LAUGHLIN — Island flavors and 570 growling stomachs filled the Aquarius ballroom last Thursday. All were eager to taste dishes from some of the best culinary artists in the Tri-state. 

The evening marked the 32nd annual Chefs Food Fest, and the event’s reputation only continues to grow.

“After 32 years we have the desired reputation and event quality that attendees expect,” said Jackie Mazzeo, Laughlin Nevada Chamber of Commerce executive director. “We sold out of tickets almost three weeks before the event and did so with limited advertising.”

The event began as a way to showcase local culinary talent and create friendly competition between the Laughlin casino properties while raising money to help people in need.  

Today, those funds are donated to the River Fund, Inc., and come from the event’s ticket sales and auction. The River Fund’s executive director, Mike Conner, said he was stunned with the given total of $30,000 from the Laughlin Chamber during the Food Fest on Thursday.

“I am just so grateful, and thank all the people that came out,” he said. “When Jackie said $20,000 ... I was just overwhelmed.”

The money raised from Chefs Food Fest goes into an unrestricted account to help with anything from replacing a flat tire to help recovering a birth certificate.

“We can’t fix everything, but we can sure put a dent in a lot of the cases,” Conner said. 

Since the River Fund became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit nine years ago, the organization has impacted 75,000 lives and has awarded $2.2 million in financial assistance.

Conner said the timing of this event could not be better as last year’s unrestricted funds were running low.

As for the chefs, there was an overall consensus of another successful food fest.

“The event went well,” said Ron Williams, executive chef for Harrah’s Laughlin. “Its always a great event for the donation to the River Fund, and it gives all the chefs at the different properties a chance to showcase talents.  I’ve always enjoyed it.”

This was Williams’ 15th time cooking at Chefs Food Fest. He said they were, as always, looking to take home an award on the evening, with the most prominent being Best Food. That award was won last year by the Colorado Belle Casino Resort.

However, a repeat wasn’t to come, as the Aquarius and Executive Chef Michael Bartels edged the Belle to earn the Best Food trophy.

“I lost it two years ago and I wanted it back,” Bartels said jokingly.

The Aquarius offered lobster, puffed pastries, fresh sea scallops blacked, pulled pork smoked for 14 hours, and many more island-styled dishes.

Bartels thanked his crew and all those at the Aquarius who helped with the preparations.

Four other awards were presented as well. 

The Golden Nugget Laughlin won for Best Cocktail, the Edgewater for Best Dessert, and the Avi Resort & Casino took home Best Booth and Best Use of the Secret Ingredient.

This is the third consecutive year since introducing the secret ingredient in 2017, and this year it was passion fruit. The secret ingredient had to be in at least one of the chefs’ dishes in order to be judged for awards on the night.

A single person judged Best Use of the Secret Ingredient. All other awards were determined by those that attended.

“Everything was phenomenal,” Yvonne Tijerina said. “We didn’t know the event was island themed, and once we found out ... I think everyone stayed to that. A year ago, we went to Hawaii so this brought me back.”

It was Tijerina’s first time attending the event, as well as Mike Spagnualo’s.

“This was my first time, and it was awesome,” he said. “A lot of good food. The Aquarius was my favorite, they had the best meat here.”

If you missed out on Chefs Food Fest and would like to attend next year you can put your name on the ticket list as early as today. Just call the Laughlin Chamber at 702-298-2214.

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