One of Las Vegas’s most exciting food events is returning this year, with 30 of the city’s most hyped chefs descending on the Arts District armed with open-fire grills, pizza ovens, and bold ideas. In the third year of the Vegas Unstripped food event, local chefs are taking to the street in front of Esther’s Kitchen to remind locals that impressive culinary talent can be found Off-Strip.
UnStripped got its start in 2019, as a response to the behemoth Strip-powered event, UnCork’d. “We got a letter that we were invited to participate in UnCork’d,” says James Trees, the chef and owner for Esther’s Kitchen. “The letter said I had to make 5,000 portions of food and provide all the flatware, food, and labor. And they’d charge me $5,000 on top of that as a gift for being a part of it.” Trees ran the numbers with chef Bryan Howard of Sparrow + Wolf and decided that, for that degree of work and money, they could produce their own event.
So UnStripped was born with the help of Eric Gladstone’s Feast of Friends marketing company. For the 2019 event, about 600 locals and tourists clamored around the 18 or so chefs who debuted new dishes that they developed just for the event. The 2020 sequel was canceled due to the pandemic and the 2021 event technically took place — but with challenging pandemic restrictions like limited attendance and mandatory proof of vaccinations. Last year’s event was postponed, making Unstripped this October a long-awaited return to form.
This year’s lineup is still growing and will ultimately boast 30 chefs. But it currently brings together 14 chefs including Trees and Howard, Luke Palladino of Laguna Pool House & Kitchen in the Palms Place tower, Vegas restaurant veteran and ‘Chopped’ alum Johnny Church, Matt Meyer of Henderson’s 138, Michael Vakneen, the head pizzaiolo at 00 Pie and Pub, Marty Lopez of Scotch 80, Ray Garcia from Viva at Resorts World, Michael Van Staden of the GBD food truck, Saipin Chutima of Thai destination Lotus of Siam, Giovanni “Gio” Mauro of Monzu and Old School Pizzeria, Adam Rios of Summerlin Italian spot Al Solito Posto, chef de cuisine Jackson Stamper from Ada’s Food + Wine, pizza legend John Arena, and DJ Flores of the Milpa Mexican restaurant.
Gladstone says that the idea behind UnStripped was also a strategic one. If the Las Vegas culinary industry wants to have regional personalities with the kind of attention that those in Los Angeles draw, then the local community has to take ownership of bolstering itself. “It’s bringing the community together and [local] chefs together so you can see what’s going on outside of the celebrity chef scene,” he says.
Tickets for the event are $150, including all the food and drinks. And that money goes into producing the event — any money left is donated to local organizations that address food insecurity in Las Vegas. The event is also distinct from other food festivals in that chefs are required to show up with dishes they have never served before.
Trees says he still gets customers at his restaurants asking him to replicate the foie gras pasta dish he made exclusively for Unstripped. In the event’s second year, he opted to roast a whole lamb over an open hearth he built with brick pavers left over from repaving Esther’s Kitchen. He asked a welder down the street to put together an iron cross for him to mount the lamb. In 2021, chef Mauro from Monzu premiered a Sicilian sandwich made with spleen. The team at Partage created three dishes, including escargot croquettes. Once in a while, the dishes prove popular enough to emerge on chefs’s restaurant menus.