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‘Bratty’ upstart Vegas Unstripped becomes a culinary force of its own

Vegas Unstripped, which is set for the Arts District on Saturday, is, you might say, a food event that’s an antidote to the ills of other food events.

In envisioning the first one in 2018, founders Eric Gladstone, who owns The Feast of Friends marketing and public relations company, and James Trees, chef/owner of Esther’s Kitchen, decided to create something that remedied the frustrations they’d encountered.

“I’ve been to so many food events, and James has done so many, we said, ‘What are the things food events should do and they don’t think about?’ ” Gladstone said.

“One thing James was really hot on was that the chefs themselves had to be there,” he said. “It’s not about the restaurants — because restaurants can change from year to year — but about the chefs who stay here and say, ‘Vegas is my town.’ ”

The name, and provenance, was inspired in part by Vegas Uncork’d, a multi-day festival sponsored by Bon Appetit magazine and the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority from 2007 to 2019. Gladstone said the national profile of the event meant chefs coming in from out of town got an outsize share of the limelight.

“That’s fine for the resorts,” he said, “but the city doesn’t develop its own heroes if we don’t champion our heroes. We can say that Vegas is this great culinary city, but not if it’s always dependent on people coming in and telling us what to do. James and I in conversation were saying, ‘What would it take locally for people and the media to understand that we have this great talent here?’ An event’s always a good way.”

Thus, Unstripped, which in its first two years was scheduled at the same time as Uncork’d.

“It was sort of a bratty thing, an event taking their steam,” he said. They were inspired in part by Slamdance, an alternative to the Sundance Film Festival: “OK, let’s be the Slamdance of food. It was just the idea that this was the only food festival that represented the city.”

Unstripped, Gladstone said, is “all about the people who are doing something different. These are independent chefs. They don’t necessarily have marketing budgets to do things like this.”

Besides the requirement that the chefs had to be on site, the founders decided each would have to create an original dish for the event.

“There’s nothing worse than going to a food festival and seeing three guys doing short ribs on top of Robuchon potatoes with a little sprig of asparagus,” Gladstone said. “We want it to be a creative challenge. We want chefs to be excited about this event and think, ‘What am I going to do?’ It’s competition, but in a healthy sense. The whole takeaway is for people to say, ‘It’s so cool we can do this stuff.’ ”

Gladstone pointed out that in flexing their creative muscles, chefs can maybe find that their own customers will accept something a little unexpected. For example, Johnny Church of Johnny C’s Diner is planning to serve country-fried foie gras and waffles with black pepper maple syrup, and Gina Marinelli of La Strega is planning a Mediterranean fish cassoulet with baby squid, chorizo and gigante beans.

Church, whose dish is inspired by classic chicken and waffles, said he thinks all of the chefs are trying to push the envelope this year.

“Vegas needs to be recognized more through the United States for the culinary scene that goes on here,” he said, “not only on the Strip but off of the Strip as well.”

A Strip veteran, he’s participated in Unstripped every year.

“I just like everybody getting together,” he said. “The chef community here is pretty close — the biggest small city kind of thing. There’s just a lot of camaraderie. It’s fun to do and for a good cause.”

The festival will be on Main Street, which will be closed between Colorado and Imperial avenues. More than two dozen chefs will participate, including Trees, Church, Marinelli, Oscar Amador of Edo Tapas, John Arena of Metro Pizza, Brian Howard of Sparrow + Wolf and Bruce Kalman of Soulbelly BBQ. Cocktails and wines will be provided by a number of bars. For a complete list of chefs and tickets for the evening event, which are $115, visit vegasunstripped.com.

Ticket proceeds will be donated to Project Real, which educates students about their legal rights; Safe House, which assists victims of domestic violence; ALS of Southern Nevada; and Theta Phi Lambda, which mentors disadvantaged youth.

“We really wanted to find some local charities that weren’t getting as much attention,” Gladstone said. “We wanted to make our small amount of money go a long way.”

Contact Heidi Knapp Rinella at hrinella@reviewjournal.com. Follow @HKRinella on Twitter.

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