In the past two and a half years, nearly 70 chefs have cooked inside the Vegas Test Kitchen on Fremont Street. What started as a mid-pandemic solution for an empty restaurant evolved into a community mainstay, in which both amateur and professional chefs tested their ideas for new foods and restaurants. This summer, the incubator will close for good, going out with an outdoor food festival hosted by dozens of chefs in early June.
“I didn’t know if this was going to work. And within that first year, we realized this is something that’s needed,” says Jolene Mannina, the former culinary director for Life Is Beautiful, and founder of the culinary pop-up organization, Secret Burger. “We’re one of the culinary capitals of the world and we have all these amazing chefs here. To be able to do this, so they have all the tools and get a little bit of education before they put themselves out there relieves a lot of stress for somebody starting a small business.”
The Vegas Test Kitchen, located next to Fergusons Downtown, maintains a rotating calendar of regular dining concepts and one-time pop-ups, with local chefs taking over the kitchen spaces to make and serve anything from pie to sushi to sandwiches to pizza. Chefs Daniel Arias and Isidro Marquez started serving ceviche as the Black Pearl inside the test kitchen and have gone on to become chefs at the neighboring Peyote and La Mona Rosa restaurants. Chef Sonia El-Nawal launched Bodega Bagel at the test kitchen, which turned into a brick-and-mortar in Henderson — though that one shuttered within about six months. “Our greatest success story is Yukon Pizza,” says Mannina. “They were with us for two years and that allowed them to launch their business.” Now located in the Huntridge Center, the folks at Yukon Pizza continue the tradition of making pizzas on 125-year-old sourdough crust.
Mannina says that she pitched the test kitchen during the pandemic and DTP, which owns Fergusons and other downtown developments, funded the opening, with an agreement for one to five years, but those agreements changed, and it’s closing sooner than she would have liked. “Taking over the property would be challenging without knowing what’s happening with all the closed businesses around us and what that timeline is. It’s a struggle to have a multi-concept restaurant in this location,” says Mannina. She sees a future in which the test kitchen concept comes back to life, but she thinks it will need to go in a neighborhood that is experiencing growth— and where most of the neighboring businesses aren’t closed on Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays. “Hopefully we can find a better partnership and a better location,” says Mannina. “All the chefs have been so sweet and reaching out and saying thank you for giving them the chance to come in here and kind of kickstart their personal journey. So it’s been really lovely.”
While the test kitchen firms up plans for its last hurrah, current pop-ups like Arepaheads, Pop N Pies, Stay Tuned Burgers, Down 2 Earth Plant-Based Cuisine, and Solamente Pizza will continue serving dine-in and take-out meals inside the kitchen. Vegas Test Kitchen at 1020 East Fremont Street closes on June 3.