen, who first met Dolias when the young chef asked him to autograph a tattoo he had of Moonen on his thigh. “It’s a clothing line … and a brand, I would guess, that he’s trying to create and promote.”
“CutThroat is just a collaboration of the underground of today’s new chefs,” offers Chris Herrin, former pastry chef at Bouchon and former owner of Bread & Butter bakery in Henderson.
Whatever CutThroat Culinary is, Dolias is clearly at its heart. The 34-year-old first conceptualized it after dropping out of culinary school and leaving the field.
“I dropped out of professional kitchens shortly after starting in professional kitchens in 1999,” he says. “I just realized that as much as I was passionate about food and cooking, I wasn’t interested in everybody else’s mundane, run-of-the-mill, status quo recipes and dishes. I had an ideal of what I wanted to do. And by using social media to showcase some of the dishes that I was doing without having the backbone of a restaurant, I simply created a ghost entity, or a brand, to give an idea of what I was doing with food.”
For more than a decade, it remained a solo project — something Dolias did in his own kitchen after working a full day in the corporate offices of Target. But by 2009, his Internet posts about his kitchen experiments began to draw attention.
“I had guys in San Antonio, Texas, guys in New York, Alaska, Maui, who were working in professional kitchens, that took what I was doing — ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ — and began reaching out to me.”
Still, Dolias’ cooking was confined to his Riverside County, Calif., home, and his largest events were dinner parties for family and friends from the local tattoo scene. But he began to realize that his neighborhood was starving for something new.
“The whole area is monopolized by Chili’s and all these corporate shit shows,” he says of his former home. “And these people are so blinded. It’s like the Matrix, not knowing that you’re living in this bubble. It’s the food that you think is great, so you’re gonna go to Yard House or P.F. Chang’s.”
So, like a culinary Morpheus, in 2011 he offered his community a red pill, in the form of a series of monthly pop-up dinners in his backyard. The first one sold out, and he began to do more events in the L.A. and San Diego areas. He also made frequent road trips to spread the gospel and hand out T-shirts.
“He would drive in to Las Vegas to attend events all the time,” Moonen recalls.
Last August, Dolias became a permanent resident. A friend offered him a job preparing charcuterie at Culinary Dropout. And as a Las Vegan, he’s no longer looking to shake up the chain restaurant culture of suburbia with his alternative food events, but the corporate culture of The Strip.
“The people that I want to fucking shake,” he says “are these guys at the top of these hotels on The Strip. I don’t want them to be fearful of me. I want them to understand, and be relevant, and be aware … there’s a fucking coup happening. And it’s not an evil coup to overthrow a government; it’s just a coup to stir the thought process.”
And he’s spreading that message with a vengeance.
“I don’t think the kid ever sleeps,” jokes Palmeri. “He’s at every event. He’s in Henderson doing pop-ups. He’s over here doing pop-ups with me. He’s with Jolene [at the Truck Stop]. He’s working at Dropout. He’s out for dinner at everybody’s restaurants. The kid’s like a 24-hour machine!”
And the movement continues to spread. According to Dolias, CutThroat has “supporters and representation” in eight states, as well as London. He and other CutThroat chefs make road trips to cook with chefs in other states. And Chopped has given him national TV exposure. All in all, it’s not bad for a guy who dropped out of professional kitchens more than a decade ago.
“My goal as a young cook was to work with everybody,” Dolias says looking back on those early days. “I didn’t want to go work in one kitchen with one chef. I wanted to go work with everybody and be influenced by everybody.”
At this rate, he may have that opportunity.