On October 11, 175 guests will sit at a single table at the Marjorie Barrick Museum at UNLV to share a meal. The multicourse dinner by chefs from Caesars Palace will never be replicated. And the $190 price tag will help fund two of our top community causes: Safe Nest and Blind Center of Nevada. The ingredients will be, to whatever extent possible, locally sourced. It will be one of those events that reminds us that Las Vegas is more than just neon and glitz—we’re a family. And sadly, it will also be a farewell to a dinner series that has been making that point through 29 meals over the past four and a half years.
Gina Gavan conceived Project Dinner Table’s communal meals in 2009 to introduce locals to what’s now come to be known as the locavore movement: eating things produced in your own community. When she had trouble finding chefs using locally sourced foods, Gavan sought help from former B&B Ristorante, Carnevino and Otto executive pastry chef Doug Taylor, who also ran Mario Batali’s farmers market.
“Being a girl from Indiana, local food was something I grew up on,” says Gavan, who makes her living as a marketing strategies and ideation consultant. “It was always important. So I started that journey of ‘How can I educate myself better?’ Those conversations that were happening in 2009 were [between] such a small group of influencers.”
So on April 24, 2010, she hosted the first Project Dinner Table in the University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Orchard. Looking back, she describes that first meal as guerilla style. “Roy [Ellamar of Sensi] was the first chef. And at that dinner we didn’t even have a generator. There was a grill and a lot of heart. The food was outstanding—it was so unexpected for people. It was all word-of-mouth, a magical experience.”
At the time, Gavan had no idea that the concept would have such a long run. “It could have been one and done,” she offers sincerely. “It could have really sucked—people wouldn’t have gotten it. But they did. Chef Roy and I embarked on a journey that neither one of us would have imagined at the time.”
“Sometimes things aren’t meant to last forever,” Gavan says. “I started this as a community project, not a business. And it’s had a beautiful life. But instead of running it into the ground, where it becomes less than its intentions, I think it’s time to bless it and celebrate it and realize that we accomplished everything that we set out to do.”
It’s not difficult to celebrate those accomplishments. Each Project Dinner Table event has been unique, with a changing lineup of chefs, partners and al fresco locations. Over the years, such familiar faces as chefs Rick Moonen, Kim Canteenwalla and Michael Napolitano of Renaissance Catering have manned the food-truck kitchen. Featured local businesses have included Quail Hollow Farm, Bon Breads, Bar 10 Beef, Colorado River Coffee Roasters and Sandy Valley Farms. In all, Gavan says, $110,000 has been donated to the event’s local charitable beneficiaries.
As she closes the door on this project, Gavan is excited about how far the culinary world has come in the past five years. “Where we are today, everything is about farm-to-table,” she notes. “It’s about local. It’s about fresh. It’s about getting outside the four walls. It’s experiential, cultural. How do you combine all those things together? Those weren’t any of the conversations when I started this, which is exactly why I started it.”
While the dinner series will soon be over, Gavan promises Project Dinner Table’s community-minded and locavore ideals will live on. “I’ve got five years of amazing photography, stories and menus. My vision is to create a New York Times best-selling community coffee-table book.” When that happens, you’d better have some tasty, locally sourced snacks to put on your coffee table next to it.