Sin City has long been divorced from its former reputation as the home of the $0.99 bargain buffet. Underscoring the city's newer reputation as a home for restaurants from world-class chefs is Uncork'd, a partnership between Bon Appetit, the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority, Southern Nevada Wine & Spirits, and a group of top Las Vegas resorts, including Bellagio, Caesars Palace, MGM Grand, and Wynn. This year's program—which took over town from May 7 to 10—spanned four days and included more than 25 events featuring big-name chefs. Daniel Boulud, Tom Colicchio, Todd English, Bobby Flay, Rick Moonen, Alex Stratta, and Bon Appetit’s Cat Cora and Barbara Fairchild were among the participants in the event, which saw a higher attendance among repeat visitors—a goal of its organizers.
This was the first year that Bon Appetit and the visitors authority brought in a third party to assist, New York-based Karlitz & Company. Caryl Chinn, vice president of culinary marketing at Karlitz, worked on the logistics of creating the large-scale event with a host of different planners in different cities. “What is unique to Uncork'd is the hotels' participation,” said Chinn, noting that the properties typically host massive, complicated events and are consequently experienced clients. “They challenged us all to put our best foot forward.”
The planners divided up the events and worked with a manager at each property to tailor each piece to its particular host hotel, vendors, and ticket holders. “You learn how to maximize scheduling to get the event that works for their needs,” Chinn said. Floor plans, photos, and schedules were emailed and discussed by phone or text, making the work from one time zone to another relatively seamless—if not healthily competitive among the planners and vendors. “We called it sibling rivalry,” she said. “Everyone wants to have the most special event. The challenge would be to keep 50 of them happy and still do the best for the event itself.”
Of all the work that went into the four-day event, Chinn said she would only change one thing. “We found ourselves regretting we didn’t charge more for some of the events,” Chinn said. “So many of the events sold out quickly.”
Organizers hoped to attract new sponsors, considering Uncork'd has grown considerably each year. While ticket sales soared, sponsors—hit by the recession—weren’t as fertile. “We didn’t grow [in sponsorships],” she said. “And that was disappointing.”
The biggest hurdle for the planning team was Friday night's Grand Tasting, an extravagant outdoor festival of food. “That is by far the largest event, and highest profile, with more than 75 chefs and every major strip hotel coming together in one space for one night,” said Terry Jicinsky, senior vice president at the visitors authority. “We are very pleased with the word of mouth that is being attached to the event. We are seeing more and more readers of Bon Appetit connecting Las Vegas with the culinary world, and that at the end of the day is the primary objective.”
During the opening-night meet-and-greet on May 7, as the chefs joked and shared stories, Paul Bartolotta, a James Beard award winner and chef at Wynn’s Bartolotta, commented on the momentum of Uncork'd. “It showcases what is so great about Las Vegas—the great properties, spas, food, shopping, the fun of the gaming, the incredible dining, the wine programs that are here,” Bartolotta said.
Standouts of the 2009 program included the poolside Grand Tasting with 75 chefs and vintners, where chefs greeted guests and gave cooking tips; intimate chef-hosted dinners each night; masters series dinners with internationally acclaimed chefs such as Guy Savoy; a performing arts dinner with Joël Robuchon and the cast of Cirque du Soleil's Ka; an all-star luncheon with firsthand instruction from star chefs, including Bartolotta; high-stakes culinary competitions; extensive wine seminars; a robust after-hours blackjack tournament with chefs including Boulud, Flay, and Robuchon; as well as a final gala event.
At tastings, guests got a nibble from each chef’s restaurant, as well as a sip of wines from around the world, plus sakes and whiskeys—and the occasional opportunity to shake hands with the chefs who roamed freely among the crowds. The festival’s last course was served in the dark with a screening of Julie & Julia, a sponsor of the event, at the Palms’ Brenden Theatres, with Kerry Simon passing out his signature treats.
“We don’t [get together] as much as we’d like, but beginning of May now means Uncork'd—the time we all get together and have fun,” Bartolotta said of the camaraderie among the chefs. “Last year at 4 a.m., Nobu [Matsuhisa] and I went into the kitchen and we were hungry. We started making omelets. It’s just chefs and friends having fun together. Food is our connector.”