At 8 p.m. on the last Friday night in April, thousands of diners spilled into the Garden of the Gods Pool Oasis at Caesars Palace Las Vegas, plates in hand and ready to ingest some serious calories.
In a city known for gluttony, the Grand Tasting, a culinary free-for-all that’s the highlight of the annual four-day Vegas Uncork’d food-and-wine event, may be the height of the excess. During the three-hour-long shindig, 50 restaurant teams, some led by celebrity chefs, roll out their most sumptuous and imaginative dishes for the crowd and each other.
A few visitors headed right, toward plates of duck-confit ravioli and orange-lavender Moscow Mules. Others headed left, after catching glimpses of chefs Giada de Laurentiis or Gordon Ramsay at their respective booths. It didn’t matter which way they walked: mountains upon mountains of food awaited.
With seared scallops at every turn and Champagne flowing like water, it might seem like the sky’s the limit for the event’s budget. Like any other planner, though, Lisa Lynn Backus, CMP, CPCE, and director of Caesars Entertainment’s catering and convention services team, has to keep costs under control. Though the tasting is not the largest event she arranges each year, “it’s the most complex,” said Backus, because it touches nearly everyone from Caesars’ wide-ranging F&B team, from the vice president to the executive chef to the celebrity chefs who run restaurants within Caesars properties. Culinary stars, such as Ramsay, de Laurentiis, Susan Feniger, Francois Payard, Emeril Lagasse, and others, fly in to lead their teams and have fun with each other, lending the night a gilded vibe. “The Grand Tasting is a guest experience, but when it comes down to it, it’s also a chefs’ showplace,” Backus said. “It’s about the best of the best chefs in Las Vegas showing off to each other.”
So how does Backus save money? By calling for all hands on deck — not just cooks and banquet servers.
Some event particulars are covered by Bon Appetit, which sponsors Vegas Uncork’d. But with 17 Caesars restaurants participating in the Grand Tasting, Caesars’ investment is significant. So how does Backus save money? By calling for all hands on deck — not just cooks and banquet servers. “We pour all of our management team into [the event],” Backus said. “Whatever we can do to reduce hourly labor, we do.”
That meant that instead of hiring outside line cooks for each station, chefs du cuisine, sous chefs, front-of-house staff, and F&B managers pulled their weight slinging tuna poke or crispy pork belly. “We relied so much on our management team, and it was the first time we did this on this scale,” Backus said. “We had F&B, we had the front of house — the people that you don’t always see.”
Backus called 2016 “the best ever” of the four years she’s been planning the event, not only because of teamwork, but because the drizzle that had been falling most of the day stopped in time for the tasting. So, what was her favorite dish? Backus draws a blank. “I’ve never eaten or drunk anything at this event,” Backus said, as she likes to remain on point for in-the-moment requests and changes, as well as the intense breakdown of booths after it’s all over. “Some day, I’d love to attend.”
Photos: Christopher Lapena/Caesars Entertainment