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Queen of the scene: Jolene Mannina throws the underground food events that attract big-name talent

<p>Jolene Mannina at her &amp;#8220;Back of the House Brawl&amp;#8221; event at Tommy Rocker&amp;#8217;s. PHOTO: BILL HUGHES</p>

Jolene Mannina at her &#8220;Back of the House Brawl&#8221; event at Tommy Rocker&#8217;s. PHOTO: BILL HUGHES

It’s close to 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning in July, and Jolene Mannina is in her element: shouting into a microphone, encouraging chefs and corralling food writers. The food competition she’s orchestrating would make any Food Network producer jealous. Thirty minutes earlier, six of the Strip’s top French chefs, all hailing from world-renowned restaurants, had received mystery baskets that contained Slim Jims, rice cakes, baby octopus, sunflower seeds and red cabbage, and were charged with forging them into a gourmet dish.

But this competition isn’t taking place in Iron Chef’s Kitchen Stadium, the Chopped kitchen or any other network studio set. Three chefs apiece are packed into the cramped cooking areas of two food trucks in the parking lot of Tommy Rocker’s. The executive chefs of the MGM Grand’s Joel Robuchon, L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon and Shibuya are sweating profusely in the Ben’s BBQ truck, while the top toques from Mandalay Bay’s Mix, Aureole and Fleur by Hubert Keller are battling them in the Redneck Kitchen truck. In the parking lot and the bar, representatives of more than a dozen other top restaurants are eating, drinking and cheering on their friends, anxious to see who will earn temporary possession of what’s become one of the town’s most coveted culinary trophies: the Pabst Blue Ribbon Cup.

Welcome to the Back of the House Brawl.

Believe it or not, scenes like this play out every two or three weeks at Tommy Rocker’s, although they usually only involve two restaurants at a time. The list of past participants includes chefs from dozens of top gourmet restaurants. Even on weekends when there is no competition, the Saturday Night Truck Stop that hosts them is the go-to spot for Strip chefs getting off work on a Saturday night.

“If you’re not there, then you’re not part of our community,” Border Grill Chef Mike Minor says of the rotating collection of food trucks. “It’s things like this, I think, that are going to bring our city closer to other food cities, like Chicago or L.A. [or] New York.”

Mannina is the creator of both the Truck Stop and the Brawls — and those are just two of her contributions to the city’s growing underground food scene. The ChowDowntown series of pop-up dinners she runs with her business partner, Josh Clark, at locations like Le Thai, The Ogden and The El Cortez routinely sell out in a matter of hours. She and Clark recently assisted Chef Natalie Young in staffing her hot new downtown restaurant, Eat. And when the City Council was considering an ordinance to prevent food trucks from parking within 300 feet of restaurants, she’s the one who organized a protest march by food truck owners from the Ice House to City Hall. When Mannina calls, chefs answer the phone, and most have a hard time saying no to her.

“She gets herself involved, and if something needs to be done, she does it,” Clark explains. “She’s not afraid to make that phone call or make that announcement, or have that interview or anything like that. So she’s become the go-to person to set things up.”

Amazingly, two years ago, this local culinary superstar had no experience in the food world other than as a waitress. She began that career at the age of 20, at New Orleans’ famed Commander’s Palace. In 2000, she moved to Las Vegas to work at the restaurant’s short-lived local incarnation, and eventually moved on to jobs serving at Mon Ami Gabi and N9NE Steakhouse. The money was good — very good — but she wanted a business of her own.

“I never wanted to be a chef,” she explains. “I want to be more of a restaurateur. And I feel like I have a good idea what people like.”

Even before the food truck craze hit Las Vegas in 2010, she was considering a mobile culinary enterprise as a business opportunity. She just wasn’t sure Vegas could support it.

“I didn’t think that there was a market for it here, because everybody’s in the casino,” she recalls. “I was trying to figure out how it could work out, how I could make a deal with a casino to have it on their property and give them profit.”

The success of Slidin’ Thru soon convinced her otherwise. And when Fukuburger followed in their footsteps, she sought out the owners for advice. Colin Fukunaga and Robert Magsalin took her under their wings, bringing her out on the road to teach her the ropes. She soon found an investor of her own and launched Sloppi Jo’s Roving Eatery, a truck that featured dishes made with New Mexican Hatch chili peppers, in December 2010. To work the kitchen she brought in N9NE Steakhouse pastry chef Krystie Tadio. When a representative of The Great Food Truck Race approached her about applying for a spot on the show, she learned she needed a third teammate, and recruited Clark, a veteran of Bradley Ogden, Trump, rm seafood and Nobhill Tavern. While they weren’t selected to appear on TV, Clark became a regular on the Sloppi Jo’s truck and helped his new partner start the Saturday Night Truck Stop in June, 2011. When he was considering leaving town after a romantic breakup, he received an offer he couldn’t refuse — free rent at Mannina’s house in return for his help on the truck.

“Don’t leave town,” she recalls telling him. “I feel like there’s something I can do with you. I feel like, I don’t know, I feel like there’s something we can do together, or work together.”

Unfortunately, Sloppi Jo’s wasn’t a success. “I was dirt poor,” Jolene says of her days on the truck. “I didn’t even know what to do. I was working on a hot truck that’s 140 degrees. And then the AC in my [car] was out, and I couldn’t pay for AC. So then I’m jumping in that fucking car, and I was a miserable bitch.”

Eventually she sold the truck. After paying back her investors, she took a $6,000 loss.

“What killed me,” she says looking back, “is the fact that I really didn’t have too many bad reviews, and I really thought that people dug the food. I worked really hard to put out good products.”

Mannina was forced to return to waitressing, this time at The Cosmopolitan’s STK. But she limits her schedule to two or three nights a week.

“I could easily work five days a week and make really good money again,” she says. “But there’s no fulfillment in it at the end of the day.”

One thing that was giving her and Clark fulfillment was the Truck Stop. Because of its proximity to The Strip, it had become an after-work hot spot for chefs, who often start their “weekends” on Saturday night. “We’re all getting out of work,” explained rm seafood pastry chef Theresa Gwizdaloski one recent Saturday. “We all like to chill out, have beers, relax. And then we like to try different food. And supporting food trucks is just something that’s part of us.”

The Brawls launched in July 2011. Mannina drew inspiration from the constant advice she received about her food truck from mainstream chefs.

“Everybody was like, ‘Oh, you should do this with the food truck, this should be the food you should do,’” she says of her well-meaning friends. “So I was like, ‘Well, if you think it’s so easy, jump on a food truck, and have your night to do your thing.’”

The first competitors were Geno Bernardo from Nove Italiano and Josh Smith from Estiatorios Milos, with Smith emerging victorious. During those early days, it wasn’t unheard of for casinos to warn their chefs against participating, not wanting to be associated with the underground event. Today, casino publicists excitedly promote their chefs’ involvement, and winning chefs proudly display the PBR Cup (donated by Pabst and decorated by its winners) in their resorts.

As executive chef at L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Steve Benjamin has earned a prestigious Michelin star. He’s also taken home the Cup twice. Why would such an acclaimed chef lower himself to compete on a food truck?

“It’s fun,” he explains. “It’s special. You push a little more because you don’t know what it’s going to be and you need to push yourself.”

Mannina says she’s proud of what she’s created. “I really love it, and I think it was a really great addition to the community.”

But she’s not stopping there. She and Clark continue to look for a downtown space to open their own restaurant. In addition to their own ongoing pop-up series, they plan to organize a second series at the World Market Center when the furniture convention returns in January. And they’re helping the Lili Claire Foundation raise money for special needs children by organizing both a food truck area and a Celebrity Chef area at this year’s Nevada Wildfest, which takes place October 25-28 at The Rio. The common denominator, she says, is simple.

“Whatever I do, it’s all about the chefs and the community.”

Check out the rest of our Fall Dining issue:

Late for dinner: Being the spouse of a chef is often lonely

Japanese table-cooking is making a comeback

Not all fast food is terrible

‘Dine-arounds’ are among the most popular foodie events in town. But are there too many?