Crab garlic fries was just one of the many reasonably priced selections that could be found at various food vendors during the festival.
Michael Mina StripSteak Executive Chef Gerald Chin switched up buffalo wings with a Korean gochuchang sauce at the Culinary Village during Life Is Beautiful.
After more than a month of almost relentless food festivals and gourmet charity events around town, Las Vegans could be forgiven for assuming the Culinary Village at Life Is Beautiful would be pretty much more of the same.
But while many of the 31 participating businesses were familiar local and Strip restaurants like Honey Salt, Cafe Martarano and TAO, their stands weren’t offering small bites from their regular menus. Instead, star chefs like Hubert Keller (Fleur) and Michael Mina (StripSteak) were given the unusual directive of selling a creative festival food for under $10 (and yes, the celebrity chefs actually were at their booths, at least at times).
Some rose to the occasion pretty impressively. Keller offered rock shrimp mac’n’cheese, Rick Moonen (RM Seafood/RX Boiler Room) served fresh, crunchy green papaya salad with scallops, Blue Ribbon put their famous fried chicken on a bun (and also offered a makeshift omakase sushi bar), Nobu sliced up their famous jalapeno yellowtail, Lavo served pumpkin gnocchi with truffled butter sage sauce, Biscayne plated amazing fried eggplant-shelled mushroom tacos and Bronze Cafe tossed up vegan kale salads, just to name a few.
“It’s a really cool thing to bring quality fresh ingredients and not kill people on the price,” Chef Johnny Church (RM Seafood/MTO Cafe) told CityLife. “And we get to show Las Vegans what we do (on the Strip) every day.”
The distinction would’ve been pretty clear to anyone who attended the opening night Grills & Guitars event, which was more like a mini-high end food fest, particularly at Blue Ribbon’s carved ice stations, where a team of sushi chefs turned a massive 180 pound tuna into a flurry of sashimi, or at Comme Ca’s table, where Chefs David Myers and Brian Howard made an award-worthy cassoulet with a mangalitsa heritage pig, then whole-roasted another in a fire box and carved it up, head-to-tail.
Cocktails by Cosmopolitan’s Mariena Mercer, Herbs & Rye’s Nectaly Mendoza and Milagro Tequila’s Gaston Martinez were equally world class.
The Culinary Village was far from the sum total of the edible and drinkable options at the complex fest. Wirtz Beverage erected an Alchemy Garden with broad selections of specialty cocktails, beers and wines-including flight tastings. A selection of some of the area’s best food trucks - Wa Da Pho, Lobster ME, LBS Burger, Sin City Dogs and Curb Side Cafe - were parked in an alley off 7th street. And even the more typical food stands by the music stages included impressive gems like crab garlic french fries, artisanal coffee ice cream and Gerard’s Paella.
In fact, you could actually argue Life Is Beautiful took the notion of “something for everyone” to an extreme.
Despite the festival’s official claim of some 30,000 attendees on each day, more than a few restaurant participants grumbled (off the record, of course) about underwhelming sales , which with so many options was almost bound to happen to some. Carlos Buscaglia, executive chef of Summerlin’s Due Forni, had the opposite problem after he and his team pumped out over 500 personal-size margherita pizzas, cooked to piping hot billowy perfection in their self-made wood burning oven on Saturday alone. But then again, even gourmet pizza is still pizza, pretty much a slam dunk in any festival environment.
While positives also included the historic collaborative $5,000-plate fundraising dinner Friday night at Zappo’s CEO Tony Hsieh’s house , featuring Chefs Hubert Keller, Michael Mina, Todd English, Akira Back, Paul Bartolotta, Grant MacPherson, Francois Payard and Megan Romano (don’t be envious, I didn’t get to go either), and a kids’ play area dominated by nutritionally-indoctrinating Super Sproutz puppets, other aspects of the fest’s ambitious schedule were a bit clunky.
Dual tents presenting Chefs on Stage demos were mired by technological flaws, gimmicky musician appearances, and somewhat rudimentary agendas.
The supplementary-ticket Culinary Crawls-star chef hog-n-jogs, offering three meat-heavy chef-pairing quick meals in a row on each day- just felt like odd digressions from the rest of the fest, not to mention somewhat underwhelming (particularly disappointing: legendary chefs Jonathan Waxman and Nancy Silverton serving up hohum grilled strip steak, fingerlings and a rosemary olive cake ring that reminded me of dinner at Grandma’s, and not in a warm fuzzy way).
Still, with something like 50 chefs/restaurants involved in some aspect or another, Life Is Beautiful’s food and beverage as a whole offered a groundbreaking array of top talent on an accessible level.
If you didn’t eat well this weekend, it was your fault. CL