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Professional Certification: Progressing to the other side of the line

Updated: Jan 13, 2019

According to over 30,000 individuals graduated from a culinary school in the USA. In a market of 2.3 million cooks and 2470 openings for head chefs in 2015 how will culinary graduates fare? Granted only 16% have an associate degree and 12% have a bachelor’s degree, how can a graduate differentiate themselves in an ever-evolving market? How can they eventually move from cook to chef?

The number of Certified Executive Chefs (CEC) in America is 3236 and that amount increased by 166 over the previous year, this according to the annual report from American Culinary Federation. In relation to the number of openings , less than 7% have the Gold Standard of Culinary Professional Certification of CEC or CMC. Imagine the opportunity if a culinary graduate had a bachelor’s degree and a professional certification.

The path from line cook to chef has been well traveled by those who have taken the classic approach. In France Daniel Boulud, Hubert Keller, Alain Ducasse all trained under Roger Verge (NY Times). Thomas Keller is credited with being the “Godfather” of Michelin Stars in the US including Dominque Crenn, Americas first Three Michelin Star Chef (NY Post). The Greenbrier Resort has followed that same classic approach for over 50 years producing dozens of Certified Master Chefs and Certified Executives Chefs through the American Culinary Federation Certification Process.

What is the first step?

There are nearly 600 culinary schools in the USA, the pedigree of your training matters. So, what are some questions you need to consider whether you are just starting out or looking to return to school to finish your degree.

1. What brand does the institution possess? An industry recognized brand represents an assurance of quality and consistency in education, find out what employers think?

2. How does the faculty and university support the training of the student, is it for a single term or do they support a lifetime of learning?

3. Are the college degree programs based upon the future, or upon the past?

Experience Matters

In the process of moving up to become an Executive Chef or eventually a Master Chef first look at the quality perception of the places you work. Quality is the consistent delivery of a pre-determined standard, and no I’m not talking about a chain restaurant. Seek a chef who has a made a great name for themselves. Read the trade journals and publication to find out who the hospitality industry and food critics validate. Join a professional organization like the ACF or local organizations where you can network. Ones like the Piedmont Culinary Guildin the Carolinas, or your Alumni Organizationwill help open opportunities for you.

Courtesy JWU Alum Robert Reinken CEC, Chef d' Cuisine - Charlotte Country Club

How will the class of 2019 fare? Where will they be in 10 years?

Over this past year I have asked that question. Here are some tools to help those who want to progress to the other side of the line. Here are some steps and tips to help you along the path.

1. First remember the basics.

a. Hot food on hot plates, cold food cold plate.

b. Gloves on for ready to eat foods, wash hands in between tasks.

c. Sharp and clean knives.

d. Fabricate one type of item at a time, then store

e. Professional appearance and uniform.

2. Find a Mentor- Your mentor should be fully aware of the ACF process and should possess credentials that will help you on your journey. Pick someone that you respect and one who will challenge you to improve by telling you the truth.

3. Know what skills are expected. The Chefreference YouTube page has dozens of videos to guide you in some of the techniques you should use in your practical exam.

4. Develop a menu that is based upon the ingredients and the classic methods. In the 2018 Master Edition of the Chefs Reference Guidet here are over a thousand recipes, 140 of which are based upon the ACF exam market basket.

5. Practice, Practice, Practice- You will only get better by improving your test efficiency and making mistakes in the early stages.

6. Organize your mise en place. Think about how you will arrange your tools, ingredients, supplies, and work station. Take notes on what does not work.

7. Test your plan. Develop a timeline for the order of production and presentation of the products to be presented. Once you have developed the perfect plan, memorize it through practice so that everything you do is efficient.

8. Work Clean and Work Smart. As a practical exam evaluator, the toughest conversation is one in which there is has been a sanitation infraction that causes the candidate to fail. Before attempting this exam make sure that your sanitation certification is up to date. Work Smart by tackling the more exacting skills first, this should begin with butchery. Give yourself plenty of time to properly execute the fabrication techniques because the evaluators are looking for proficiency in both basic and advanced skills.

9. Keep it simple. Perform skills that you have mastered. Present the food in a way that showcases your skill, in other words don’t cover up with microgreens, flowers, or non-functional garnishes.

10. Finally, prepare dishes that you would pay top dollar for. Make sure to source the freshest local ingredients from purveyors who have discriminating quality standards. Afterall, it all begins with great ingredients, great skills, and the desire to challenge yourself.

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