If Las Vegas has such a thing as a culinary activist, Jolene Mannina is one. She found her way to Vegas from New Orleans to work at the former Commander’s Palace restaurant at the former Aladdin resort, then became a well-known local industry figure by moonlighting from jobs at N9NE Steakhouse and STK to create her own food truck, Sloppi Jo’s.
That experience revealed her true passion and expertise—organizing food-centric, community-building events. Local F&B industry titans swear by Mannina’s Back of House Brawl, a regular event where skilled casino chefs cook from local food trucks, mix and mingle, and often raise money for local charities. After working on the 2013 Life Is Beautiful Festival, she’s striking out on her own again, creating a new company and possibly starring in a new cable show.
You helped organize the culinary component of the inaugural Life Is Beautiful Festival but decided not to return for this year’s event. Was that a difficult decision? It was. But I really enjoy focusing on more than one thing, creating my own events and being a part of a lot of different things in the community. I love working for myself. With the festival, I learned a lot and made some great relationships, and at the same time found a lot of new opportunities. I might still work on some festival events as a consultant through my new company Relish.
What’s the deal with Relish? Basically it’s all the things I love to do and have been doing for the last few years, all under one umbrella. It will include the Back of House Brawl, it will be organizing food trucks for different events at different venues like World Market Center, and there are new events I’m working on, like this year’s Great Vegas Festival of Beer [April 26]. That event is moving Downtown to between 6th and 7th, and Carson and Fremont streets, and I’m doing all the [food] vendors this year. There are going to be 75 breweries and it’s not overpriced so a lot of people can go, and we’re going to be creating a gastropub with six or seven local restaurants paired with brewers. Luckily, I found a bunch of events in a short period of time, so I’m really busy already.
You also filmed a pilot for a potential Back of House Brawl TV show with a big cable network. How did that come about? I was approached by Relativity Media almost two years ago when I first started it and nothing happened at first, but they still really believed in it and stuck with it. And then they found a network that was interested in putting up some money for a pilot, so we just shot it [on March 2]. Chef Chris Cosentino came in to be a judge and local chefs Stephen Hopcraft and Todd Harrington battled. I can’t say too much about it other than it’s very similar to the way we’ve always done the Back of House Brawl. It’s nice that they want to keep it true to what we do.
Are you ever shocked when you think about what has come from a very small, very do-it-all-yourself event in a local bar parking lot? I think about it all the time and it blows my mind. It started so small but has led to so many things. It’s the reason why I was approached for Life Is Beautiful, because of where I stood in the community and the relationships I had. It was all based from this little event that started at 1 in the morning. I never thought I’d be filming a pilot from the parking lot at Tommy Rockers, about an event that was started with no sponsors, with money out of my own pocket, playing music from my iPhone. So many amazing relationships have come out of it and I’ve met so many people who thanked me for starting this thing in our culinary community. And I want people to know that we’re still going to do the Back of House Brawl whether we’re filming or not. I’ve got all these chefs that want to participate!
Before the Brawl, you had your own food truck, and prior to that you worked as a server for years in popular Las Vegas restaurants. Was there a particular gig that really sparked your entrepreneurial interests? None of this would have happened to me if I had not stepped outside my boundaries by starting the food truck. I was a waitress. I didn’t finish college. One day I just decided to do it, and once I started my own business and realized it was possible, I could never go back. You have that motivation of knowing you’re only a checklist away from getting something done. It set me up for everything and gave me the confidence to do whatever I want to do, and it gave me respect in the community. It was just an amazing feeling with that truck, the energy I felt, and I felt that again when I left Life Is Beautiful. Knowing I have to go out and do business to survive on my own is a sort of high.
Is there a particular event you’re most excited about? The name Relish came from an idea for an event I wanted to do, a pretty big event that I’m planning for next year. I want to focus on getting these other jobs handled before I focus on that, but it’ll be big. Right now I’m excited for the next Brawl, which will be more like a party to thank everyone for showing up for the pilot.
Back of House Brawl March 22, 10 p.m. Eric Scott of Central vs. John Courtney of Pinot Brasserie. Tommy Rockers, 4275 Dean Martin Drive.