Celebrity Chef Invitational raises over $30K for student scholarships and assistance

by Michelle Saport  |   

CTC Executive Assistant to the Dean Courtney Powell, Technical Program Support specialist Catie Bartlett, and Culinary program assistant professor Riza Brown have their photos taken with Spirit at UAA's 2024 Celebrity Chef Invitational (CCI).
Student Paislee Harbour preps the dessert course during UAA's 2024 Celebrity Chef Invitational.
Roving reporter MJ Thim interviews department chair and assistant professor Kellie Puff in the kitchen during UAA's 2024 Celebrity Chef Invitational.
UAA Chancellor Sean Parnell leads the crowd in a standing ovation for the student chefs during UAA's 2024 Celebrity Chef Invitational.

Scenes from UAA's 2024 Celebrity Chef Invitational (clockwise): Spirit joins guests for a photo opportunity; student Paislee Harbour preps the dessert course; UAA Chancellor Sean Parnell leads the crowd in a standing ovation for the student chefs; roving reporter MJ Thim interviews department chair and assistant professor Kellie Puff. (All photos by James Evans / 鶹)

The 2024 Celebrity Chef Invitational, held Thursday, March 7, in Lucy Cuddy Hall on the Anchorage campus, showcased the culinary talents of accomplished 鶹 chefs and UAA culinary arts students while raising over $30K in funds for student scholarships and assistance.

While dining on an extravagant five-course meal, guests had the opportunity to donate to two scholarships — the Sue Linford Culinary Arts Scholarship or Giorgio Chrimat Culinary Arts Scholarship — or the Excellence in Culinary Arts Fund, which covers the cost of student knives, bakery toolkits and uniforms.

"Students don't pay for those items anymore," said Kellie Puff, Culinary Arts department chair and assistant professor, noting that the decision came about in response to rising costs after COVID-19. The fund also supports upgrades for the classrooms and laboratories in the Cuddy, with recent acquisitions including a new baker's oven, chocolate machine and state-of-the-art fryer, as well as plans to renovate the former cafeteria into a third lab for the program.

Two students, Paislee Harbour and Annaliese Lengenfelder, took the stage to share their stories about their experiences in the program and its impact.

Harbour, who decided to study culinary arts after discovering a passion for baking during the pandemic, said it was exciting and intimidating speaking to the more than 160 guests in attendance. She also had the challenge of balancing her role on stage with her role in the kitchen, where she worked on the line prepping dishes alongside established chefs and fellow students.

"I liked being on the line a lot more than I thought I would," said Harbour. "For the main course, the aged steak, we had students on each side. And then Nate Bentley, who's the owner of Altura Bistro, was on the other side with me. He was putting the sauce on the plate and I was cleaning it and handing it to a student. And then the order goes out. That movement was really cool. I hadn't been on that side of it before."

According to Puff, the interaction between students and head chefs always results in some job offers. "It gets them a foot in the door, whereas if these chefs just saw their resume, they might not give them a chance. By bringing them in to work side-by-side, they get to see that we have students with all capabilities, all levels, and so it's a great way for them to start making connections with the students that would fit in their organization."

Patrick Hoogerhyde served as this year's celebrity chef. Raised on subsistence fishing and wild game in King Salmon, he most recently oversaw all aspects of Bridge Seafood as a managing partner prior to selling the business in 2023. Five additional chefs led the student teams for each course: Chef Heather Houck, Wild Fork Catering (hors d'oeuvres); Chef Frazer Buchanan, The Rustic Goat (salad); Chef Bobby Richards, Mt. McKinley Princess Wilderness Lodge (fish); Chef Brett Knipmeyer, Kinley’s Restaurant & Bar (main); and UAA alumna and professional pastry chef Samantha Wagner (dessert). Sommelier Michelle Smith selected the wine pairings for each course.

This year's event featured more involvement from across campus than ever before. UAA's mascot, Spirit, donned his chef coat and hat, ushering guests and posing for photos. The Facilities crew decorated the entryway with a custom-built archway and lighted ice cups.

For department chair Puff, the best part of the celebration was the standing ovation the students received as they came out for roll call at the end of the night.

Although planning for next year's Celebrity Chef Invitational won't heat up until May, the date is already set for what'll be the fundraiser's 30th edition: March 6, 2025. Until then, the culinary arts faculty and students will be busy with Lucy's spring opening, catering events like the Alumni of Distinction banquet and Spirit of Tomorrow luncheon, and hosting summer boot camps for young culinarians.

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