Gina Gavan is not from a wealthy family that uses charity as a side dish. She’s a self-made philanthropist from Indiana who wants nothing more than to bring Las Vegas closer together. And she’s doing it through delicious, mostly locally grown, organic food.
Unless you’ve been stuck at a slot machine for the past year, you’ve probably heard about the popular community dinner series she founded called Project Dinner Table. Here, talented local chefs such as RM Seafood owner and Bravo TV’s Top Chef Masters star Rick Moonen donate their time and use ingredients from local purveyors and farmers to create six courses. Total strangers come together at one really long table, passing green-garlic soup and grilled Duroc pork chops family-style. They pay $140 a ticket ($125 each for three, $115 each for the six-dinner season), but learn about Nevada’s local agriculture and dine in unique outdoor settings that include Floyd Lamb Park, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension’s orchard and even Cashman Field.
Until Gavan, 41, set out to educate Las Vegas, few knew this arid climate and sandy soil could grow wine grapes, Asian pears, apples and artichokes. “We don’t have great soil, but we can grow produce,” Gavan says. “Educating and helping the public is what Project Dinner Table is all about.”
Through ticket sales and sponsorships, Project Dinner Table (ProjectDinnerTable.com) raised more the $20,000 for local charities last year. For the April 16 season opener, Gavan will pull chefs from the MGM cupboard and raise money for Autism Speaks at Town Square. Season 2.0 continues May 14 at the World Market Center with returning chef Roy Ellamar from Sensi at Bellagio raising funds for the Boys & Girls Club.
“We want to enhance the whole experience—from the music to the cultural aspect to a philosophic aspect,” Gavan says. “I want to inspire people to get involved with local charities, even if they don’t have a monetary contribution.”
If anybody needs inspiration, look no further.
In her spare time, Gavan works as a mentor for homeless youths, helping them become more self-sufficient. She has volunteered for the homeless census count and founded the child literacy program Reading Rocks. Gavan’s younger brother, Richard, has been homeless for more than 20 years. “That is a big catalyst in why it’s so important for me to make a difference,” Gavan says. “You either do things for purpose or profit. If I’m going to do something with my life, I want to make a difference. That’s what’s most important to me.”
Since moving here in 2000, Gavan has become uniquely passionate about Las Vegas, especially the Fremont East entertainment district, for which Gavan’s company Tribal Minds was hired to handle the development, marketing and promotion. Gavan leads the charge on representing the property owners and works with the businesses, the city of Las Vegas and community partners to take Fremont East from “blighted to bling.” “We’re working on things like annual street festivals, live music events, public art scapes, fashion shows, charity and community-focused experiences, food trucks, storytelling and, most importantly, developing a more walkable environment that has contagious energy,” Gavan says. “This is a long-term commitment, but the time is now.”
Gavan hopes the area becomes the next social step for the community. With new attractions such as The Beat Coffeehouse, the Vanguard Lounge, Azul Tequila and Maharaja Hookah Café, Fremont East—like Project Dinner Table—is about bringing locals together. “Fremont East is a mix of people,” she says, “where the common connection is probably [that] everybody wants to feel like they belong somewhere.”
Shoes & Hats
Always looking good, Gavan is often spotted in her favorite pair of high heels, pink Manolos that are “fucking hot,” she says, and a trendy hat, usually a fedora. When she needs to be comfortable, she’ll rock out with a pair of cowboy boots.
While attending Indiana University, Gavan earned the nickname “the Trucker” for her dirty mouth and her lucky streaks in picking NCAA brackets. Although she didn’t fill out a bracket this year, she likes Ohio State.
Gavan loves making chocolate-chip pancakes. “You have to put peanut butter on them and then syrup,” she says. “It’s like a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. With black coffee, it’s awesome.”
The only downside to living in Las Vegas is Gavan doesn’t have intimate access to her beloved Indiana Hoosiers or Indianapolis Colts. She used to have Colts season tickets. “Professional sports are the only thing I miss out here,” she says.