For chef Justin Kingsley-Hall, the weather at Spring Mountain Ranch State Park on Sunday was actually too nice. Before he’d even announced the location for his second Whiskey in the Wilderness outdoor dining and drinking event, he’d promised it would be someplace cold.
“I want people to gather around fires while they eat, drink and get to know the people in Las Vegas,” he said when announcing the date last month.
In fact, that was precisely why he’d moved his giant gourmet picnic to January, after staging the inaugural event at Mount Charleston last March. The temperature on this sunny Sunday afternoon, however, was a balmy 60 or so degrees. And even Kingsley-Hall had to admit that most of the nearly 200 guests, chefs and bartenders were not complaining.
“You can’t be upset at gorgeous weather,” he said. “The backdrop’s amazing. And everybody seems very happy.”
That backdrop was the nearby Spring Mountains, painted with bands of red and orange. Just a few minutes away from the 215 Beltway at Charleston Boulevard, this former retreat of Howard Hughes is one of the many natural treasures that even some locals never take the time to visit. For those who have, it’s likely they weren’t there for the kind of feast Kingsley-Hall and partner Lee Flint had assembled in an open field adjacent to a gravel parking lot.
Before reaching the first of several makeshift cooking areas, guests at Whiskey in the Wilderness caught the scent of campfires as they checked in and received a cup of blonde ale. But what the assembled chefs, most of whom had taken the day off from a top valley restaurant, had prepared for them was not the traditional campfire grub.
Chefs hailed from critically acclaimed Strip attractions like Restaurant Guy Savoy, Aureole, Bardot Brasserie and Momofuku as well as trendy off-Strip locales such as Sparrow + Wolf, The Goodwich, Forte Tapas, Other Mama and The Kitchen at Atomic. Among their dozen or so creations were dishes such as tomahawk steak tacos with foie gras mole sauce, smoked ham hock risotto, Asian charred octopus and seafood and chicken paella. To wash it down, top bartenders from across the valley created cocktails from a selection of premium whiskeys.
At one end of the field, local musician Dan Fester entertained a small crowd of diners with his guitar. Local artist Jerry Misko was on hand to auction off one of his works. The entire event benefited Urban Seed Foundation, a local nonprofit organization.
Shane Fairburn, who has lived in Las Vegas for eight years, said he enjoyed the personal touch of the chefs.
“I like the fact that the person who came up with the meal is cooking the meal,” he explained. “And unlike in a restaurant, you actually get to interact with the people who are cooking and creating.”
Amy Sabet, a native of England who has lived in Las Vegas for three years, hikes the area around the park regularly, calling it “gorgeous (and) majestic.” But, she said, she’d never experienced it like this before.
“I enjoy it every time I come. But to stand here with a glass of whiskey is a completely different experience. And I’m enjoying it immensely.”
For Mike Minor, executive chef at Border Grill in Mandalay Bay, cooking for a group of his neighbors in this setting was a nod to the valley’s Wild West past. “I can only imagine cowboys doing the same thing: having a big party, roasting a pig or whatever they found. This is old-school Nevada.”
Kingsley-Hall promised to return with Whiskey in the Wilderness 3 next year — most likely in a new remote location, and preferably on a colder day.
“What I (am) trying to achieve,” he said, “is to show people that there’s much more of a community here than the Strip. Yes, that’s part of Vegas. But it’s not the only part. And I don’t think it’s the heart of what we do here.”
Contact Al Mancini at amancini @reviewjournal.com. Follow @AlManciniVegas on Twitter.