Friday, December 5, 2013. 4:55 p.m. Someone just helped Sebastien Silvestri with his bowtie. The Venetian’s vice president of food and beverage must be nervous, but he’s only showing excitement and pride. Stretched through the resort’s picturesque Grand Colonnade lobby corridor is the longest table I’ve ever seen, with 174 ornate place settings almost ready for the guests of the La Cucina Italiana Food & Wine Festival’s Grand Banquet. It’s Silvestri’s dream dinner, and he’s this close to pulling it off. The key is that everyone must be seated promptly at 7 p.m. Even with that deadline coming fast, Silvestri is smiling. “This is the most beautiful event I’ve ever put together.”
5:05 p.m. The champagne has not yet arrived for the outdoor reception, set in the Winter in Venice-decorated Doges Palace, the hotel’s Strip-front façade. Backup plans are made, just in case.
5:10 p.m. Silvestri is taking a few minutes to film with a TV crew, with the awe-inspiring Grand Banquet table serving as the backdrop. Event setup started at midnight, and food prep began early this morning.
5:35 p.m. When Silvestri checks on the reception area again, Southern Wine & Spirits director of mixology Francesco Lafranconi is there, bundled in a bright scarf over his dark suit. “Now everything is okay,” Silvestri says. In a tent, canapés are being lined up for easy access. No refrigeration necessary; it’s incredibly chilly tonight. There are heaters outside to warm the reception, but guests won’t be out here for long.
5:40 p.m. “I need to go to my office and check on my assistant. She’s probably in tears. She handled all the travel plans for the chefs and everyone coming for the banquet, and with the weather, there were so many changes and problems. She did it all. I really have to do something nice for her next week.” After Silvestri does check on things, he reveals his personal goal for the evening: “At some point, I want to be sitting at that table. If you see me sitting down, this will be a victory.”
6:10 p.m. The first guests are arriving and Silvestri heads outside to escort some friends to the reception; the Winter in Venice show is about to begin and he doesn’t want them to miss it. As rocked-out holiday music blares out over the faux canals, and costumed characters perform stiff choreography, guests sip, snack, and take everything in. Silvestri taps me on the shoulder and speaks into my ear over the cacophony. “See? Now it’s not cold anymore.”
6:25 p.m. Back at the banquet, five of the nine wine glasses at each setting have received ample pours of different reds, and a tidy dish of caviar-topped burrata awaits those who would sit early. A pianist is playing Christmas music and the celebrity hosts are mingling with chefs and guests: Venetian executive chef Olivier Dubreuil, Southern Wine execs Larry Ruvo and Michael Severino, Robin Leach, Mario Batali, Cake Boss star Buddy Valastro and the “Butcher of Panzano,” Dario Cecchini. Batali and Cecchini assembled the menu for the banquet. Both are wearing Crocs. Cecchini also has candy cane-striped socks, red pants and a cartoonish little trumpet-type thing that he plays every few minutes to rousing fanfare. He’s like an Italian Christmas elf.
6:50 p.m. While the hosts and staff frantically try to seat everyone, tonight’s back of the house is eerily calm. The makeshift gallery space hosting National Geographic’s 50 Greatest Photographs exhibit is where the food will be plated and prepped, which seems about a mile away from the resort’s banquet kitchen where everything was cooked and constructed. Dubreuil will later say timing is the most crucial issue with this event, but what seems like an impossible task is just another day’s work for the massive and talented banquet staff. “We do events from 20 people to 16,000, so in some ways this one is simple. It just has different challenges.”
7:05 p.m. The majority of the seats are filled, and it seems as if everyone sitting down—even Batali—can’t stop snapping cell phone pics of the gloriously long table. “This is the infinity pool of dining room tables,” jokes one guest. Meanwhile in the prep room, Batali’s head Las Vegas chef Jason Neve is speedily shaving black truffles onto plates of veal carpaccio.
7:15 p.m. More truffle madness: Mic in hand, Batali reviews tonight’s menu, warning guests not to dive into their risotto immediately so the kitchen crew can pass by and “shower each plate” with white truffles. The risotto is the only dish not served family style, as the banquet is designed to be an upscale version of a traditional Tuscan feast. “This food is simple but deceptively delicious,” he preaches.
7:30 p.m. Diners are working their way through seafood salad, the arugula and truffle-topped carpaccio and mountainous plates of cured meats, including 24-month aged Galardi prosciutto. Silvestri takes a peek into the prep room. “I am so proud of how smooth it is back here,” he says. “It’s shockingly quiet. These people are the best of the best.”
7:45 p.m. Silvestri is sitting. Victory.
8:30 p.m. The shaving: An army of servers moves around the table and the unctuous perfume of black truffle is unavoidable. Three pounds of black truffles were used for the risotto alone, fitting for a $500-a-plate dinner. At the lobby end of the table, Batali quietly relishes every small spoonful, but his seat neighbor, the colorful Cecchini, is missing out. He’s mingling with guests, all of whom want their picture with the smiling butcher.
8:50 p.m. Before the final course comes out, there’s some good to be done. Leach and Ruvo team up to auction off specialty items and trips to raise money for Keep Memory Alive. Valastro offers up a private cake-decorating class in Las Vegas or New Jersey along with a chance to appear on his TV show. Then Cecchini is suddenly standing on the table, blowing his horn, prompting big bids for a tour of the Italian countryside. They end up auctioning four trips for a combined $100,000. Then Leach auctions off Batali’s shoes (price tag: $1,000).
9:15 p.m. The “porchetta to end all porchettas” finally arrives, a huge, juicy disc of pork. Everything about this banquet has been over-the-top decadent, and this dish is no different. Silvestri is around here somewhere, talking to someone, simultaneously enjoying himself and making sure everyone else is smiling along with him. And tomorrow, they’ll all do it all over again, sort of, with the “How to Italian” food carnival in the Palazzo’s Atrium. Just another day’s work.