90 years of excellence: The history of the American Culinary Federation

The ACF has represented and advocated for culinary professionals since 1929. But its roots have been growing for centuries.


by Ana Kinkaid


oday the job of chef is a recognized and respected profession, marked by the wearing of a towering toque and pristine white jacket, often emblazoned with the certifying emblem of The American Culinary Federation. Chefs appear on over 150 televised food shows with eight out of ten Americans watching weekly. Culinary colleges and training programs abound, along with esteemed competitions and organizations such as the Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung (IKA) and the supportive James Beard Foundation.

Hardback cookbooks continue to sell in record numbers while other book publication formats decline. YouTube alone saw a 280-percent increase in viewership of food-focused videos in 2018 alone. Chefs today are acknowledged as creative artists, but are also working to change a host of social issues ranging from poor childhood diet to disaster relief. Restaurateur and Chef José Andrés may soon become the first chef to win the Nobel Peace Prize for preparing food for thousands of Puerto Ricans affected by Hurricane Maria in 2017.

Yet chefs were not always viewed so positively.

Chef Hubert Schmieder, AAC has been working in the culinary industry since 1943. Since that time he has seen the “culinary arts mushroom all over the world.”

“Today chefs can move beyond the kitchen — and they should,” he says. “That’s how chefs can change the world into a better place.”

Yet such was not always the case — especially in America.

There was a time when American chefs were considered only domestic servants who cooked, or worse, labored as slaves. Such presidential icons as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson did not hesitate to utilize slave cooks in their kitchens. New England’s colonial taverns offered a slightly more liberating alternative — most often with a proprietor’s wife serving the male customers and cooking at an open hearth fireplace.

During the 1800s, America grew and expanded, yet its culinary sophistication lagged far behind that of Europe. American chefs at that time were more like self-taught cooks, hard working but often lacking even the most basic professional culinary training. Standardized sanitary and safety guidelines did not exist. Kitchen procedures and discipline were either random or cruel, and sometimes both.

When America’s newly wealthy titans of industry traveled to Europe in the late 1800s, they marveled at the elegant hotels and smoothly running restaurants they encountered. The ease of service and creativity of cuisine they experienced there was the result of a venerated culinary tradition that stretched from Carême to Escoffier.

In short, they were impressed — very impressed. On returning home, many a wealthy industrialist with money to burn wanted to invest in building a grand European-style hotel complete with an elegant kitchen. By the early 1900s, elite hotels were appearing in America’s major cities from coast to coast.

It soon became apparent that these grand hotel restaurants would need grand chefs if they were to match the legendary hotels of Europe. Offers went out to some of Europe’s leading chefs, with an enticing salary attached. Motivated by the chance to create anew, chefs began arriving in America, bringing with them the time-tested culinary standards and traditions of Europe.

In their new kitchens the chefs found the latest equipment (including the first ovens with a built-in heat regulator — American-made of course) and new ingredients, such as wild rice and cranberries, to explore. Yet they felt isolated. No single national organization or uniform professional standard linked the chefs in New York with the chefs in Chicago or San Francisco.

And there was another problem: the staff. Due to America’s rapid growth, there was no prevailing order or standard within the nation’s professional kitchens. Chefs found that when staff were trained in-house, when a new staff member arrived, he would operate on his previous employers’ procedures. It was a mess that led to slow service, inconsistent food preparation, cost overruns, high staff turnover and work injuries.

Something had to be done. 

At this time, New York City’s leading culinary associations, Chefs de Cuisine, the Société Culinaire Philanthropique and the Vatel Club, offered membership based solely on the chef’s nationality. As a result, French club members met only with other French chefs and the same was true for chef members of the Italian club.

Yet members within each club soon recognized the need for a more inclusive national society. That awareness soon led each club to pledge their support to the new organization, as well as $200 each to defray the initial costs of organizing the new Federation.

Charles Scotto

On May 20, 1929, New York’s leading European chefs, each representing their respective culinary associations — Louis Jousse, John Massironi, Charles Schillig, Rene Anjard, Joseph Donon, Louis Paquet, Charles Bournez, Charles Lepeltier and Charles Scotto — came together to form The American Culinary Federation. Their intent was to create an organization that offered consistent professional training for incoming staff.

Not long afterwards, on October 29, 1929, a day forever known as “Black Tuesday,” the New York Stock Exchange dramatically collapsed. Over 16,000,000 shares were traded in a panic selloff. By the first of December, the market had lost over $26,000,000,000 in value.

For many it was the financial end, but the chefs organizing the American Culinary Federation knew their organization would be needed more than ever as the newly unemployed would soon be flooding hotels and restaurants seeking work. They bravely pushed ahead and on January 14, 1930 the first officers were elected.

Chef Charles Scotto was chosen as president. Chefs Louis Paquet and John Massironi accepted the role of vice presidents. Chef Louis Jousse was elected as general secretary and Chef Charles Schillig was elected as general treasurer. Chef Scotto’s vital stewardship of the Federation would last until his death in 1937.

Under his guidance, the American Culinary Federation, known to its many new members by its initials ACF, would shape American culinary history. They began with three guiding principles. First, they wanted to bring together “an elite body of cuisiniers” able to support each other and exchange information. Second, they wished to “foster cooperation between employers and the ACF.” Last, but not least, they pledged to “establish and supervise the training of cooks under a recognized professional association rather than by unqualified personnel.”

Despite the social and economic upheaval caused by the Great Depression, the ACF took its first step towards establishing universal culinary training standards in 1931 when it adapted the traditional apprenticeship program utilized by the Epicurean Club of Boston and chose Escoffier’s hallmark text “A Guide to Modern Cookery” as a proposed apprentice training manual.

Sadly history and war intervened and it would be 40 years before the organization would be able to fully implement a certified training program. The ensuing years, however, were full of many other accomplishments, ranging from the publication of a national culinary magazine to the recognition of pastry chefs as full Federation members and the establishment of an employment bureau for chefs.

The American Culinary Federation during this period also clarified that it was not a union, but an organization fully dedicated to the three original goals of fellowship, positive relations and professionally trained chefs.

NCR October 1933_Page_1
Oct 1933 issue of NCR

World War II delayed the implementation of further new programs. Yet despite severe food restrictions due to wartime rationing in 1941-1944, ACF managed to send food relief packages to those suffering in both the Asian and European theaters of war.

When the War ended in 1945, the American Culinary Federation was able to resume full activities. By 1946 ACF had grown to four national chapters and in 1950 the first national convention was held in New York City. In 1955 the American Academy of Chefs was formed by ACF to honor outstanding chef members. During this period, women chefs increasingly joined in Federation activities. 

By 1956 the developing depth of the Federation’s membership enabled the Federation to field a team of top U.S. chefs to participate in one of the world’s most legendary culinary competitions, the Internationale Kochkunst Ausstellung (IKA) International Culinary Art Competition, for the first time.

Just four years later in 1960, the U.S. Culinary Team captured its first World Championship title at the IKA in Frankfurt. By 1964 ACF’s U.S. Culinary Team earned eight gold medals. This time ACF members and chefs traveled for the first time as a group to the Frankfurt competition to support and cheer on the U.S. team.

“Our show in Frankfurt [in 1964] was spectacular,” Chef Schmieder, a member of the 1964 US Culinary Team, wrote in a piece titled “ACF Before the 1970s.” “We had a six-foot wedding cake that only Casey Sinkeldam could do, [President] Kennedy’s picture out of sugar cubes, the tallow sculptures from Richard [Mack], the wild turkey platters from [Frederique] Bohrman, the 75 pounds of round beef from Otto [Schlecker], the gigantic lobster so old and so big we could hardly find a pot big enough to cook him in[. We] needed an electric carpenter’s drill to open his one-inch thick claws, and that’s hard to find at night in Frankfurt.”

More victories came in 1980, 1984, and 1988 — setting the world record for the most consecutive wins — then again in 1992, 1996 and 2000 when the ACF accredited team shifted from classic European cuisine to dishes featuring eco-friendly ingredients and innovative plate presentations. During this same period Chef Lyde Buchtenkirch became the first woman elected to the prestigious American Academy of Chefs and also became the first woman to be on an IKA competition team.


Yet winning medals was not the only accomplishment of the Federation. In 1972 Chefs Ferdinand Metz, CMC, AAC, HOF and and Jack F. Braun, CEC, AAC, HOF developed the first ACF Certification Program, actively supported by L. Edwin “Ed” Brown and Chef Wolfgang Von Dressler, AAC. As a result of their efforts, a long-desired goal of the American Culinary Federation was finally achieved. The number of applicants for the first class was so overwhelming, only the 30 most qualified individuals were chosen, four of whom went on to become ACF national presidents.

“Certification has proven the single most important reason to join the American Culinary Federation,” Metz, who served as president of the ACF from 1979–1983 says. “[It] indicates both skill and commitment to the culinary profession.”

In 1977, due largely in part to the persistent efforts of the American Culinary Federation, the U.S. Department of Labor agreed to reclassify the role of chef from the generic Service occupational category of “domestic servant” to that of “chef” in the Professional, Technical and Managerial category. At long last, American chefs were accepted as skilled professionals.

“The American Culinary Federation worked long and hard to raise the position of chefs from that of a mere domestic servant to a skilled professional,” says Metz. “Because of ACF’s effort to upgrade the U.S. government’s culinary classification, cooking was no longer reserved for the lazy and the untrained. As a result, cooking became an acknowledged profession.”

In 1982 the organization opened its permanent offices in St. Augustine, Florida, (chosen because the city offered a free plot of land on which to build) and began growing in new and exciting ways. The ACF’s Chef and Child Foundation was formed in 1989 to promote proper nutrition in children. In 1992, the first Knowledge Bowl competition was held at the national convention in Washington, D.C. By 1998 chefs and food industry professionals around the world could follow the activities of the ACF on its new website. In 2001, the organization’s first five-year strategic plan was put forth. The ACF’s magazine for culinary students, Sizzle, was first printed in 2004.

In that same year, the training programs developed by the ACF received full academic certification and grew to offer certifications ranging from Certified Fundamentals Cook (CFC®) to Certified Master Chef (CMC®) as well as Personal Certified Chef (PSC®), Certified Pastry Culinarian (CPC®), Certified Culinary Educator (CCE®) and many more.

“The certified chef gets hired first because the restaurant or hotel knows the ACF certified chef can really get the job done,” says Chef Denise S. Graffeo, CEC, AAC, HOF — who in 2017 became the first woman elected into the American Academy of Chefs Hall of Fame. “Certification leads to a supportive network, one able to last a lifetime.”

Today the American Culinary Federation continues its outreach to its over 15,000 members in 170 chapters through national conferences and an array of innovative programs such as The Chef & Child initiative, the Young Chefs Club, disaster relief, apprenticeships, scholarships and grants programs that affect the lives of millions of people throughout the nation and abroad.

Thanks to these beneficial programs and the ongoing efforts of The American Culinary Federation for these last 90 years, chefs today are viewed as valued professionals, admired for their creativity and trusted for their knowledge and skill. The years ahead promise more innovation and change as chefs address the emerging issues of sustainability, immigration, globalization, chronic hunger, disaster relief and human rights.

Be assured that if the chefs of tomorrow were to ask, “Will the American Culinary Federation be there with us as we face these concerns and seek to uphold the standards of our Industry?” The answer will be a resounding “Yes, Chef!”

[editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed the total number of ACF chapters.]

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