Here's what it takes to be a "Certified Master Chef." Is the designation worth it, or outdated?
On Saturday, four men arrived at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, MI, to begin the eight-day Certified Master Chef (CMC) Exam from the American Culinary Federation (ACF). By Monday, one chef had withdrawn due to personal reasons, and two didn’t earn sufficient scores to advance. At the time of writing only Tim Bucci, an Illinois-based culinary instructor, remains.
The exam, which has an estimated 27% pass rate, is arguably one of the most grueling in the world, in any specialty. Indeed, there are only 66 current Certified Master Chefs in the country. Those who take the exam train for months if not years, working not only to hone their culinary skills but also to ensure they are in peak physical condition; it’s that taxing. In order to even qualify to take the exam, participants must have been a Certified Executive Chef for at least three years (the ACF offers many levels of certification leading up to CMC), must have 30 hours each of wine, HR management, sanitation, and cost control courses, and must provide both a letter of financial support and a letter of support from a current CMC. The exam also comes at great personal expense; those taking it are responsible for the $6,000 fee, plus all travel and accommodations. Prestige certainly doesn’t come cheap, or easy.
“It’s a little crazy. You’ve got to be a little crazy to do this,” says Will Rogers, the executive chef at Washington D.C.’s Cosmo Club. Although he was one of the chefs who didn’t make it to the end of the exam this year, he says the experience was well worth it and that he hopes to re-take the exam in the future. Rogers emphasizes the same point made by many other CMCs, which is that more than a tangible return on investment: “You’ve got to do it for yourself.”
While earning the title of Certified Master Chef is the pinnacle of success for some, many have never heard of it—or don’t much care. (When the average person hears “Master Chef” they are probably more likely to think of the reality show than the reality.)
“I don’t know anyone who has one,” says Rebecca Charles, owner of New York’s Pearl Oyster Bar, of the Master Chef certification. “It seems like an awful lot of money to pay for some stamp of approval that is meaningless in this country…I think there’s probably a bunch of guys who think it’s a great club to belong to.”
David Bonom, chef, recipe developer, and author of the forthcoming Hero Dinners: Complete One-Pan Meals That Can Save the Day was very involved with—and has proudly earned—the International Association of Culinary Professional’s Certified Culinary Professional (CCP) title, which was retired a few years ago due to shifting interest in the organization. Beyond a select group of institutional (hotel, country club, etc.) chefs, Bonom isn’t sure how relevant exams and certifications like this are in today’s culinary landscape.
“I can see less interest in the CMC than in the past," he says. "Part of it is the changing times. Young chefs are honing their skills in many different ways now than in the past. The culinary school route is not always the preferred way and because of that there is not the exposure to the institution of certification."
Brad Barnes, director of the Culinary Institute of America’s Consulting and Industry Programs, is a CMC who at one time designed and oversaw the exam, and now oversees all of the CIA’s certification programs. He’s uniquely positioned to see both the value of the CMC exam and its pitfalls.
“It is certainly a very valid process and it is super meaningful to those who embark on that," he says. "I think the huge challenge is making it meaningful to enough folks to make a mark on the industry. That’s the challenge. Bringing diversity to it has always been a challenge. I think we need better and more robust ways to recognize talent in the industry and to validate it.”
The ACF is currently trying to shake its image as an old boys’ club, particularly when it comes to the CMC; there have only been two African-American CMCs and one female CMC in the organization’s history. (Lyde Buchtenkirch-Biscardi joined the club in 1990.) There’s lots of talk within the organization about increasing transparency and accessibility to reach a greater base. This year they are live-streaming the event for the first time. They are looking into changing the model of the exam, so it takes place over two long weekends, and are considering having chefs take the whole thing rather than eliminate them early on. In years past they shortened the exam from 10 to eight days and cut out things like an entire portion dedicated to tableside service.
“When you shake something up that's 30 years old, 20 years old, you know, that doesn't happen quickly,” says Jeremy Abbey, director of culinary programs at ACF. “They want it to expand, they want it to grow, we want the education out there.”
Still, with days focused on skills like buffet catering, classical cuisine, global cuisine (this year that meant beef chow fun and paella), and healthy cooking, the test is supposed to demonstrate mastery of the fundamentals. There’s no molecular gastronomy here, no experimental cuisine. Escoffier is the bible, the original evaluator, the definitive source.
The argument is that these skills form the base of any fine cooking, regardless of style, and that a respected, industry-wide standard serves to strengthen the profession.
“There's very weak laws and enforcement of things that you're directly ingesting into your body and you know, certification can help protect the integrity of food and protect the quality of food,” says Abbey. “By having the knowledge of a third party organization like the American Culinary Federation setting and testing the standard expectation in the industry, we're going to see a better quality cook. You're going to see better food. Is that lofty and big? Yes, but that's the intent of this exam is really to just set the standard out there.”
Certified Master Chefs earn the right to add the CMC initials after their name, and add a patch to their chef’s jacket from the American Master Chef’s Order, which includes the maxim “Forever the Student.” More than anything this seems to encapsulate the drive behind the exam.
“It’s not something that everyone has to have,” says Sean Loving, department chair of Schoolcraft College’s culinary arts program, who passed the CMC exam in 2017 on his third attempt. “But what you gain from it in terms of in-depth knowledge is awesome. What I found after passing is that it’s an automatic force to make you need to know more. I have to know more. I have to learn more.”
The Schoolcraft College culinary students who are assisting with the exam and watching with rapt attention are getting this message loud and clear. Lauren Cheyne, a culinary student who was watching chef Bucci complete his morning of classical cuisine, said that having the opportunity to see the exam in action was humbling and a privilege. “Humbling in the sense of you know just how far you have to go,” she says. “And it’s also amazing to be able to see how much there is to learn. I find myself in a state of realizing I never want to stop learning so seeing all these guys—and they’re still learning themselves, even as they’re taking this exam—it’s inspiring.” Cheyne says that maybe some day she’ll want to take the CMC exam, but for now she’s just thinking of the first step in a long process: becoming a Certified Sous Chef.
The CMC exam is teetering on the verge of big change as they bust open their doors and try to disassociate themselves with words like “elite.” Barnes sees great promise in the program, as long as the organization follows through on its desire to change with the times.
“Folks in our business having a pathway to validate their expertise is really valid from an industry standpoint,” he says. “I think additionally we want to develop systems that are much more friendly and readily available to everyone who participates in our industry. I certainly have an affinity for the Master Chef exam but I think it has some real opportunities to grow and develop to the rest of the culinary business.”
In the meantime, I’m following along with bated breath waiting to see if chef Bucci passes the exam this go-round after making it so far. The suspense is palpable, the stuff of Netflix documentaries; perhaps that’s in their future.