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Las Vegas Chefs Compete For Top Honors In Back Of The House Brawl


You’ve seen those cooking competitions on TV. Chefs try to whip up something original to impress judges. And they’re doing it in shiny studios with gleaming stoves and the best equipment. 


But what if chefs had to try the same thing in a food truck -- on the Las Vegas Strip?  


That’s what four chefs will attempt this Saturday with Back of House Brawl.  


What started as a friendly after-hours competition between top Vegas chefs in restaurant parking lots has come full circle.  


Jolene Mannina said she started Back of the House Brawl as something fun to do with people in the food and beverage industry.

But it wasn't long before it became a way for people who had worked together at different restaurants and bars to come together as a community.

“This has always been a very underground event," she told KNPR's State of Nevada, "You’ve always had to sort of be in the know to be aware when it was happening. And it was all service industry.”

But this year, the Back of the House Brawl will be on the Strip at The Park, which is changing the structure of the competition.

“Because of that, we’re doing a collaboration series. Each team is made up of an on-the-Strip chef and an off-the-Strip chef. We’ve always done this as a community event; we wanted to bring all the forces together and really have fun,” Mannina said.

One of the chefs competing Saturday night is Josh Smith from Bardot Brasserie at Aria.

“It’s total improv -- this is one of the competitions where there is a lot of surprises that can be had,” he said.

One of the first surprises is where the chefs will be cooking. The chefs flip a coin to see which food truck they'll use. Sometimes, the trucks don't have basic staples--like salt--and the chefs have to make do.

“In one case, I worked on a truck that was only a pizza oven," Smith said, "So, it was really cool wood-fire pizza oven, but it was just a pizza oven to work with.”

Justin Kingsley Hall, who formerly ran the Kitchen at Atomic, will be Smith's partner for the competition. He said it's surprising how chefs innovate and come up with creative dishes in a limited amount of time.

“Sometimes, you get on a truck that doesn’t have what you are completely used to, but you suddenly realize what all you can do with a deep fryer," he said, "Deep fryer is hot oil. I can stick a pan on hot oil and get it hot for sautéing. You can make things out of nowhere. Fun to see where your brain can go.”

Smith said that chefs used to working in a large kitchen on the Strip may be at a disadvantage to chefs from smaller restaurants who often have to do a lot more work.

“I think that sometimes there is a sense of reality when the Strip chef gets in there with his white apron and is like, ‘Oh wow, I really have to bust my butt and sweat a little bit to make this win,'” he said.

But in the end, it's about having fun, being around fellow service industry people, and bragging rights.

"The people we're competing against this weekend, Emily Brubaker and Jennifer Murphy, I love them as chefs but do I want to beat them - of course!" Hall said, "Who doesn't want to be able to tease them for the rest of the year?"

Mannina believes it's that sense of friendly competition and community that has kept the event going.

“It felt like a reunion every time we did Back of the House Brawl and that’s why I think it lived and continued,” she said.

Food trucks will start serving at 9 p.m. Saturday night. The cocktail competition starts at midnight, and the chefs' competition starts at 1 a.m. 

If you missed this event, there are two more planned in the spring and three in the fall. 

Jolene Mannina, creator, Back of the House Brawl, Josh Smith, chef, Bardot Brasserie; Justin Kingsley Hall, chef, formerly of the Kitchen at Atomic

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