Last weekend, hundreds of chefs and cooks from across the country stormed the Strip for the inaugural World Food Championships, a collection of culinary contests held over four days at Bally’s, Paris and Caesars Palace. On November 4, the winners from the event’s seven different categories—barbecue, chili, sandwich, side dish, burger, recip, and the special chef challenge—took their places at the Final Table, where a panel of celebrity judges and host Adam Richman selected one World Food Champion.
Taking the title—and winning $60,000 in the process—was Las Vegas native Robert Butler, chef at Café Ile Saint Louis at Paris Las Vegas. If it’s stunning to think that a born-and-raised local talent could beat the rest of the country, consider that this was Butler’s first time in a cooking competition, and then add on the fact that the sandwich recipe that earned him a spot at the Final Table was concocted the night before. “Our executive chef brought it up, the chance to enter about a week prior, and I said sure,” Butler said. “We came up with that initial sandwich the night before, in between services at the restaurant, myself and chef Lowell McCain [of Paris’ Le Village Buffet]. It was kinda crazy, like one, two, three, here’s your $60,000.” Yeah. Pretty crazy.
Butler and his teammate McCain crafted a succulent sandwich of Asian-flavored braised pork butt sliced and crisped in duck fat, stacked on a French loaf with an aioli made of Dijon mustard, jalapeno, ginger, Chinese mint and brown sugar, and dressed with a salad of watercress, cilantro, radicchio, pear and kimchi vinaigrette. “We knew it would either kill or totally bomb,” Butler said. “There’s a lot going on in that sandwich.”
In the final round, the challenge was to create a new sandwich based on a classic, and Butler drew barbecue pulled pork. “The irony is I pulled the sandwich I didn’t want. I’m not a big barbecue fan,” he said. “We had to use [event sponsor] Grey Poupon in the recipe, and we could only use the Kraft pantry, so everything was pretty well-defined. We tweaked everything, and it just worked out.” So what was on the winning sandwich? He’ll never tell. “That recipe is now the property of Grey Poupon.”
More with chef-champ Butler:
How long have you been cooking? I’ve been doing this 13 years now. It’s actually a third career choice, after an MBA in law. But I had the luxury of being around it a long time; my mother was a chef in town. I knew what it was and was lucky enough to get in with strong people. I had great mentors and advanced rapidly, working for MGM for a number of years and then I’ve been at Paris for a little over a year.
What made you decide to enter the WFC sandwich category? It was between sandwich or side dish. I don’t really have a specialty. I’m a bit all over the place. I just wanted to make something pretty crazy.
Was it stressful to come up with your entry? The initial sandwich, no, but the top-10 round was a little hectic. We had to use all their products, and that was ... interesting.
Were you surprised to advance to the Final Table? I don’t want to say no and sound cocky, but I was really confident. The first sandwich started out with duck confit. I wanted to do something with that but then I really wanted to wow them. Anything you can braise, I’m a big fan of that, so we used a lot of Asian flavors and twisted it all together. In some ways it became something like a banh mi, minus the carrots. And then the pulled pork sandwich [in the final round], that was totally a collaborative effort with chef Lowell. Without him, it never would have happened.
What was your first reaction when you won it all? It still hasn’t set in. To go that far was pretty amazing. I’m still kind of in shock. A funny thing was that when they announced first place, everyone else had their whole group with them, a cheering section. And then they called my name and it was crickets. (laughs) I guess no one knew who I was, but it was funny to me and I chuckled. Even chef Lowell was running service at the restaurant, so he had been running out there to help cook and running back and forth all night. It was insane.
Do you think you’ll compete in WFC or other events like it again? I’ll definitely be back next year. I think it will be much larger next year, right up there with Uncork’d and Epicurean Affair and [other Vegas food events]. They seem to have a plan to keep it growing, up and down the Strip. But it was very enjoyable. I never competed before, and now I don’t understand why I haven’t. I can see why people make that their living, driving around with a smoker and entering contests.