Back of House Brawl

A Judge Reflects on the Tastes Before Him

Jolene Mannina explains the rules to the two teams.

By Jason Harris

Photos by Spencer Burton

8:55 pm - Sunday. This is what it’s like when people say they are getting old. I’m not old, still in my 30s, but man, did last night kick my ass. Today my day went almost exactly like how it would if I was nursing a hangover. I woke up around 11:30, somehow made it to the couch and watched football until 1. Then it was time to eat. I have food in the house, but that wasn’t happening. A quick run to the sandwich shop covered me for lunch and dinner.

After my first meal, it was back to sleep for one of those hour naps that turns into three. I woke up, ate again, even got my ass out of the house to walk the dog. Eventually I plan on showering. This is exactly what it’s like the day after you drink too much - save for the vomiting. The thing is I didn’t drink too much last night. All I did was experience The Back of House Brawl.

This is what it’s like the day after one of the most raucous underground food events in all of Las Vegas. You go, you indulge, you party and you get drunk - either on alcohol or on the event itself. For me, it was the latter. It was a shindig for the culinary scene out here unlike any I’d ever attended. And I can say that for sure, because it’s almost 9 pm the next day and I’m just now finding the energy to write about it.

The Back Of House Brawl is the brainchild of Jolene Mannina, a vital element of the Las Vegas food scene. I first met her years ago, when she was both a server at STK and running her own side hustle: Sloppy Jo’s, a food truck that specialized in chili, featuring New Mexico hatch chilies. Come to think of it, I could use a bowl of Sloppy Jo’s chili today, complete with gooey fried egg on top to get my motor running.

Mannina would go on to be a lead contributor to the culinary program of Life Is Beautiful in its initial year and has thrown all types of fun specialty dinners as the owner of the soon-to-be defunct Relish, a boutique event planning company. She is currently doing her most important work as the Vice President of Culinary Partnerships at Urban Seed, connecting major chefs in town to the futuristic aeroponic farming organization. Everything she does, including the Back of House Brawl, now runs in conjunction with Urban Seed.

Back in the day, before it became a competition, the event was known as Saturday Night Truck Stop. Food trucks throughout the city would spend the night in the parking lot of Tommy Rockers, a bar on Dean Martin Drive that has been known as both a strip club at some point and a local karaoke joint at others. Mannina knew there had to be another hook than just a food truck conglomeration. She recalls,

When we started the Saturday Night Truck Stop, I knew I wanted an element to get the restaurants involved, because I knew I wanted the chef community at the Saturday Night Truck Stop. All the chefs would come up to me and tell me their ideas of what kind of concept they would have for a food truck. From my personal experience, it’s difficult to work on the food trucks. ‘This is perfect,’ I thought. ‘I’m gonna give the chefs a little taste of it. We’ll get them on here.’ And it seemed like a format was the best way to do it - that Chopped style, with secret ingredients, all while trying to figure out the food truck. Because it took me a while to figure out my own truck.

The Brawl was born and became such a sensation that a television series based on it, Late Nite Chef Fight, aired for two seasons on FYI Network. Mannina remembers the show as a good experience with great national exposure, but it couldn’t capture the kinetic energy of what the Brawl was supposed to be. When I asked her about the TV show versus last night’s Brawl, she exclaimed of the latter, “This is the pure form. This is what the Back of House Brawl is. At the end of the day the real event is the community event, the local event. We can be ourselves, say whatever we want, do what we want and just have a really good time. I have no extra aspirations this time. I want this to be exactly what it was this past weekend.”

The host of this Brawl was Brian Howard (himself a multi-time Brawl winner) at his restaurant, the Chinatown hot spot Sparrow + Wolf. The parking lot looked like some type of unsavory late night rally – what the cause was, who’s to say – I just imagine if you were passing by with no knowledge of the event, and you saw that group of seedy characters out in mass, you’d hit the gas pedal harder and get the hell away as fast as you could.

The culinary carnival outside the restaurant featured a bar, an alcoholic fruit-pop stand, a Spanish food truck and Sparrow + Wolf’s chef de cuisine, Justin Kingsley Hall, grilling up beef heart skewers on an open flame. Had the Boqueria Street truck been commandeered by a group of rogue bandit post-apocalyptic women, commandeered by a group of rogue bandit kick ass women fighters, a post-apocalyptic Mad Max style takeover would not have seemed out of place.

Inside Sparrow + Wolf, the night’s competing chefs, Shaun King of Momofuku and Ricardo Heredia of China Poblano, each grabbed their sous chefs and waited for the unveiling of the mandatory ingredients. Says Mannina of how ingredients are chosen, “It’s gotta be an item that can be cooked within 30 minutes, but it also can’t be an item that can be cooked too fast because there will be a lapse in time. It also has to be items that are challenging but still you can have a thought process with. At the end of the day I want the chefs to be successful.”

Upon a visit to Michael’s Gourmet (MGP Specialty Foods), Mannina found the bulk of her lot. She recalls, “They were talking about ostrich eggs and in my mind I said, ‘This could not be more perfect.’ Because I had never opened an ostrich egg. And then of course I wanted to incorporate something from Urban Seed. I try to give a spice, a protein, a carbohydrate or some dairy. Some acid. All the different kind of foods together.”

Michael’s supplied the ostrich egg along with three other secret ingredients: jicama sticks, pink peppercorn, and dwarf peaches in truffle oil. Marigold leaves, courtesy of Urban Seed, rounded out the mandatory item list.

As one of the three judges for this contest, here were my first thoughts: The ostrich egg could be tricky because it is enormous. It’s the size of 22 chicken eggs and needs to be sawed open. Jicama sticks retain a lot of moisture and the best way to use them would be to have other flavors elevate them. Pink peppercorn is a gift and matches everything. Marigold leaves are pretty tasty and reinforce the peppery notes. But damn, those dwarf peaches suck. They are at once acidic and completely overwhelmed by truffle. Not only do I not like them, but I worry that they will ruin everything else they come in contact with. Peaches are so good on their own. Peaches are so good with so many other things. But those damn villainous truffles tainted their goodness here.

The chefs have 30 minutes to make a cohesive dish utilizing all the ingredients. A wild, live cheering section for each chef, by way of each restaurant, lined the kitchen as I, along with my fellow judges (Top Chef Master Rick Moonen and food writer Al Mancini) watched up close and personal. All the while, the camera friendly Mannina ran around, holding two microphones and called the action for the livestream, which played on the Urban Seed Facebook page. It was a rush of energy for everyone.

As the judges were placed at a tasting table outside, we were swarmed by onlookers. Both plates were presented to us and, not surprisingly, the colossal egg was the star of both chefs’ dishes. King went with an Asian take on scrambled eggs. He had a unifying flavor due to his usage of lime laced throughout the dish, including lime zest in the eggs. Two little chunks of bread were given to make it feel more “breakfasty.” Heredia went Spanish with his play on migas, a traditional breakfast dish in Spain and Portugal. His bread was actually in the eggs, giving it volume. He topped everything with taleggio cheese which was effective, but he had two sauces around the rim of his bowl and nothing to sop them up with.

In the end, it was a unanimous decision. King was the winner with a clean sweep based on taste, presentation and use of ingredients. For me, it was that tying together of flavors from the lime that put it all over the top. Plus I liked that I could utilize his bread as a vessel to taste the accompanying sauces. (He also had a specialty cocktail made by the bartenders at Velveteen Rabbit which was presented to the judges. I’m not saying it helped, but it didn’t hurt.)

As the verdict was announced, his fans chanted “King of the North!” as a reference to him being their Jon Snow, their Game of Thrones style culinary hero.

We all partied long after the competition was done and today, I’m feeling it. But I, along with the other rabble-rousers, will be back in October when three chefs will battle it out for bragging rights at the Urban Seed headquarters. This event will also mark the return of “The Cock Fight,” a battle of bartenders who will compete in a mixology competition starting directly after the end of The Brawl. So, you know, 2 am.

Mannina has five more Brawls planned through May of next year. With all the enthusiasm for the first one, it is likely there will be more coming. She knows what she’s created. She confidently states, “It’s a genius event because who doesn’t want to be where the chefs are hanging out? If you’re into food, you’re going to see the rock stars of the restaurants of Las Vegas. It’s a late night chef competition and it’s an underground event. So if you hear about it, I feel like you’re lucky to know about it.”

As it stands, she has spotlighted a few must-not-miss Brawls.

Says Mannina, “Nicole Brisson of B&B Hospitality Group’s Carnevino and John Courtney of Simon Hospitality Group’s Carson Kitchen have battled before on the TV show. John Courtney wants, I don’t want to say revenge, but he wants another shot to win. (November 11, 2017 at The Sand Dollar Lounge). Josh Clarke, the man behind The Goodwich and Justin Kingsley Hall from Sparrow + Wolf are like best friends and both of them have not battled. I really personally wanted to see that battle (March 17, 2018 at Herbs + Rye). I love the pizza guys going against each other. James Trees of the upcoming Esther’s Kitchen LV, and Vincent Rotolo who mans the ovens at Evel Pie and Chris Decker, the unsung hero of Metro Pizza – that made sense. They’re all new and haven’t battled before. (May 5, 2018 at Sparrow + Wolf).”

Other than Brisson, all of these chefs are based off The Strip, which is a testament to how far the local food scene has come.

As for The Back of House Brawl, well it’s come full circle and ended up exactly where – and how – it should be. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back to sleep.

Ricardo Heredia of China Poblano with his sous chef Steven Aung.


Shaun King of Momofuku with his sous chef Johnny Church.


At the judges table from left to right, Jason Harris, Top Chef Master Rick Moonen and food writer Al Mancini.


A triumphant Shaun King is congratulated by Ricardo Her.


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