Jon Taffer Takes Bar Rescue to Hospitality School

Images: Paramount Network

For over 30 years, Jon Taffer has traveled the country saving hundreds of bars from failure and ruin. In the latest episode of Paramount Network’s hit show Bar Rescue, Taffer was in Las Vegas to attempt to turn around the University of Nevada, Las Vegas William F. Harrah College of Hospitality. To help him accomplish this mission Taffer brought in Chef Tiffany Derry, known for putting her unique Texas twist on fine-dining, and master mixologist Brian Van Flandern who specializes in high-level bar training and cocktail building.

The UNLV College of Hospitality, which boasts 2,400 students, was recently ranked number one in the world. Four days from Taffer’s arrival, UNLV was scheduled to host a white-glove food and cocktail event for sponsors and other VIPs. However, the new room in which the event was to take place wasn’t ready.

Taffer and his team were asked by Harrah College of Hospitality dean Stowe Shoemaker to help transform the Boyd Dining Room, a space on campus that had been constructed in the ‘80s. It needed to become a world-class venue for the event. Beyond a remodel, there was another huge challenge: culinary and mixology students would be tasked with executing the food, drinks and service for the event. Taffer stated that a key component of this rescue was bringing the students up to the necessary level to deliver world-class service.

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Some of the students who were featured in this episode were Geo, a sophomore, Kristina, a junior, and Steven, a senior, and Shivangi. All four were on the culinary team. The mixology team members featured were Carly, Janina, and Greg, a senior who had created cocktails and menus for bars on the Vegas Strip and in China and Australia. In total, a team of 10 students led by executive chef Mark Sandoval—an executive chef for Wolfgang Puck for years—were involved in the execution of this high-level event. If the students performed well, they would prove that they’re the future of the industry and the school deserves their number one ranking. If they showed Taffer before the event that they wouldn’t be up to the task, he would staff the event with professionals instead, which would be a shame.

UNLV Boyd Dining Hall bar before remodel on Bar Rescue with Jon Taffer

Due to the lack of a traditional operation, normal Bar Rescue recon wasn’t conducted. Instead, Taffer and his team observed as Chef Sandoval tested his students. The culinary team was given 20 minutes—start to plate—to execute dishes up to Chef’s taste and appearance standards. Each member of the mixology team was given three minutes to build their cocktails before the culinary team began plating.

The mixology team received praise from Taffer and Van Flandern for the attractiveness of the cocktails they produced. One drink, according to Chef Sandoval, needed a touch more acidity via lime, Carly’s was beautiful but would be difficult to replicate during a rush, and Greg’s was declared perfect as it was. Van Flandern took note of the mixology team’s eagerness but was concerned about their speed.

UNLV student Kristina original snapper dish on Bar Rescue with Jon Taffer
Kristina's original snapper dish.
Kristina was praised for the preparation and plating of her snapper with mango puree, tomato rice, micro-cilantro and plantain chips. Steven had prepared bone marrow with black truffle on top, to which Chef Sandoval suggested adding diced black truffle for texture. Shivangi nailed flavor, texture and color with her dish. Taffer and his team noted that there didn’t appear to be any education for the culinary students regarding coordination, speed or teamwork. All three skills would be crucial to the success of the event, which became a concern.
UNLV student Steven bone marrow dish on Bar Rescue with Jon Taffer
Steven's original bone marrow dish.

Taffer gathered the students the next day. He explained to them that they were no longer an education team, they were an ops team. The kitchen was no longer a lab, it was functional. That meant looking out for one another, being responsible for each other’s work, and making one another better. That is, as Taffer said, “what our industry is all about.”

The culinary team would be pushed by Chef Derry to improve their prep and plating speed greatly. Instead of one dish each in 20 minutes, they would need to produce many dishes in that same time. She didn’t want to toss out the dishes they had made the day before but she did want to make changes. The dishes would need to be altered to function as passed hors d’oeuvres.

UNLV student Kristina snapper dish on Bar Rescue with Jon Taffer
Kristina's modified snapper dish, perfect for passing at a special event.

Chef Derry modified Steven’s bone marrow dish by mixing the marrow with room-temperature butter in a blender, adding the mixture to toast points that had been prepped with olive oil, and topping the marrow butter with capers, pickled red onion and a touch of truffle.

Van Flandern also wanted to focus on speed and told the team they needed to learn how to make high-volume high craft cocktails. He came up with three cocktails based on the previous day’s drinks for the special event. For Van Flandern’s Rosemary Pineapple Margarita, combine three-quarters of an ounce fresh lime juice, three-quarters of an ounce demerara simple syrup, two ounces fresh pineapple juice, and an ounce-and-a-half tequila blanco. Shake on ice, strain into a highball over fresh ice, and garnish with a skewered, demerara-simple-syrup-grilled pineapple cube and a sprig of charred rosemary.

Brian Van Flandern Rosemary Pineapple cocktail on Bar Rescue with Jon Taffer

The mixology team, thrown into the deep end with cocktails they’d never seen before, struggled with time. Greg took over three minutes to complete a Rosemary Pineapple Margarita, and Carly took more than five minutes for another drink. Van Flandern’s goal was to get the mixology team’s time down to 45 seconds or less per cocktail. Carly was rattled by her time and the stress got to her. Van Flandern explained to the team that how they reacted to pressure is what would define them as professionals behind a bar.

Unfortunately, the combined culinary-mixology team’s nerves fared no better as they prepped for a Bar Rescue stress test. Remember, Taffer had told the team earlier that the space was no longer a laboratory, it was functional—they were getting stress tested like any other bar, nightclub or restaurant on the show. The team was jittery and stressed out and one student knocked prepared food onto the floor. Taffer brought the team out of the kitchen for a pep talk.

He told them that there was no reason to be nervous because they all had each other’s backs; none of the students was in it alone. Taffer also explained that they weren’t being thrown to the wolves, they were simply being tested. Finally, the Bar Rescue host tried to calm their nerves by letting them know that the most stressful time in the industry was before a rush and there would always be surprises thrown at them. With that, it was time for them to serve 100 students and staff members.

UNLV student Steven bone marrow appetizer on Bar Rescue with Jon Taffer
Steven's bone marrow hors d'oeuvre.

The mixology team started off well. It was, at first, the culinary team that struggled. Many guests had been served drinks but had not gotten any food. However, the bar was eventually overwhelmed and weeded. The one person who should have been treated as a VIP, Dean Shoemaker, waited 10 minutes for three Rosemary Pineapple Margaritas. Overall, however, Taffer was confident that the team would be ready for the special event two days later.

Possibly in a gambit to give the team the confidence they’d need, Taffer did something he had never done on Bar Rescue: he gave control over the menu that would be served at the event to the students. Dean Shoemaker and Chef Sandoval were tasked with tasting the items that were inspired by the original 20- and 3-minute challenges. The students impressed with their dishes and drinks.

UNLV College of Hospitality Boyd Dining Hall bar after remodel on Bar Rescue with Jon Taffer

Taffer walked Dean Shoemaker and the students through the renovation of the decades-old space that would be used for their event. A large LED screen that would connect to UNLV’s Thomas & Mack Center had been installed. A room-filling sound system was also added, as was an attractive back-lit “UNLV” sign. Room colors were brought down to create a more relaxing environment and wood was selected for the bartop to instill a feeling of warmth. A Manitowoc Indigo NXT ice maker would provide perfect, restaurant-quality ice. Because the bar was also a classroom, Taffer wanted to avoid alcohol constantly being in the face of students. So, a draft beer system was installed that could be hidden behind a panel behind the bar. An Orange Door entertainment system got a similar installation.

The students showed that they had become an operations team during the event. Food and drink came out quickly and the teams displayed style, grace and speed. Six weeks after the renovation and special event, classes are hosting lunches at the updated and upgraded Boyd Dining Room.

Want more content like this? Jon Taffer delivered an inspiring keynote at the 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show in Las Vegas on Tuesday, March 26. Check it out here!

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