So here it is. The biggest culinary weekend of the year. The four days when nearly every bold-faced name above a Strip restaurant door is actually in the kitchen, and the most famous chefs in the world gather to raise a glass and salute the dining scene in our fair city. It’s Vegas Uncork’d … and most of Las Vegas will barely blink in acknowledgment.
The annual foodie festival put on by Bon Appétit magazine brought in 5,175 ticketed guests in 2010, but so far this year more than 75 percent of attendees are coming from out of town. Subtract local media covering the event from the remaining count and the number dwindles even further. Blame high ticket prices, a general apathy toward all things buzzy and Strip or the fact that we live in a town where a single street boasts more Michelin stars than most major cities, but every year Las Vegans are shrugging and saying no thanks to a truly incredible gastronomic experience.
“All these marquee chefs that will be at Uncork’d have restaurants in Las Vegas. This is a second home to them,” says Bon Appétit Editor in Chief Adam Rapoport. “A lot of these guys, they come and they go. But for this weekend, for these four days, they’re going to be in Vegas. Period.”
And “these guys” include a who’s who of international talent—José Andrés, Tom Colicchio, Pierre Gagnaire, Masa Takayama, Guy Savoy—chefs who are busy with things beyond the Vegas Strip, like hit Bravo TV shows, restaurants on multiple continents and bilingual tweeting. Not only will they all be participating in the festival, but almost all of them will be serving at the weekend's heady climax, the Grand Tasting at the Garden of the Gods pool complex at Caesars Palace, where chefs from the cities best restaurants dole out bites to swarms. Rapoport calls it the "best pool party you’ve ever been invited to," and I can't disagree.
For those who prefer to avoid the crowds, Uncork'd offers more personal experiences, too. The editor says he's most excited about the smaller events, like the Masters' Series dinner he'll host Thursday evening at Guy Savoy. "It’s like 55 people total there in the dining room with the chef," Rapoport explains. "That’s just like a dinner party, essentially. ... For a lot of these chefs, the fact that they are hosting events in their own restaurants, they do feel comfortable. They do feel at home. There’s an intimacy that you might not get at other events, if it’s just a chef on a stage with a wireless mic on."
But even with that all-star lineup, chowing on expertly prepared food and downing carefully selected wine is only half the fun of the annual festival. The other half comes from talking jamón with Julian Serrano during a Spanish lunch where he'll be whipping up a selection of modern and classic tapas along with paella in massive, steaming pans. It comes from stealing a second with Tom at the Craftsteak afterhours party or watching the white coats try to take down reigning champion Paul Bartolotta in the celebrity chef blackjack tournament at Encore. And it comes from spending a meal or two with other hungry, like-minded guests. "I think that's one of the fun things about this event," Serrano suggests, the restaurant tips that are shared, the foodie talk that goes down.
For the stars of the show, the whole Vegas Uncork'd weekend plays like a high school reunion where everyone’s somehow turned out to be an über-famous chef. And here’s the thing about most über-famous chefs—they like to eat well, drink heavily and stay out late. For one weekend a year you can do it with them. Are you really going to stay home?