Back in 1995, Southern Wine and Spirits of Nevada vice president and general manager Larry Ruvo gathered a group of about 35 friends at Spago at the Forum Shops at Caesars for a private dinner to celebrate the life of his father, Lou, who died in 1994 of Alzheimer’s disease. Chef Wolfgang Puck, who opened Spago, his first Las Vegas restaurant, in 1992 and paved the way for celebrity chefs to bring their restaurants to the city, was there in that private dining room on the second floor of the restaurant as well. His mother also died of Alzheimer’s disease. Little did either know that the dinner to celebrate the memory of Lou Ruvo would turn into one of the biggest food and entertainment events in the country.
“That wasn’t a fundraiser; it was just a dinner,” Ruvo says as he remembers that precursor to Power of Love, the huge charity event that raises funds for Keep Memory Alive, the fundraising arm of the Cleveland Clinic Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health.
This year, Keep Memory Alive celebrates its 25th year of the Power of Love. Now the event draws the likes of Bobby Flay cooking with Wolfgang Puck, Smokey Robinson, Demi Lovato, and Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds entertaining, and millions raised to support the Lou Ruvo Center for Brain Health at Cleveland Clinic Nevada, headquartered in a silver knot of a building designed by Frank Gehry in Downtown Las Vegas. Since its inception, the event helped finance 100 clinical research studies, treated more than 6,000 people, and delivered more than 220,000 appointments. The event takes place on Saturday night at Resorts World with limited tickets still available.
That first dinner at Spago changed when John Paul DeJoria, who co-founded the Paul Mitchell line of hair products and the Patrón Spirits Co., happened to be at the restaurant with his own group in town for a hair show. When he heard that Ruvo was hosting a dinner upstairs, he stopped by to pay his respects and handed Ruvo a check for $5,000. “Put this toward something to change that terrible disease,” he told Ruvo at the time. That one check turned into more from friends at Ruvo’s dinner, raising $35,000 to go toward Alzheimer’s disease research. And from there, an event was borne.
Puck and Ruvo decided to hold a fundraising dinner the following year, and Puck thought he would invite another chef to head up the meal. He suggested a little-known-at-the time Japanese chef — Nobu Matsuhisa. Ruvo recalls Puck pitching him as the guest chef, saying, “This guy’s career is going to take off, he’s gonna have the trajectory of a rocket ship.” At the time, Matsuhisa was still an unknown with one restaurant in Los Angeles. “How ironic is it that we went to the opening of Nobu Caesars Palace as you came here 18 years ago and nobody knew you. Now you’re about 75 yards from where you first did the dinner,” Ruvo recalls. Now Matsuhisa has two Las Vegas restaurants at Caesars Palace and Virgin Hotels with a third on the way to Paris Las Vegas, as well as that hotel at Caesars Palace, his first, and a worldwide empire.
“All these extraordinary talents that have lent their talent to Keep Memory Alive have allowed us to build something that’s quite remarkable, not only for Las Vegas but for the rest of the world,” Ruvo says.
His roots in the restaurant industry started as a kid. For 43 years, Ruvo’s parents Lou and Angie owned Venetian Ristorante, a cozy little Italian restaurant serving a killer eggplant Parmesan on West Sahara Avenue, where Herbs & Rye is now located. Celebrities such as Frank Sinatra frequented the restaurant with its mural of Venice on the back wall and giant servings at affordable prices. Ruvo combined his love of restaurants from that experience and his work at Southern Wine and Spirits with his celebrity connections to grow Power of Love from that first little dinner.
“Every year, we have different people come,” Puck says of the chefs he invites to cook with him at the gala. “Most of the people also have restaurants in Las Vegas.” Over the years, an all-star roster of chefs headlined the event — Daniel Boulud, Tom Colicchio, Eric Ripert, Alain Ducasse, Guy Savoy, José Andrés, Charlie Palmer, Francois Payard, Daniel Humm, Emeril Lagasse, Todd English, Scott Conant, Joël Robuchon, Gordon Ramsay, Masaharu Morimoto, Buddy Valastro, Michael Mina, Giada De Laurentiis, Thomas Keller, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Kerry Simon, and Rick Moonen.
“It’s not a rubber chicken dinner,” Ruvo says. “This is a place where you walk in and you see Dom Perignon and you see Nobu’s appetizers and you see the chefs and phenomenal wine and food and unbelievable desserts.” He recalls one year when artist Jeff Koons, known for works that look like balloon animals produced in stainless steel with mirror-glass finishes, came to the event. When he saw the desserts, he told Ruvo, “You can’t serve those. Those are a piece of art.” And at the time, the event had 2,000 of those artistic masterpieces ready to serve.
“We have to give credit to Larry, because he is really the one who pushes that we to put this gala together every year. It is really a lot of work,” Puck says. “It’s one thing for us to do the food or invite the people to cook and they love to do it, but I think to raise the money, it’s a big responsibility to get the people to cough up his or his green.”