From Food Truck Queen and Reality TV Star, to Life is Beautiful and Urban Seed

Jolene Mannina’s career has been a smorgasbord of culinary delights

by Marsala Rypka

Jolene Mannina’s career in the food industry has been as diverse as the fare at a top-notch buffet.

“I’ve always been passionate about delicious food and great hospitality,” said the vice president of culinary partnerships for Urban Seed, a local indoor aeroponic urban farming company that cultivates an array of fruits and vegetables in a sustainable manner.

At 21, Mannina started as a server, and then became team captain at the iconic Commander’s Palace in New Orleans, where she learned a lot about food and from where it was sourced.

In 1999, she moved to Las Vegas to help open a Commander’s Palace in the Aladdin hotel, and then N9NE Steakhouse at the Palms, but her dream was to have her own restaurant.

“I read an article about Eric and Bruce Bromberg, who owned several Blue Ribbon restaurants in New York that stayed open late, catering to the chefs, bartenders, servers, and food and beverage managers, who are the lifeblood of the food industry and the people I wanted to feed and entertain.”

With no formal culinary education and a shaky economy, Mannina decided in 2010 to follow a new, hot Los Angeles trend and bought a food truck she called Sloppi Jo’s Roving Eatery.

“It changed my life,” she said of the venture. “I got a lot of media buzz because there were only three food trucks in Las Vegas — none owned by women. I gained the respect of the chefs in town and realized there was nothing I couldn’t do if I set my mind to it.”

It was challenging without having a permanent location, and a few months later, Mannina changed her business model to focus on catering and creating events like the Saturday Night Truck Stop.

“Every Saturday night, from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m., a rotating lineup of six food trucks, including mine, set up in the parking lot of Tommy Rocker’s. We had bistro lights and music outside, and inside the club was a bar. Saturday Night Truck Stop quickly became the hot spot for people in the food industry to hang out with friends.”

In 2011, Mannina started Back of the House Brawl, a monthly cooking competition with five chefs from top hotels taking charge of five food trucks at 1 a.m. to participate in a battle using a basket of secret ingredients.

“Over three years, I had 40 executive chefs, like Josh Smith at Bardot (Brasserie) and Sean Griffin at Jean Georges (Steakhouse) at Aria, and Joseph Zanelli at Jardin at Wynn, battle for me,” said Mannina.

In 2012, Mannina sold her truck and got a job as a server at The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas’ STK restaurant while continuing to run the Back of the House Brawl. One fortuitous night, Relativity Media’s Jay Blumenfield, who produced reality TV shows, had dinner at STK.

“Chef Stephen Hopcraft, who was going to battle for me that night, invited Jay to come. Jay thought it was crazy having a food competition in a parking lot at 1 a.m., but he came anyway. Afterward, he said he wanted to pitch the idea to the networks. We made a sizzle reel, and Jay shopped it for two years,” said Mannina.

Then Rehan Choudhry, former director of entertainment and special events for The Cosmopolitan, reached out to her to be the culinary director for Life is Beautiful, an art and music festival he was starting. She said the pressure was insane because the festival, which was supposed to be a few city blocks, turned into 15 blocks.

Things came full circle when Bruce Bromberg, who was Mannina’s inspiration from the beginning, became chairman of the Life is Beautiful culinary advisory board.

“Bruce brought so many celebrity chefs with him — Bruce Bromberg, Scott Conant, Kim Canteenwalla, Cat Cora, Hubert Keller, Jonathan Waxman, Michael Mina, Rick Moonen, Mary Sue Milliken, Susan Feniger, Nancy Silverton, Akira Black and others — who I got to work with,” said Mannina. “Thirty restaurants were represented at LIB. We did 20 food demonstrations in two days.”

Leaving LIB after the first festival, Mannina launched an event management company called Relish, in honor of her relish for food, chefs, Las Vegas and life.

Surprisingly the day before Life is Beautiful opened in 2013, Mannina got a call that Relativity Media finally sold her show to FYI, a channel owned by the A&E network.

“‘Late Night Chef Fight’ ran for two seasons,” said Mannina. “We had three judges, and Laila Ali was co-host. It was fun filming 16 episodes with titles like ‘Holy Mackerel,’ ‘Truffle Shufflin,’ and ‘Should I Stay or Escargot?’”

Today, Mannina is enjoying her fulfilling role at Urban Seed.

“My friend Rachel (Wenman) told me about this indoor aeroponic farming company that was going to revolutionize food production in Las Vegas,” said Mannina, referring to the vice president of Urban Seed and co-chairman of its business advisory board, who envisions Las Vegas being a shining example of how a city can grow food in the desert.

“Most produce used in Las Vegas is picked before it’s ripe. Then it travels hundreds, even thousands of miles to get here where it’s stored in warehouses,” said Mannina. “By the time it gets to the plate, it’s lost some nutrients and flavor; and some of it has gone bad and has to be thrown away. That and the packaging create a lot of waste.

“Also, chefs can’t afford to buy organic because the cost of transportation makes it prohibitive. Urban Seed’s proprietary technology, designed by our chief operating officer, Keith Bell, will allow chefs to get higher-quality, more nutritious produce within hours of harvesting, rather than days or weeks.”

Located on Wynn Road, Urban Seed is starting with two 6,500-square-foot A-frame greenhouses and 25 different varieties of produce. There eventually will be six greenhouses on the property and 100 in the Valley within the next five years.

Each varietal is fed a mixture of nutrients designed specifically for them, which is delivered in a way that provides optimal growing conditions. A closed loop system recaptures and recycles the excess moisture, making it possible to grow produce normally requiring 13 gallons of water in 22 ounces.

Stacking the plants maximizes growing space. In a 24-square-foot area, Urban Seed can grow more than 500 heads of lettuce in 30 days, compared to roughly 50 lettuce heads that might grow on a traditional outdoor farm.

“We should have our first crop by July or August,” said Mannina. “In the meantime, we have 3 acres in Pahrump, (Nevada,) where our training facility is located. We’ll get produce from it, which we’ll bring to Wynn Road, so we can do a Chefs Tasting.

Mannina’s past experiences have allowed her to put together a great culinary advisory board for Urban Seed. “We have celebrity chefs Michael Mina, and Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger from Border Grill who are a huge voice for sustainability and not using pesticides.

“Geno Bernardo, executive chef at Herringbone at Aria, grew hydroponic produce in Mexico. When Geno came to Las Vegas, he was the only chef who sourced food from local farmers. He’s been extremely involved and will get his hands dirty in a second.

“Rick Giffen, the executive chef at the Top of the World at the Stratosphere, has helped us with surveys and pricing; Nicole Brisson is culinary director for the Batali & Bastianich Hospitality Group; Bryce Krausman is the owner of DW Bistro; and chef Brian Howard, is the owner of the new Sparrow + Wolf in Chinatown.”

While the chefs in town are excited that Urban Seed’s produce will enhance the quality and flavor of their dishes, the company recognizes sustainability goes far beyond Las Vegas, which would be in trouble if the trucks stopped running or the Teamsters went on strike.

The Urban Seed team, composed of H. Thomas Winn, Cynthia Thompson, Bell, John Aguirre, Wenman, Jared Krulewitz, Mannina, Dr. Suzanne Stone, Doug Griffith, and Lindsay Beck, are on a mission to change the way the world is fed, especially in impoverished areas. While they are starting their farming revolution here, they believe that what happens in Las Vegas should not stay in Las Vegas — not as far as food production goes.