Culinary Students Compete Live for $20K at Chase Sapphire Preferred Grill Challenge

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Photo Courtesy of Vegas Uncork'd Twitter

For the marquee-name chefs in town for Vegas UnCork'd by Bon Appetit, a live cooking demonstration held onstage in front of 300 discerning foodies is all in a day's work...but for two of Vegas' brightest culinary students, it's the chance of a lifetime. They'll be sous chefs for Todd English and Akira Back, the two renowned chefs facing off during the Chase Sapphire Preferred Grill Challenge, the headline showdown at Saturday’s Bellagio Block Party. The students, who are both currently enrolled in Las Vegas Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Institute, will be competing for major scholarship money — Chase Sapphire Preferred will give $20,000 to the student sous chef from the winning team and the runner-up will receive $5,000.

As most of Las Vegas’ tastemakers gear up for a festive, food-filled weekend, students Andrew Merfalen and Todd Huelsman are preparing for a potentially game-changing few hours...taking place at the Bellagio on Saturday at 8 p.m. as part of Vegas Uncork'd. We interviewed both contenders to find out what they're thinking and feeling, heading into the big event.

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Photo Courtesy of Yellowtail Las Vegas Twitter




Andrew Merfalen
(Team Akira Back, Yellowtail Japanese Restaurant)

Lena Katz: What special skill set qualifies you, above all the other Cordon Bleu students, to be Todd English/Akira Back's right hand at this competition?

Andrew Merfalen: Grilling is really not that hard. Technically it does take some practice and following simple techniques to get great results. One does need patience, knowledge of your strengths and weaknesses, a passion and drive to achieve, and a love for food and cooking/grilling. After all is said and done, you have to realize that you will smell like a smokehouse.

LK: How are you feeling about the live competition aspect of the Grill Challenge?

AM: You can never rehearse when it's live. I just need to be myself and be the best sous chef I can be, and roll with the punches. If I focused on my feelings, then I would probably psyche myself out.

LK: What are you going to do the night before the event?

AM: Review my role, recipes, and get all my gear together. Spend some quality time with my family and get a good night’s rest. Oh, and most importantly, say a prayer.

LK: Is this the most nerve-wracking event in your culinary career to date? If not, tell us what was.

AM: Yes and no. [The Chase Sapphire Preferred Grill Challenge] will represent my biggest culinary challenge to date and yes, I think the actual event will be nerve-wracking. The other event that ranks equally as nerve-wracking is the time when I made the decision to change careers from retail management to the culinary field. Without the support from my wife and daughter to pursue my dream of becoming a chef, as well as the strength and guidance from The Good Lord above, I wouldn't be in this position, so I want to make the most of it. I do welcome it, and I am extremely excited to compete and to work with Akira Back.

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Todd Huelsman
(Team Todd English, Olives Bellagio)

LK: What qualifying rounds did you have to dominate in order to win the "sous chef" spot?

Todd Huelsman: I have the privilege and honor of competing in the Chase Sapphire Preferred Grill Challenge because I won a video and essay competition offered to Le Cordon Bleu Las Vegas students. I'm happy to be the chosen student and to have the opportunity to showcase my talent and desire. What sets me aside from my competition is the true belief that this is my stage, my time, and my opportunity. I've waited my entire life for this moment, and I plan to seize the opportunity.

LK: What are you doing to prepare for the main event?

TH: I'm spending every moment researching recipes, technique, and the inner passion of those that came before me. [...] In hopes to find the "moment" where my experience benefits our team to win and bring the title to my family, my friends, and the man that gave me the desire to be here, Executive Chef Todd English.

LK: How are you feeling about the live competition aspect?

TH: I'm nervous about the competition mostly from my utter respect for Chef English. Last year, before I enrolled in culinary school, my life was at a crossroad. I wrote a letter to Chef English asking for his advice and insight, as I had a strong passion and desire for cooking. To my surprise, he responded to my letter and encouraged me to pursue my dreams and desires. He gave me a few minutes of his time and a few paragraphs of inspiration. Without his response, I would have never enrolled in culinary school and I wouldn't be standing here today. There is something to the story that the man who told me to get busy living is the Executive Chef I will be working with on Saturday. I have to make sure not to let him down.

 Vegas Uncork'd
Photo Courtesy of Vegas Uncork'd Twitter

LK: What are you going to do the night before the main event?

TH: Aside from making sure my uniform, my shoes, and my presentation is perfect? Going over my equipment and tools making sure it's ready to go? Honing the edge of my Wusthof knife? I will be spending the evening with the two most important people in the world, my princess daughter Sophia Rae and my handsome son Harrison John. Everything I do is for them.  

LK: What's your favorite reality TV cooking competition? Do you plan on auditioning for that show after you graduate culinary school?

TH: Absolutely! I'm a true reality cooking junkie. I DVR every cooking show I can find. I would love to have 10 minutes to speak with Chef Gordon Ramsay and Chef Anthony Bourdain. To win Hell's Kitchen or The Taste would be the next dream come true. 

LK: Is this the most nerve-wracking event in your culinary career to date? If not, tell us what was.

TH: I'm a pretty cool and collected person.....Just wait and see...

Lena Katz

Lena Katz is the author of the Travel Temptations series (SIP, SUN, SNOW), published by Globe Pequot Press in 2009. Lena is also a travel expert for Celebrations/1800FLOWERS and WEtv (online and on-air). She contributes to the South China Morning Post and ABC News online. Lena is a former Orbitz Travel blogger and former columnist for the LA Times. She's been published in Brides Magazine, Robb Rep...(Read More)

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