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From garden to table, chefs demand freshest ingredients for Vegas Uncork’d

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Justin M. Bowen

The Garden of the Gods Grand Tasting, Vegas Uncork’d by Bon Appetit‘s main event, at Caesars Palace on Friday, May 6, 2011.

Updated Thursday, May 10, 2012 | 9:35 p.m.

Vegas Uncork'd

Vegas Uncork'd runs Thursday through Sunday at Caesars Palace, the Cosmopolitan, the Bellagio and Mandalay Bay. Tickets are still available for half of the events. To check availability and buy tickets, click here.

Nourishing the Las Vegas economy

  • Overall: $20 million over five years
  • In 2011: $6.6 million
  • 2011 attendance: 5,000
  • Share of international visitors: 15 percent
  • Average spent per Uncork'd visitor: $2,300
  • Amount spent by the average Las Vegas visitor: $1,020
  • Average gaming budget of Uncork’d attendees: $1,131
  • Amount of gaming budget for average Las Vegas visitor: $448

The Southern Nevada desert isn't a garden spot for a chef, but it's close.

Because of Las Vegas' proximity to the fertile soils of California, chefs don't have to look far to get the ingredients they need for the Strip's annual food showcase, Vegas Uncork'd by Bon Appetit. The festival, which draws some of the world's biggest stars of food and wine, begins Thursday and runs through Sunday.

"Locally grown for us is not Las Vegas, but more or less Southern California," said Vincent Poussel, executive chef for Aureole at Mandalay Bay.

The farmers' markets of Los Angeles give Las Vegas what it needs to consistently be among the world's top cities for AAA Five- and Four-Star restaurants. Each year, Uncork'd showcases some of the biggest culinary names on the Strip, drawing thousands of foodies from around the world. More than 20,000 have spent $20 million at the event during its first five years.

This year's event features 60 restaurants, 50 chefs and 30 wine experts. This week, visitors not only can get a table at Mesa Grill, they can have a seat at a sold-out dinner Thursday night prepared by the owner, Bobby Flay. Wolfgang Puck will celebrate 20 years in Las Vegas with lunch Thursday at his Spago restaurant in Caesars Palace.

Uncork'd generated $6.6 million for the Clark County economy last year, and the people who come for the festival do more than eat. Each of the 5,000 people expected to attend will bring an average of more than $1,100 to the casino floor, according to event officials. That's two to three times the average of what other Las Vegas visitors spend on gaming.

During the weeks leading up to Uncork'd, the chefs have been making sure they have the best crops shipped from California farms to Vegas tables. That means staying on top of not only what is growing in season, but what crops are tasting the best in the state that leads the nation in fruit and vegetable production.

"Every chef is using the farmers' markets — every chef," said David Myers, whose restaurant, Comme Ca, is at the Cosmopolitan. "It helps that we have a farmers' market in Los Angeles every day."

Myers, who will be making grilled corn and a chilled crab lollipop at a party following Friday night’s Celebrity Chef Poker Tournament, gets produce from a variety of farms — including urban growers in spots as surprising as the upscale Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood.

"It sounds crazy, but you can get incredible corn from Brentwood," he said. The chilled crab will come from the East Coast.

Poussel keeps trusted associates who frequent the farmers' markets on speed dial. Every morning he gets a call from a buyer in Santa Monica who has been scouring the Los Angeles markets.

"He will let us know right away if something is in the market, something is hot," Poussel said. "I just received the first shipment of porcinis. I'm going to try to use them in our Sunday Steak and Eggs brunch with Charlie Palmer at Mandalay Bay."

To make world-class food for the Uncork'd crowds, chefs not only need the best ingredients, but lots of them.

Julian Serrano said he would need 250 pounds of chicken, 80 pounds of Spanish pork chorizo and 25 pounds of rabbit for valenciana paella at the festival's newest event, "Follow that Food Truck," scheduled for Thursday evening.

Poussel is ordering some 50 pounds of clams, 30 pounds of shrimp and 30 pounds of Mahi Mahi for chefs Palmer, Rick Moonen, Mary Sue Millken and Susan Feniger. All of the seafood for Saturday's clambake at Mandalay Bay will come from the Gulf Coast.

Don't forget the wine.

Jason Smith, sommelier at Bellagio, said one of his tastings would pair a pricey wine from France with a more casual but rich-tasting wine from California. He wants the audience to see which they think tastes better.

Smith said fine wine didn't have to be stuffy.

"We're here to enjoy the wine, not put it on a pedestal," he said.

The event also gives Las Vegas a chance to show off its world-class talent.

"Sometimes, we get overlooked by places like San Francisco and New York, but we really are standing right alongside of them," Smith said.

Uncork'd is one time the red carpet chefs roll up their sleeves and fire up the stoves. Even chefs who run daily operations at Las Vegas' finest restaurants are awed by the spectacle, when their famous bosses come to town.

"From a gastronomic standpoint, it's insane," Poussel said.

Thursday night’s Masters Dinners illustrated the intimacy of Uncork'd, including one featuring Food Network star chef Bobby Flay. Three tables, sitting 14 people each, offered up a four-course dinner including Flay's trademark use of chili peppers. Even the pickled peaches and the chocolate ice cream packed a punch.

Two couples from Wisconsin had come to Uncork'd four of the five previous years. They've bought tickets to Flay's dinner just about every year he's had one.

The chefs don't take their fans lightly, either. Flay said he spent took two days preparing the menu, including trying two different soups, from which he picked one, and changing the desert from the printed menu to his new spicy ice cream. He also lightened the kick of the ice cream at the last minute on the suggestion of his pastry chef, trying to make the ultimate experience for the Vegas crowd.

"The thing I'd like to get more credit for, that I don't, is being in my restaurants," Flay said. "The thing about cable TV is that they record something and then play it all the time. People can get the wrong idea about what I’m really doing. But my favorite place to be is in the kitchen of one of my restaurants."

Follow the events of Uncork’d this weekend, live on Twitter, via @rsylvester.

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