Unless you have a flight to catch, asking anyone to wake up early in Las Vegas is a big request, especially on a Sunday morning. The high-wattage of just one Saturday night in Sin City can take days to recover from. Breakfast alone isn't enough of an incentive. Breakfast and cigars? Better. How about a bag of smokes and a breakfast cooked by one of Mario Batali's most talented young chefs?
Apparently, that's what it takes because on Sunday morning, 500 attendees were lined up early for the Cigar Aficionado Big Smoke breakfast. What they got for their early rising was a morning meal cooked by Nicole Brisson, executive chef at Carnevino, which is the only Italian steakhouse in Mario Batali's and Joe Bastianich's B&B Hospitality Group. Clad in clean chef's whites, Chef Brisson conducted a cooking demonstration that was projected on screen, and entertained the audience with a discussion about her background and the necessary cooking techniques for the dish while they ate.
You may be wondering how a 30-year-old female chef ended up in front 500 cigar smokers. There are a few reasons. To start, Brisson learned the art of butchery in Italy under the tutelage of famed meat maestro Dario Cecchini. And she staged all over Italy before working in Las Vegas. She was even a competitor on the Food Network's reality competition show Chopped last year. No matter. The girl knows her meat, and she knows it better than you do. Better, even, than the most outspoken, chest-pounding carnivores, armchair meat-mavens and patio grillers you're likely to come across. But most importantly: she loves cigars. And with that love comes an understanding of how to pair cigars with food.
"To me, cigars are like food," Brisson said as she poured olive oil into a hot pan on stage. "A lot of care goes into making a cigar, and I think that, like wine, a cigar can pair very well with what you're eating."
Brisson came up with a meal that she describes as "very hearty, very stick-to-your-ribs."
Her dish revolved around a flavorful puck of ground pork known as cotechino. It's first cooked in sausage form and then cut into thick medallions before being breaded and fried. In Italy (especially Modena), cotechino is commonly served with lentils on New Year's Eve for good luck. But as an American cigar breakfast, Brisson served it with poached eggs, an intense red-wine mustard, and a smash-fried potato, which is exactly what it sounds like—boil a potato, smash it flat and throw it in the pan. Once served, you pierce the quivering poached eggs and let the yolk ooze out luxuriously over the cotechino and potato. If you want to cleanse the palate, a frisee salad with a black truffle vinaigrette was also on hand to help mop up any yolk left on the plate.
"Twenty-five percent of the cotechino is pork skin," said Brisson, who added that she uses mostly pork trimmings to make this high-fat, high-flavor sausage.
Of all the Big Smoke seminars and evening events, the Big Smoke breakfast is the only event where participants are not permitted to smoke. Some silly law instated a few years ago in Las Vegas disallowed the service of food and smoking of cigars in the same room. So the theoretical cigar pairing was a Rocky Patel Vintage Cameroon 2003 Robusto (rated 91 points), a perfect morning smoke with enough body to match the richness of a meal like this one.
Afterward, Chef Brisson took some questions, thanked the well-fed audience and stepped off the stage. Never one to turn down a smoke, she accepted a few cigars and headed back to the restaurant. Lunch service was going to start soon at Carnevino, and the Big Smoke attendees had two more seminars as well as plenty of smokes to get them through the rest of the morning.