Gina Gavan’s e-mail signature reveals her as Project Dinner Table’s founder and “spoonbender.” I always assumed this had something to do with the way that she seems to cast a spell over chefs and local businesses, rallying them behind her annual series of six communal, farm-to-table pop-up dinners held April through November, usually outdoors and always benefiting local charities, so far to the tune of more than $44,000. But after spending a little time in her shadow as she prepared for the recent season opener with Central chef Michel Richard, I realized there’s so much more to it than mere magic.
Pulling off outdoor events in Las Vegas is always a challenge: It’s too hot, too cold, too windy. In this case, the chips couldn’t have been more stacked against Gavan and her team of more than 50 volunteers, with a Saturday forecast of blustery winds and rain. But Gavan was all over it the previous week, and by Friday afternoon had successfully relocated the dinner for 176 from the rooftop of the Molasky Corporate Center to the first floor of its parking garage.
The team is hustling at 1 p.m. on event day, with Gavan moving cases of Widmer beer and directing volunteers, while Le Cordon Bleu culinary students work with Central executive chef Todd Harrington’s staff and Gavan’s partner, Michael Napolitano of Renaissance Catering, to pull off the six-course affair.
She’s a study in controlled chaos, clutching a water bottle and her iPhone. I have to trot to keep up as we do laps up and down both sides of the seemingly endless dining table, adjusting centerpieces, space heaters and the coveted reusable Whole Foods shopping bags filled with all sorts of goodies from some of Project Dinner Table’s partners, including Bon Breads, Gaia Flowers and Indie Tea.
This is the third season for Project Dinner Table, and it’s become much easier to recruit guest chefs and find suitable locations now that Gavan is fielding fervent requests to be involved. There are still some firsts, such as tonight’s introduction of wine and cocktail pairings to the lineup. From the chef and the location to the sponsors and the special details, everything about this dinner changes every time she does one. It’s as much a new experience for Gavan as it is for the guests who come to rub elbows, learn more about this city and rediscover the art of dinner conversation. “In some ways that’s exactly what Project Dinner Table is all about,” Gavan says.
After showing the night’s musicians around, Gavan catches her breath, and I get to ask her about spoonbending. “It’s a double entendre,” she explains. “[Sometimes] it seems like the food is so good, you’re shoveling it in so fast you’re practically bending the spoon.” But more so it’s about going with the flow. “You really have to become Gumby, be flexible, and ‘bend the spoon’ to get it done.”
Not far away, on a side table sit two large checks, the charitable component of the event whereby Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and Candlelighters Childhood Cancer Foundation of Nevada will receive a portion of tonight’s proceeds. Later, when the vichyssoise and the crab cakes and the braised short ribs have been cleared, and the beverage pairings all drained, refilled and drained again, Gavan will make her most important announcement of the night. She’ll thank Chef Richard for feeding us happy masses, and give him a Culinary Hero Award in the shape of—what else?—a spoon.
But for now such celebration is all still hours away. There’s the cocktail reception to set up in the lobby, the coffee machines have gone AWOL, and one-half of the deep fryer is on the fritz … Gavan knows. She breathes, she smiles and then she bends.