Mothers, grandmothers and great-grandmothers are so often the inspiration and the driving force behind the world’s chefs and restaurateurs. Historically, though, women have been left behind in the male-dominated culinary industry.
That is no longer the case in Las Vegas. The seeds of change were planted in 1999 when Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken (see Border Crossings) brought their celebrated Border Grill from L.A. to Mandalay Bay.
Then, in 2011, Susan Wolfla joined Mandalay Bay as the first woman executive chef at a major Vegas property.
Managing the resort’s culinary operations to this day, Indiana-born Wolfla earned a Bachelor of Science in Cell and Developmental Biology from Purdue University before getting her degree from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA).
Her ceaseless drive motivated her shift from the lab to the kitchen.
(Photo: Mandalay Bay Executive Chef Susan Wolfla; Credit: Courtesy MGM Resorts International)
"The career of a chef challenges us in every way: physically, mentally, socially and spiritually,” the 1994 alumna told CIA’s graduating class of 2012. “This challenge has always inspired me. I hope it will inspire you."
The growth continued, when Vegas’ next woman celebrity chef, Giada De Laurentiis, arrived on the scene in 2014. Today, dozens of women lead food and beverage enterprises and operations across the Las Vegas Valley—with big dreams and ambitions among the key ingredients in their success.
The Right Chemistry
Overseeing 21 distinct beverage menus for The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas, Chef (not Chief) Mixologist Mariena Mercer-Boarini infuses her culinary-inspired craft cocktails with “the magic and laughter of life.” Having studied chemistry in college, she also shakes up convention with science.
“For an Asian-inspired food festival we hosted, I created 1,000 bowls of an edible ‘ramen’ cocktail using molecular gastronomy,” said the second-generation Las Vegan, who first gained attention at 21 as “The Tequila Goddess” at Treasure Island. “To effect traditional ramen elements, I hand-cut 10,000 noodles from coconut rum, lemongrass and ginger.”
With the property since 2010, Mercer-Boarini aims to awe.
(Photo: Mariena Mercer-Boarini; Credit: Courtesy of The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas)
“Like Vegas, the definitive place of dreams, I create wonderlands for the palate,” she said.
These include cocktails featuring edible art pieces and the Chandelier Bar’s literally sensational Verbena—Herradura Blanco tequila with yuzu, kalamansi, ginger and lemon verbena, garnished with Acmella oleracea—or the mouth-tingling “Szechuan Button.”
This “buzz button” is a major revenue generator, along with the property’s Vesper Bar. After recently serving its two-millionth patron, the James Bond-inspired haven reopened in December 2019 with pairings on Mercer-Boarini’s new “Classics and Reimagined Interpretations” cocktail menu that include the 007 classic Vesper with The Spy Who Loved Me martini.
“Cocktails are my canvas for storytelling and my art,” Mercer-Boarini said. “And I love creating unexpected, impactful experiences for our guests.”
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In 2014, Italian-born L.A. celebrity chef, Emmy-winning TV personality and The New York Times best-selling cookbook author Giada De Laurentiis made her restaurant debut with GIADA at The Cromwell in Las Vegas.
Boasting unmatched Four Corners’ views through giant retractable windows, her second-floor corner perch is a swoon for groups.
Designed to make guests “feel at home,” De Laurentiis’ rose gold-colored aesthetic distinctly femininizes the space.
Alluring, too, is her California-influenced Italian menu, with signature items that include lemon spaghetti with shrimp and lemon ricotta cookies.
(Photo: Giada De Laurentiis; Credit: The Cromwell)
More entrepreneurial female star power arrived three years later when Venezuelan-born restaurateur, cookbook author, media personality and cookware designer Lorena Garcia became the first Latina executive chef on the Strip.
Her passion for cooking began with making breakfast for her family at age 6. After an initial step toward law, she switched gears and enrolled at Johnson & Wales University in Miami.
Photo: Chef Lorena Garcia; Courtesy: The Venetian
After apprenticing at the Ritz in Paris, she honed her culinary chops in Italy, Japan, Korea, Thailand and China. This global sensibility informed the subsequent evolution of Garcia’s Miami-based restaurant group, which she expanded to The Venetian Las Vegas in 2017 with CHICA.
With a prominent Restaurant Row location familiar to IMEX America and other Sands Expo attendees, CHICA is a hot ticket for events and Garcia’s sizzling Latin American-driven menu.
For Garcia, who is the first woman to appear on the “Wall of Culinary Titans” outside The Venetian, Vegas is a dream come true.
“After competing on “Top Chef Masters” in Vegas, I knew I would open in this amazing city,” said Garcia, whose biggest accomplishment is “overcoming the challenges of being a female chef in this industry.”
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And Vegas more than fulfills her passion for food and hospitality.
“Fierce competition on the Strip means staying on your A-game to succeed,” Garcia said, noting she thrives on sharing the beauty of her culture through the culinary arts with visitors from around the globe. “I cook from the heart, and love feeding people most of all.”
Empresses of Excellence
In 2018, Texas-born Michelle Tribble scored the head chef role at Gordon Ramsay’s hot-ticket HELL’S KITCHEN at Caesars Palace for winning the popular television show competition of the same name.
It’s also a rewarding show for the women culinary leaders on the Caesars Entertainment National Meetings & Events team as they deliver culinary excellence on an epically Roman scale.
With Caesars since 1997, Director of Citywide Sales Michele Polci leads 11 colleagues in selling catered events across 1.9 million square feet of space in nine Vegas properties, including the new CAESARS FORUM.
“I have the best job in the world,” said the UNLV alumna, who is the National Association of Catering and Events’ all-time most awarded caterer. “Whether for 20 or 20,000 attendees, we pride ourselves on tailoring experiences based on customer goals. Our craft is about limitless possibilities.”
(Photo: Michele Polci; Credit: Caesars Entertainment)
Leticia Nunez is executive chef for CAESARS FORUM. Building on the “love, respect and passion” for food that she developed as a child in Mexico, she worked early on with Californian culinary pioneers Alice Waters, Thomas Keller and Annie Roberts. Joining Caesars in 2005, she progressed to become executive chef at Caesars Palace’s Bacchanal Buffet, where she oversaw the service of up to 24,000 meals each week at the legendary nine-kitchen venue.
“Vegas sets its own bar for culinary experiences,” Nunez said. “The talent here is world-class, including the amazing team I have assembled to provide restaurant-quality dining for CAESARS FORUM conferees.”
As the award-winning director of catering and convention services for Flamingo Las Vegas, The LINQ Hotel + Experience, Harrah’s Las Vegas, and CAESARS FORUM, Vikki Kydd likewise thrives on oversized orders.
“With more clients requesting large events, we began programming the parking lot behind the LINQ Promenade,” said the Minnesota native, who started with Caesars in 1999 at Paris Las Vegas. “To meet the challenge of a blank canvas with no infrastructure, we brought in fully equipped kitchens, generators, refrigerated trucks, ice machines and more.”
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Her team’s most recent engagement exemplifies Kydd’s production prowess.
“We built hangar-sized air-conditioned tents for 25,000 attendees and 500-plus staff,” she said. “Service included more than 150,000 hors d’oeuvres and 100-plus bars supplied with 6,000 pounds of ice.”
Starting at Bally's and Paris Las Vegas in 2001 and promoted to Caesars Palace in 2011, Bay Area native Lanette Myers’ success in coordinating large, high-profile groups saw her elevated to the property’s executive director of catering and conventions in 2013.
“As North America’s top meetings and events destination, Las Vegas is renowned for uniquely creative conferences and events,” Myers said. “That sets a high bar and high expectations for clients, which we aim to exceed by constantly evolving and staying current with food, beverages, service and entertainment trends to ensure that we can deliver memorable and impactful experiences.”
The Wynn-ing Approach
Earlier this year, I watched Wynn Resorts’ Executive Chef of Catering and Special Events Kelly Bianchi prepare trays of her "vegan beet tartar with citrus marigold on a charred onion cracker,” topping each canape with a tiny flower.
Artful, too, is Bianchi’s leadership in flawlessly producing and presenting such five-star culinary stylings for large-scale conventions.
“Making food for other people is such a multisensory, artful experience, and a creative outlet unlike any other I’ve experienced,” Bianchi explained. “It is a responsibility I’ve devoted my life to.”
Born in Kansas City, Missouri, she began her career at 14 as an assistant in a French bakery in Lexington, Kentucky. After graduating from the New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont, her culinary journey brought her to Wynn Resorts in 2006.
Wynn and Vegas inspire her daily.
(Photo: Wynn Resorts’ Executive Chef of Catering and Special Events Kelly Bianchi; Credit: Eric Jamison)
“The talent and restaurants in this global culinary capital push me to constantly rethink and evolve my culinary point of view,” Bianchi continued. “At Wynn, for example, Wing Lei is the only Forbes Five-Star Chinese restaurant in North America. And our client diversity and their unique culinary goals allow for limitless creativity.”
This drives Bianchi to create not just menus, but unique brand experiences.
“Client requests focused on sustainable dining options, responsibly sourced food, health and wellness trends or other dietary and ingredient preferences were rare just a few years ago,” she said. “The great news is that our clients’ preferences align with my desire to push boundaries while I re-engineer my approach to building their menus.”
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After graduating from The University of Nevada in Reno, Nevada native Pam Howatt first worked for gaming legend William Harrah before spending 17 years planning global meetings, tradeshows and customer events for gaming manufacturer IGT.
Her passion for her work inspired Howatt to purchase an events company in 2005, followed by an incentive provider in 2007, which she consolidated as Divine Events in 2010.
Operations are based at group oasis Springs Preserve, the ancient birthplace of Las Vegas where her team caters 800-plus events annually and runs the scenic 300-seat Divine Cafe. MEET Las Vegas in Downtown Las Vegas is another exclusive relationship, while preferred clients include the Neon Museum, Mob Museum, Las Vegas Monorail and Maverick Helicopters.
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Recently named to the prestigious Leading Caterers of America, Howatt thrives on the destination’s unique opportunities.
“Las Vegas is about appealing to the senses and visually beautiful food is no exception,” she said. “And no place does anticipatory customer service better.”
Notable feats include serving 5,000 guests in eight locations for a master planned development; feeding attendees of a heavy equipment bootcamp for a month in a construction pit; and serving breakfast for 300 foreign journalists in local sand dunes.
Proprietor’s Reserve is Divine’s dedicated event venue, which opened in August 2019. It offers 4,000 square feet of stylish, versatile space eight miles west of McCarran International Airport.
In 2018, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken became the first women recipients of the annual Julia Child Award from The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts. Established in 2015, the award recognizes “an individual (or team) who has made a profound and significant difference in the way America cooks, eats and drinks.”
The business partners, who were close with Child, have broken continuous ground since meeting in 1978 in the otherwise all-male kitchen of Chicago’s Le Perroquet. Feniger arrived after Milliken, a graduate of Chicago’s Washburne Culinary Institute, had worked her way to becoming the restaurant’s first female chef.
Photo: Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken in group of Celebrated Chefs and Restaurants in Las Vegas 2019; Credit: MGM Resorts International
After Le Perroquet, Feniger, a CIA graduate, first worked at Wolfgang Puck’s Ma Maison in L.A. and then in the French Riviera. Milliken also went to France, where she cooked at the woman-owned, two Michelin-starred Restaurant D’Olympe in Paris.
Reuniting in L.A., they created a sensation in 1981 with their globally inspired City Cafe and never looked back. Next was CITY Restaurant, where the partners discovered the tastes of Oaxaca and the Yucatan from their Mexican colleagues.
That inspired their epic 1985 road trip in a VW Bug deep into Mexico in search of authentic ingredients and recipes. Back in L.A., their immersion in Mexican street food, family barbecues and beachside taco stands produced their pioneering Modern Mexican restaurant Border Grill.
The concept won a James Beard Award in its debut that same year, and then later expanded to a food truck and catering service, setting a new standard for gourmet Mexican food.
The partners have also raised their renown with other concepts, cookbooks and nearly 400 episodes of their Food Network series Too Hot Tamales and Tamales World Tour.
Now in its 21st year at Mandalay Bay, their Las Vegas Border Grill location is known for signatures like green corn tamales and Peruvian ceviche tostados, and has flexible indoor and outdoor options for festive private dining and events.
Soul Survivor: Chef Jenn Landry
Raised by her Creole father in New Orleans, Chef Jenn Landry says she “had to grow up fast and be the woman of the house early on.” For the petite powerhouse, that included spending hours in the kitchen standing on a stepstool and stirring the classic roux and other preparations.
Her career fantasy was to “dress up and manage people’s money.” But stifled by accountancy, the kitchen called her back. From the Culinary Institute of New Orleans in 2003, she got a hot start with the legendary Brennan family’s Commander’s Palace restaurants. Following a stint in Atlanta, Chef Jenn, as she was popularly known, returned home.
As a single parent working 12-hour days, she relied on her elder son Sidney to care for his brother, who is developmentally disabled. In 2015, Sidney was shot dead just shy of his 18th birthday.
“I buried him on a Saturday and was back to work on Tuesday,” Landry said. “I had to—this profession kept me alive and kept me going.”
(Photo: Chef Jennifer Landry; Credit: Emily Wilson Photography)
In 2019, she relocated to Las Vegas with her younger son for a fresh start. Landry walked her resume all over town before a connection from New Orleans native Emeril Lagasse’s Las Vegas restaurants introduced her to Sonny Ahuja, of Downtown Container Park’s Bin 702.
Ahuja hired Landry as executive chef of his new Arts District concept 18bin, where we met in October 2019 for this interview, one month after opening. We connected again this February, and her smile spoke volumes.
“It would have taken at least a decade to get known here in a resort kitchen,” Landry said. “But in the community-driven Arts District, reminiscent of New Orleans, I’ve brought who I am to the table much faster. The love here also keeps me going.”
18bin occupies a prime corner spot in the Arts Factory building, which is a local standout for its galleries and fetching “Love Las Vegas Arts” mural. With Landry’s Cajun Jambalaya and Southern Spicy Sauce Chicken Lollipops among the menu enticements, the Grindhouse-styled venue is a hot spot for indoor and outdoor events with two stages, a large outdoor patio and booming sound system. Plus, buyouts and catering are on offer.
Learn more about what's new and on the horizon for Las Vegas meetings and events in our 2020 destination supplement.