On May 9, 2,500 food fanatics are expected to descend on Caesars Palace’s Garden of the Gods pool complex to sample the offerings of 70 local restaurants, 35 bars and 30 wine stations. They’ll hobnob with culinary royalty such as Bobby Flay, Gordon Ramsay, Nobu Matsuhisa, Thomas Keller and Michael Mina. The centerpiece of Bon Appétit’s annual Vegas Uncork’d, this Grand Tasting lasts only two-and-a-half hours, but takes more than a year of planning and about 1,000 people to pull it off. It’s an unparalleled experience I anticipate every year. But what, exactly, does it take to make it all happen?
To find out, I started with Bon Appétit’s events director, Nikki Reiss, who is already working on the lineup for next year. She starts by reaching out to the chefs she’d like to participate. Then she decides where each restaurant will be represented in the huge, six-pool complex. As the host, Caesars Palace generally places its restaurants front and center. But Reiss strategically scatters big-name chefs throughout the property to encourage the crowd flow. “It’s possible that this year Gordon [Ramsay] won’t be smack in the middle,” she says. “Because we know people will seek him out no matter what.”
Some chefs even have personal requests about their locations. “Bobby [Flay] and Giada [de Laurentiis] requested ‘Can we please be next to each other?’” Reiss says. “Because they’re [also] doing an event together at Mesa Grill.”
Despite the level of star power, however, she says most chefs are extremely easy to deal with. “Sometimes chefs come with egos,” Reiss says. “I appreciate that they kind of check that at the door.”
While she plans the creative components of the show, Bryan O’Shields is charged with making sure everything goes off as planned. The vice president of food and beverage for Caesars Palace, Rio and Harrah’s has some 800 employees who work during the Grand Tasting, and planning begins about six months out. About 48 hours before the doors open, they start round-the-clock construction work at the pool.
This year, for the first time, Caesars is building a stage that will cover one of the pools, and each restaurant and bar is charged with creating its own service area.
“They’re little baby restaurants,” O’Shields says. “They’re not just a couple of banquet tables with skirting and a backdrop; it’s a fully built storefront,” including refrigeration, grills or other cooking elements, hand-washing stations and anything else needed to cook gourmet food poolside. Two years ago, Caesars built 12 of these storefronts (which they re-assemble every year) at a cost of $40,000 apiece.
Once the crowd begins to enter the event, the Caesars team prepares to respond to any crisis immediately—from faulty equipment to the loss of gas or power. A team of stewards and environmental service people quickly remove the estimated 50,000 pounds of plates, glasses, napkins and other garbage that guests invariably discard on any flat surface before it piles up.
And as the chefs interact with sometimes overzealous fans, security personnel ensure they’re not manhandled. When top-name stars such as Flay or Masaharu Morimoto or Ramsay walk the grounds, things can get hectic. “Everybody wants to get to him,” O’Shields says. “And the majority of people want to take a photograph with him. So he’s getting pulled, and it creates kind of a frenzy. We have a lot of security, and we set up a tremendous amount of backup.”
Yet somehow, all of this generally goes off seamlessly, with little indication to the public how many moving pieces are involved in creating one of the most delicious food festivals of the year.