Last year was a big one for Jolene Mannina. The former waitress who had previously revolutionized the local food scene with her pop-up dinners, food-truck gatherings and cooking competitions was put in charge of the culinary lineup for the inaugural Life Is Beautiful festival.
“Life Is Beautiful was really rewarding,” she says. “I met so many people and so many amazing chefs, and really got to experience something I’d never seen. The production was massive.”
So why won’t she be on board for the festival’s second year?
“My end goal,” she says, “is to be able to spread my wings and do a bunch of different things over the entire year as opposed to working on one event for 12 months. I’m definitely a person who likes to run around and be a part of things and constantly move.”
To do that, Mannina has launched her own company, Relish. And the name has nothing to do with the condiment.
“It’s a reference to the things that I love,” she explains. “I relish life. I relish food. I relish booze. I relish food trucks. I relish Vegas. I relish chefs.”
Relish, the company, will be an umbrella concept that will handle all of the smaller projects that Mannina loves. She’ll be managing events, hosting dinners, consulting for other restaurateurs and providing food for various festivals.
And, of course, it’s impossible to think of Mannina without thinking of food trucks, and her famed Back of the House Brawl cooking competitions held late Saturday nights in the parking lot of Tommy Rockers. Every two weeks or so during the warmer months, chefs from top Strip restaurants climb on board food trucks and try to create the best dish using an often bizarre basket of mystery ingredients.
“It’s the complete opposite [of Life Is Beautiful],” she says of the event. “Because it’s tiny and it’s raw. But I’ve gained so much from that—the relationships and everything.”
The Brawl’s third season will kick off March 22, and Mannina has already secured a new trophy. (The famed Pabst Blue Ribbon cup, which is decorated by each winning chef, is retired at the end of each season.) And chefs such as Wes Holton of Rose.Rabbit.Lie. are clamoring to sign up.
“The Back of the House Brawl, whether I make money or not, there’s a purpose behind it, and I always want it to succeed,” she says. And she may soon see it succeed on a larger scale than she ever imagined: On March 2, A&E shot a pilot for a show based on the competition, and Mannina is “super fucking excited” with how it played out. “The producers loved it.”
Hopefully, if the network loves it as well, Las Vegas will soon be home to another reality TV show. But regardless of how any single project develops, Mannina is determined to give local foodies more things to relish.
“Every time I do anything, I ask the question: ‘Is this something that I would want to go to?’” she says. “So if I can create those experiences for myself, I figure there’s got to be some other people who would enjoy them as well.”
Given her track record, that seems like a pretty safe bet.