Story by Mike Zweifel
“I was very nervous before the competition,” says Reed Crull-Sher, executive sous-chef at University Club. “I did three practice runs, planning and working on the recipes each time beforehand. It was nothing like what you see on TV.”
Crull-Sher was at the Midwest region qualifying event in the National Association of College and University Food Services (NACUFS) Culinary Challenge. It was the first cooking competition he had ever participated in.
The biggest difference between the real-life competition and the picture-tube version was that Crull-Sher competed against all seven of the other chefs at once in front of an audience of 250 industry people and educators.
Adding to his nerves was another twist: the mandatory protein the chefs were assigned was venison saddle.
“Venison is a tough meat to cook with and is easy to overcook,” Crull-Sher says. He had to reach back to his childhood for inspiration.
Crull-Sher is a Columbia native and Rock Bridge High School graduate. He went to Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, Kansas, to attend their highly regarded culinary program. A requirement of this program, according to Crull-Sher, is to have hands-on experience through an apprenticeship.
He scoured across central Missouri, and the only place that offered an apprenticeship at the time was the University Club. During this apprenticeship, Crull-Sher learned every aspect and function of each station in the kitchen. This included the steward station, which is responsible for properly cleaning dishes, pots and pans.
Crull-Sher stayed with the University Club after his apprenticeship and has risen to become a certified sous-chef through the American Culinary Federation (ACF).
“I not only prepare plates for University Club members, but I also oversee staff, assist in menu writing, set up catering timelines, set kitchen standards and much more,” Crull-Sher says.
That training came in handy when the cooking-competition pressure was on.
Crull-Sher decided to wrap the venison in sausage and cook it with apples to create an apple venison sausage plate as his primary dish.
“The sausage helped take some of the oven heat away from the venison, so both proteins came out great,” he says. “I included apples as an ingredient because I would hunt with my grandpa on his apple farm, and the venison reminded me of those hunting trips.”
Despite the surroundings, first-time participation jitters and the mandatory protein, Crull-Sher placed second among the eight competitors, finishing just a few points behind the winner.
“First-time competitors are not expected to do that well usually,” Crull-Sher says. “This was a great learning opportunity, and I hope to compete at the NACUFS Challenge again next year.”
When not in the kitchen or planning an event, Crull-Sher enjoys watching food documentaries and shows in the style of the late Anthony Bourdain. He also enjoys the outdoors, including fishing and hiking.