A Slice of Life Is Beautiful

Going behind the scenes of October’s big event with Jolene Mannina, who says the recipe for success is still being written

Head of Culinary Arts Jolene Mannina meets with the Life Is Beautiful team at their Emergency Arts office on Thursday, October 10th 2013. Photo by Jon Estrada.

Head of Culinary Arts Jolene Mannina meets with the Life Is Beautiful team at their Emergency Arts office on Thursday, October 10th 2013. Photo by Jon Estrada.

It reminds me of a college dormitory lounge. People are scattered at tiny tables, carrying on conversations while clicking away at their keyboards. The crinkle in their brows suggests the sort of simultaneous thrill and panic produced by impending deadlines. There’s a subtle scent of fear and an overwhelming sense of excitement wafting through the walls of the Life Is Beautiful festival headquarters.

On the morning I stopped by, chef Donald Link, a member of Life Is Beautiful’s culinary advisory board, had flown in from his native New Orleans to discuss ideas with Jolene Mannina, head of culinary arts. Seated next to her in the closet-size conference room, Link pulls a crumpled piece of paper from his pocket, a “half-drunken sketch from the night before,” he says. He points with his coffee-stirrer to a series of black hash marks on the page that, as he explains, signify a pork spit his cousin fabricated for him back home. He’d like it to be part of the festival when he represents his Big Easy-based outposts, Herbsaint and Cochon, in the Culinary Village. “If it can’t be transported,” Mannina says, “we’ll find a way to fabricate one here.”

This is Mannina in her element. As founder of the Back of the House Brawl gourmet food truck battles, she brings culinary expertise and quick thinking to her role in Life Is Beautiful. Helped by Eve Cohen, head of festival operations, Mannina is crafting the climate of an event (really, several experiences including the Culinary Village, Alchemy Gardens, four dinner parties and Chefs on Stage) that has never before been done in Las Vegas. Whatever obstacles arise, they say, “We’ll come up with a solution.” That can-do attitude is the linchpin of this inaugural undertaking.

At a later date, the plans have progressed from hand-drawn sketches to full-fledged blueprints. With Mannina inside a private dining room at Kumi in Mandalay Bay, Cohen unrolls a map so large it doubles as a tablecloth. Across from her are Akira Back’s colleagues. Back himself, whose restaurants Kumi and Yellowtail will participate in the festival, is currently in Asia. With every detail Cohen delivers, the two grow visibly distressed. So Cohen smiles, circles a spot on the map and tells them, “This will be the primal-scream trailer.” Just like that, a burst of laughter puts the whole team at ease.

Then lunch service begins at the restaurant, and suddenly the lights go dim. Without hesitation, Mannina and Cohen reach for their cellphones to illuminate the blueprint and keep the meeting afloat for another 30 minutes. This kind of troubleshooting could be critical on the actual days of the event. What if trash cans overflow? What if chefs run out of food? At a certain point Cohen says, “I wish I had a better answer than ‘This is a first-time festival.’”

When Life Is Beautiful swallows up 15 city blocks at the end of the month, no one knows completely what to expect. Led by founder Rehan Choudhry, former entertainment director at the Cosmopolitan, the team’s past experiences are all they have to prepare them for what’s coming. So whether it’s placing orders for disposable bamboo flatware or relaying orders from the health department to head chefs, Mannina and Cohen tackle every task with resilience. “Even when I curse,” Mannina says mid-meeting, “I curse with love.”