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September 2, 2014

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Joe Downtown: Former food trucker has her hands in fundraiser, reality TV gig

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Joe Schoenmann

Jolene Mannina

Updated Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014 | 9:33 a.m.

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For almost two years, chefs from the Strip and around the Las Vegas Valley have met every few weeks, just after midnight Sundays, trying to cook the tastiest meal in food trucks in the "Back of the House Brawl" for the honor of holding this traveling trophy.

A former Las Vegas food truck operator turned festival-food honcho may be on the verge of reality TV stardom in a show featuring a food trucks-and-chefs competition she started some two years ago.

The potential TV show isn’t the only thing occupying so much of Jolene Mannina’s time. The 36-year-old New Orleans native has also organized a charity fundraiser for a friend and casino executive chef who suffered a disabling stroke in December.

The charity event is for Ryen Idica, 34, executive chef at Hachi at Red Rock Resort. It is being called “Back of the House KoKua” — KoKua means “help” in Hawaii, where Idica began his career in food. It begins at 8 p.m. at Tommy Rockers, 4275 Dean Martin Drive.

Mannina is well-known to local industry chefs because she not only had a food truck, Sloppi Jos (her secret ingredient: Hatch chiles), she also started the “Back of the House Brawl,” also at Tommy Rockers, a few years ago.

After she left the food truck business, she landed a job as the head of the food portion of last year’s Life Is Beautiful festival. Her connections to some of the top chefs in the world, many of whom work in Las Vegas, helped that portion of the festival become one of its most successful.

As for the “Back of the House Brawl” that she started, it typically occurs about every two weeks, mostly during warmer weather because it kicks off at 1 a.m.

Taking a page from “Iron Chef,” Mannina would pick a particular food item; then the chefs would use the ovens and utensils from loaned food trucks to prepare meals using that food item. Winners don’t receive prizes or money but the honor of keeping a traveling trophy until the next competition.

This Sunday’s fundraiser is based on the Brawl. It will feature eight food trucks at the disposal of chefs from Red Rock Resort, STK, Cosmopolitan, Palms, Stripsteak and Andre’s. The chefs are Joseph Kudrak, Jaret Blinn, Chris Bulen, Vincent Pilon, Dewayne Rose, Gerald Chin, John Courtney, Damon Workman and Steven Gotham.

A $40 donation allots three drinks plus food to each attendee, with all proceeds going to the Idica family.

An auction will also be held. These are some of the items to be auctioned: boxing gloves signed by Manny Pacquiao; boxing trunks and a photo signed by Ken Norton; a $500, five-course dinner for four with wine pairing at T-bones Chophouse (Red Rock Resort); Sugar Ray Leonard signed boxing trunks; and a Pete Rose-signed mini-helmet and signed baseball cap.

After this Sunday’s event, Mannina will return to Tommy Rockers one week later, March 2, this time with videographers to record footage for a reality TV pilot based on her and the "Back of the House Brawl."

Filming will take place from 7 a.m. to midnight, with two chefs competing against each other, again with the use of borrowed food trucks.

The event is open to anyone who wishes to attend.

Joe Schoenmann doesn’t just cover downtown; he lives and works there. Schoenmann is Greenspun Media Group’s embedded downtown journalist, working from an office in the Emergency Arts building.

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