Las Vegas Dining Is Entering a New Era

The soon-to-open Vegas Test Kitchen takes a gamble on a new kind of restaurant.

Jolene Mannina in front of Vegas Test Kitchen
Photo: Courtesy Vegas Test Kitchen

Chef Lanny Chin never wanted to have his own restaurant until his industry was upended in 2020.

"I've never felt like I've had that entrepreneurial spirit," Chin said. "But with everything that's happened and with this opportunity, it's really raised the question in my mind. Like, why not?"

Chin is one of the Las Vegas chefs who have signed on to cook at the new Vegas Test Kitchen, which hospitality entrepreneur Jolene Mannina plans to open in November at the community-minded Fergusons Downtown complex.

"Through the pandemic, I've seen all this amazing talent that had a lot of time on their hands and started to actually think about their own businesses," Mannina said. "A lot of chefs are trying to set up these side hustles, and they need commissary space. They need places for food to be picked up. They need an outlet for creativity."

Located in the space that was formerly home to Chow, Vegas Test Kitchen will empower chefs to test dishes and ideas as they work toward opening their own businesses, all while fulfilling takeout and delivery orders. Mannina, who's the founder of food-and-beverage ticketing platform, will also host events (including some with a big focus on entertainment and cocktails) at the space.

Chin, who's the chef de cuisine at The Slanted Door (which debuted in Vegas this past March and is still waiting to reopen), will kick things off at Vegas Test Kitchen with a three-month residency known as Slurp Society.

Chin recently did a ramen popup with Secretburger and was overwhelmed by the positive response. So he'll serve tonkotsu and miso broth at Slurp Society as he works toward opening his own ramen shop. He plans to weave in his Chinese-American heritage with dishes like egg rolls that are made with a family recipe.

"I eat egg rolls everywhere, and I've never had anything that's even similar," Chin said. "I have cousins that don't even know how to make them because my grandfather was that secretive with the recipe. I can tell you that the three key ingredients are ham, shrimp, and peanuts."

Vegas Test Kitchen Interior
Courtesy Vegas Test Kitchen

After Chin's residency, chefs Roy Ellamar (Harvest at Bellagio), Chris Conlon (Piero's Italian Cuisine), and Geno Bernardo (formerly of Herringbone, which closed in January, at Aria) will have their own three-month residencies. Ellamar, Conlon, and Bernardo are all part of a forthcoming food hall, Platform One at UnCommons, so Vegas Test Kitchen will be a place where guests can taste the future of Vegas dining.

In addition to the resident chefs, Vegas Test Kitchen will house numerous pop-ups, with a variety of options for breakfast and lunch.

"One of the main goals at Fergusons from the get-go is to own the daytime, especially in downtown Las Vegas," said Jen Taler, Fergusons Downtown's co-founder and creative strategist.

Mannina wants Vegas Test Kitchen to be a casual destination, where guests can come by for a quick-service experience that makes it easy to try food from multiple chefs. Pop-ups will include Bodega Bagel from Sonia El-Nawal, the Armenian-Lebanese chef behind Rooster Boy Café and Rooster Boy Granola. Bulgarian-born Nina Manchev of Forte Tapas will run Banichka, which will serve banitsa (a flaky Bulgarian pastry dish) with fillings that include Georgian cheese, spinach, mushrooms, and even a Bulgarian hot dog.

Nina Manchev
Courtesy Forte Tapas

Sung Park, the executive chef at Sake Rok at The Park, will have a sushi pop-up called Sliced. Alex White will bring underground sourdough sensation Yukon Pizza to Fergusons Downtown. Andrea Mclean, a pastry sous chef at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon, will have a pie pop-up known as Pop 'N Pies.

El-Nawal, a globetrotting pastry chef who worked for Jean-Georges Vongerichten at New York City's Lafayette (where she baked alongside Kerry Simon) and JoJo, has been enamored with bagels for decades. She opened the Spoonful Diner in Belgium, where she attracted a lively crowd of actors, artists, and expats. Her bagels and the scene at that Brussels coffee shop were covered by The New York Times Sunday Styles section in 1993. But for most of her career, El-Nawal has been a "closet bagel maker."

During the COVID-19 pandemic, El-Nawal's Vegas restaurant pivoted into a market. And she suddenly had a lot of time to bake.

"And of course, the New Yorker in me was like, 'It's time to make bagels,'" she said.

The bagels have been a hit. El-Nawal now has a wholesale bagel business with clients that include a high-end casino and a private residential/golf community. At Vegas Test Kitchen, she'll have bagel sandwiches, bagels by the dozen, housemade gravlax, various schmears, and matzo brei.

"It's an ode to New York," she said. "It's an ode to when I used to go buy bagels and lox at Russ & Daughters. I felt like Vegas needed a little more New York. For me, it's the inspiration of the Lower East Side."

Everything Bagels
Courtesy Bodega Bagel

El-Nawal will also try out some vegan gravlax, possibly made with carrots. She wants to eventually turn Bodega Bagel into a permanent restaurant and marketplace where she might sell vintage items and a bacon-egg-and-cheese sandwich on her own kaiser roll.

The mission of Fergusons Downtown is to showcase local talent, and Taler loves the idea of incubating future restaurants.

"It's the worst and the best time to be an entrepreneur and follow your dreams," she said. "We're excited to give an opportunity to chefs who might not have had this opportunity before."

Like many chefs, Chin is trying to keep things hopeful as his industry teeters.

"My plans have completely changed," said Chin, who's focused on his health and lost 50 pounds this year. "I'm finding more joy in cooking and cooking what I want to cook as opposed to cooking because I have to cook. If nothing else comes out of this, I'm going to serve people some really good noodles and broth."

Chin isn't sure why he didn't have the desire to open his own restaurant before. But what matters now is that he sees the path.

"Maybe it was just timing," he said. "Maybe I was lacking a level of maturity. Maybe I was just avoiding cooking what I'm really passionate about. Being really passionate about what I'm doing at the test kitchen has really made me think that I should pursue a brick-and-mortar and do more things on my own. So that's definitely the goal."

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