Ilona Hanne enjoys a side of gluttony at Sin City's annual festival of food and drink.
Vegas isn't called Sin City for nothing. The city is a hedonistic playground, full of glitzy casinos, bright neon signs, sequinned dancers and a whole lot more. Everything in Vegas is bigger, brighter and more luxurious than anywhere else, so it's hardly surprising its annual food and wine event is too. Celebrity chefs, a giant bottle of prosecco opened with a sabre, a bicycle-powered margarita maker, models covered with little more than some well-placed body paint and even live "mermaids", are all par for the course of Vegas Uncork'd.
The mermaids made their appearance at the Grand Tasting event at Caesars Palace, splashing merrily in the pool in the Garden of the Gods, while up to 2500 ticket holders enjoyed the opportunity to taste a range of dishes from top chefs, along with drinks designed by incredibly creative mixologists. More importantly, judging by the lines at some of the booths, the event also giave people the opportunity to get up close (and take a selfie with) some of the biggest names in Vegas restaurants.
On offer were samples of some of the signature dishes from chefs such as Gordon Ramsay, Guy Fieri, Giada De Laurentiis and Guy Savoy (whose black truffle and artichoke soup served with toasted brioche had people queuing for seconds and thirds on the night).
I piled my tray high and made use of the handy wine glass-sized slot in it that let me try a few tipples to help wash down the tasty samples. The problem wasn't holding your food and drink, it was deciding what to try next.
Although all booths, mini bars and grills were always busy, there was no question that the arrival of Gordon Ramsay attracted the most attention. He has six restaurants in Vegas, and all were represented at the festival. As he moved between his booths on the night, he was constantly followed by a stream of fans.
As well as sampling his food, guests were excited by the opportunity to try his signature cocktail — Notes From Gordon. This cocktail, a delicious blend of Plymouth gin, green tea, lemongrass, peach and lemon was served with a twist — a British flag scroll printed with one of Ramsay's famed insults from his TV shows. "Congratulations on the worst dish in the competition so far," read one of mine.
He's not always critical, of course; Ramsay is a long-time supporter of Uncork'd, which is now in its 12th year.
"It's a great event, where we can talk about our food and get people excited by what is happening in our restaurants as well as seeing what our friends and colleagues are doing," he said.
Certainly, despite every chef clearly bringing their best dishes to the table on the night, there was also plenty of hugging, back slapping and general camaraderie happening between them, with the chefs posing for as many selfies with each other, as their fans were with them. It isn't unusual during the evening to hear one chef invite another to their restaurant, or offer advice or support to some of the newer chefs present.
Cake Boss star, Buddy Valastro — a huge US TV star in his own right — was spotted posing for a picture with Ramsay and exchanging contact details with him.
"It's just great to be talking to all these great chefs, being part of this group really does feel special," Valastro said.
If mermaids aren't your thing or you prefer a daytime event, then Picnic in the Park may be the Vegas Uncork'd event for you.
Like the Grand Tasting, this gives ticket holders the opportunity to sample drinks, cocktails and bites from some of the top chefs connected to MGM Resorts, and it's held at their outdoor venue, The Park.
With stalls offering temporary tattoos, (real) flower crowns and lots of comfortable spots to sit and eat, Picnic in the Park felt like all the best bits of summer music festivals put together . . . without the bad burger stalls. Instead of greasy food trucks, we helped ourselves to delicious cocktails created by mixologist Craig Schoettler along with food from the Voltaggio brothers, Graham Elliot, Masaharu Morimoto and more.
Chef Graham Elliot, who'll be familiar to fans of MasterChef USA where he features as a judge, was there, cooking up a storm in between chatting to fans.
He doesn't currently have a presence in Vegas, (he's operating Coast at MGM Cotai in Macau), he says that could yet change.
"An event like this does make you think about opening up here. Vegas is certainly an exciting place to be when it comes to the culinary world."
As with all the chefs at the event, Elliot was personable and friendly, making it feel more like I was talking to an old friend than to a top chef. "You're from New Zealand? That's my friend's favourite place. I've not been there yet, but I do know New Zealand lamb is great to work with."
I moved on from his booth — after tasting delicious grilled octopus with salsa verde — because more food was waiting to be tasted. Cupcakes designed to look like burgers, some grilled lamb rib with harissa, churros served with dulce de leche sauce, even some candyfloss on a stick.
Although The Grand tasting and Picnic in the Park are two of the headline events of Vegas Uncork'd, there is a lot more to see and do during the festival. Each year tickets go on sale for a range of one-of-a-kind experiences that will capture the imagination of any foodie fan or culinary enthusiast. Whether you are a masterchef in the making, or simply enjoy cooking shows on TV, Vegas Uncork'd will have events guaranteed to appeal to your tastes and makes for a fantastic reason to travel to Vegas in May.
Arlene DeBois, a Chicago native who was at Vegas Uncork'd for her third time, said her advice was to commit to going as soon as possible, then keep watching the schedule as it is posted to determine which events you want to attend.
The Grand Tasting and the Picnic in the Park give you the best access to the most chefs at the event, so booking in to at least one of those events is probably wise. After that, it's really up to you as to what you want to eat and where. No matter what you choose, you are unlikely to be disappointed.
Hawaiian Airlines flies from
, via Honolulu, with return Economy Class fares from $1385.
Vegas Uncork'd 2019 takes place from May 9-12. Guests include Gordon Ramsay, Guy Fieri, Guy Savoy, Lisa Vanderpump, Nobu Matsuhisa, and Christina Tosi.