A beginner’s guide to becoming a certified chef

by Jeremy Abbey, CEC®, CEPC®, CCE®, CCA® Director of Culinary Programs, American Culinary Federation

1,377,200 cooks.

That’s the number that will be needed by 2026, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This staggering number, exacerbated by the challenges of low wages, long hours and employees not understanding what to expect, will probably grow. The hospitality industry is nearing a crisis if it continues on the same path without changing the way we train the potential workforce.

“Half the young people that start college don’t earn a degree but leave with piles of debt,” wrote Tom Vander Ark in a 2018 Forbes article. Millennials and Gen Z are seeking alternatives that can provide skills and knowledge to support a career that is quicker and cheaper than higher education. So how can the industry meet the needs of continual growth without an educated, talented pipeline of workers? It all begins with quality training.

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Recently, the ACF Culinary Certification Program became the only stackable credential for cooks and chefs in the United States. According to the Department of Labor, a stackable credential is:

“part of a sequence of credentials accumulated over time to build up an individual’s qualification to help them move along a career pathway or up a career ladder to potentially different and higher paying jobs.”

The ACF’s ladder of 16 credentials allows an individual the ability to accumulate knowledge and skills through the life of their culinary or pastry career, leading to the Certified Master Chef® (CMC) or the Certified Master Pastry Chef® (CMPC) credential. Along the way, the ACF provides industry professionals, regardless of experience and background, the ability to network, training, development and tools that lead to a successful career in any branch of food service.

To attain stackable credential status, in 2016 the ACF opened the Certified Fundamentals Cook (CFC) and the Certified Fundamentals Pastry Cook (CFPC) to all eligible candidates. Previously, this credential was only available to ACF Education Foundation (ACFEF) Accredited Secondary school graduates.

This beginner certification gives the holder the ability to prove they have obtained the knowledge and skills necessary for entry-level food service employment. It requires:

  • a high school diploma, GED or 75 Continuing Education Hours;
  • two 30-hour courses, one in Nutrition and one in Food Safety and Sanitation;
  • and a passing grade on the written and practical exams.

Once the candidate earns their CFC/CFPC and gains employment, they are eligible to use the ACF Certification ladder to elevate their skills and knowledge and build a pathway for career goals.

ACFEF accredited secondary programs have been leading the way in training the youth of our culinary industry for years. Many programs across the country have been using ACF Certification as a tool to give their graduates a competitive advantage in the workplace and to introduce them to professional resources to develop their careers. Now, this program is open to all candidates coming from any CTE and alternative skills training programs.

Working with dedicated members of the ACF, a pilot program of the CFC credential was run in a Chicago-area community center with much success.

“When I heard about the certification, I just jumped on it,” says Chef Dina Altieri, CEC, CCE, who taught the class. “It was so important to me.” Chef Altieri has been teaching in the field of culinary arts and hospitality for more than two decades. She left her job at a college behind to take the job at the Center on Halsted, hoping to affect change — change in peoples’ lives, and change in the conversation around what the path to a career in food service looks like.

“What about the person who wants to get a little bit of training and then get out there and work in a commissary kitchen or an institutional kitchen? There are millions of employees. Not everybody is suited for the same path.”

The Fundamentals certifications can help forge that path for those who do not look like the “traditional” student. No work experience is necessary, and the 30-hour courses can be done anywhere: online, at a nearby college or within a job readiness program like that at the Center on Halsted.

“Training programs like these, they’re change agents.”

“The whole point is to instill some change in our clients. They might have fallen on rough times or have barriers to employment, or both,” Altieri says. “We need to offer accessible touch points for everyone who wants to enter food service, not just people who can devote years of education to it.”

These expanding possibilities of training for the culinary and pastry arts will provide a more qualified workforce to fill the approaching void and need for workers. Not only can alternate training facilities like the Center on Halsted teach people the skills necessary for certification, many states have now added the ACF’s CFC and CFPC to their list of recognized industry credentials for secondary programs.

The ACF is actively working with educators across the nation to help culinary programs in getting these credentials on state approved lists. Once on these lists, the program potentially has access to funds to help enhance their programs. Not only does this help the educator, it ultimately helps the student by providing a fast track to the workforce.

The need for skilled employees continues to grow and the growth of technical education programs in secondary schools is a promising shift to avoid the collapse of the restaurant industry. As more and more secondary students are seeking alternatives to high education, holding a credential that is recognized in the workplace provides a solution to the traditional model of going to college or university.

The tools available from NOCTI and the ACF along with growing credibility of industry certifications is promising. The ACF continues to look towards a brighter future as more and more Certified Fundamental Cooks and Certified Fundamental Pastry Cooks enter the workforce and begin to see the value of using the ACF stackable credential ladder as a vehicle to launch a successful culinary career.


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