A look at the legacy and ongoing evolution of ACF’s hallmark institution
By Amelia Levin
To certify or not to certify?
Therein lies the golden question. Many chefs say certification is also the golden ticket when it comes to landing a better job (often with higher pay), getting ahead and staying current — especially during trying times.
“Earning your diploma isn’t the ‘end-all, be-all’ in culinary arts,” says Chef John C. Schopp, CEC, CEPC, CCE, CCA, AAC, culinary arts instructor at Virginia Western Community College and chair of the ACF Certification Commission. “Graduating from the Culinary Institute of America doesn’t automatically make you the cream of the crop. Certification does.”
That’s because, Chef Schopp says, the ACF’s certification program is the only one that requires both practical and written exams to measure knowledge and skills. Those results are then verified by a third-party committee, and recertification is required every three-to-five years to show you’re on top of your game. “Even if I earned my CC years ago,” Chef Schopp says, “if I haven’t done anything to continue to earn education hours since, it loses its luster.”
Chef Joseph Leonardi, a certified master chef, agrees. “Certification validates your experience and demonstrates to employers that you have the right skills to bring to the table,” he says. “Especially during these times, when we just went through a major crisis in the industry, certification is more important than ever because there is going to be more competition for some of the key kitchen positions in the future.”
Employers can search the ACF’s database to verify that applicants who claim to have a valid, current ACF certification are indeed certified, offering yet another level of validation.
Still, Chef Leonardi, who is the director of culinary operations for The Country Club in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, notes, it goes beyond just proving to employers that you know your stuff. “Certification is really for people who want to grow within the industry, not just in a company. It doesn’t even matter what level of certification you’re going for — it needs to be viewed as a stepping stone in your career.” More than just a resume or references, chefs Leonardi and Schopp say, certification is a demonstration of excellence and ethics in the field that provides a clear path for continued growth.
Certification has long been an integral part of the ACF. For nearly 50 years, the ACF has been the premier certifying body for cooks and chefs in America. In 1972, Chef Ferdinand Metz, CMC, AAC, and Chef Jack Braun, CEC, AAC, developed the first ACF certification program, actively supported by Chef L. Edwin “Ed” Brown, AAC and Chef Wolfgang von Dressler, AAC.
In 1977, after years of work by ACF chefs to educate the U.S. Department of Labor about the rigid certification program they had developed, the federal agency reclassified the role of chef from “domestic servant” to that of “chef” in the agency’s professional, technical and managerial category. Finally, American chefs would be accepted as skilled, trained professionals alongside other trade professions that had already earned such recognition.
Today, the ACF certification program offers 16 certification levels spanning savory, pastry, student, educator, administration and military categories.
“Certification has proven the single most important reason to join the American Culinary Federation,” Metz, who served as president of the ACF from 1979 to 1983, has said. It “indicates both skill and commitment to the culinary profession.”
Types of Certification
Guided by the ACF Certification Commission, certifications in the culinary/savory category begin with Certified Fundamentals Cook® (CFC®) at the most basic level without an accredited degree and go on to include Certified Culinarian® (CC®), Certified Sous Chef® (CSC®), Certified Chef de Cuisine® (CCC®), Certified Executive Chef® (CEC®) and, finally, Certified Master Chef ®(CMC®) at the highest level.
Pastry professionals may earn the title of Certified Fundamentals Pastry Cook™ (CFPC™), Certified Pastry Culinarian® (CPC®), Certified Working Pastry Chef® (CWPC®), Certified Executive Pastry Chef® (CEPC®) and Certified Master Pastry Chef®(CMPC®).
Personal and private chefs can earn their Personal Certified Chef ™ (PCC™) and Personal Certified Executive Chef™ (PCEC™) designations to stand out in the niche field. This is one area of the culinary industry that Chef Daniel Hugelier, CMC, owner of David Meyers Associates, Ltd., a private club culinary placement firm, says is exploding as of late, partially due to the pandemic and restaurant closures. “I’ve been doing a lot more placements for private chefs with families and even as live-in residencies with big families that have huge properties,” he says. “These jobs are amazing because they can afford chefs the right equipment and the highest quality of food to work with. And they will definitely pay higher wages if you have certifications because they know you can work clean and consistently.”
Culinary educators can test for the Certified Culinary Educator (CCE®) or Certified Secondary Culinary Educator® (CSCE®) certifications. There is also a U.S. military certification option.
In addition to passing written and practical exams, candidates must meet criteria specific to each level of certification. Most certifications require a degree from an ACFEF-accredited secondary or post-secondary program, such as a culinary school or other approved educational outlet. Also typically required are work experience and a certain level of continuing education hours with specific requirements for nutrition, food safety and sanitation. For those seeking leadership positions, the Certified Culinary Administrator® (CCA®) certification, which is open to all segments, demonstrates to potential employers extensive knowledge of business and management, including supervision, human resources and advanced sanitation.
Recertifying every three to five years (or adding a new certification) is just another way to prove to employers and other decision-makers in the industry that you’re on top of your game. “I could have graduated years ago with a bachelor’s or associate degree and become a CC [Certified Culinarian] , but if I haven’t done anything since then, the certification is lost,” Chef Schopp says.
Continuing the Journey
Chef Melinda Burrows, CEC, CCA, executive chef at Hickory Hills Country Club in Springfield, Missouri, is also a proponent of certification and recertification. She says it signals to employers and peers that you’ve earned the appropriate number of continuing education hours and are up to date on current trends, new safety and sanitation procedures, HACCP laws and other important guidelines and markers in the industry. That’s important not just for mid-career chefs looking to advance, but also for seasoned chefs in leadership roles, like Burrows.
“If you don’t stay current with trends and changes in the industry, how are you going to teach that to the individuals who you manage or are mentoring?” says Chef Burrows, who enjoys constantly learning. “I loved taking all of the complimentary classes this past year through the ACF Online Learning Center and listening in on all of the webinars. And on the plus side, I earned a bunch of CEHs for doing so.”
In addition to the enhanced classes and webinars, also new this year are digital badges (not just the ones you sew onto your whites), which are available for members to post on their websites and resumes. Organizations with five or more chefs pursuing certification can work with the ACF through its new Certification Concierge Service, a no-fee service to meet the company’s goals and vision.
Chef Schopp and others with the certification commission have been working hard to evolve certification exams as they relate to global cuisines. Prior to the pandemic, Chef Schopp regularly traveled to Jamaica to train evaluators who could, in turn, proctor exams and certify local culinarians without the need to constantly fly in American chef evaluators.
Through this work, however, he noticed a few key issues. Some of the exam content tested those outside of Europe on the use of uniquely European ingredients like truffles and oysters, which are not readily available in the Caribbean.
“Cooks there literally know how to scale trees to collect and work with coconuts, but they may not know how to shuck an oyster,” Chef Schopp says.
As a result, Chef Schopp and his team worked with subject matter experts up and down the Caribbean to create an exam that is 25% specific to the Caribbean. Other countries have shown interest in similar ventures.
“What we want as a commission is to be forward-thinking enough that we’re not pushing people away from the table because they don’t cook with certain ingredients,” he says. “We are examining our content to focus on knife cuts, cooking methodologies and techniques, leadership skills, safety and sanitation knowledge and the ability to understand cost control, while leaving room for more experimentation with regional, indigenous and heritage ingredients.”
The New CMC Exam
Once considered the “Ironman” of certification —with a grueling eight days of on-your-feet testing — the Certified Master Chef (CMC) demonstrates the highest level of culinary excellence. Only a select group of chefs have passed over the decades.
The low pass rate — though once considered a mark of prowess — created some concern for the American Master Chefs’ Order (AMCO), a 501(c)(6) nonprofit group of CMCs and CMPCs who came together in 2014 to establish a foundation to support those taking the test and to encourage the growth of CMCs and CMPCs around the country.
“We started round-tabling this issue of the low pass rate and have been working to figure out how we want to shape the future of the test,” says Jason Hall, CMC, vice president of research and culinary development for Southbend and AMCO’s chairman of the board. After at last two years of deliberation and discussion, the exam now features two parts, each with four days of testing and exams. Other testing, including the sommelier and business management exam portions, will still be required ahead of time, as in the past.
The two-part test allows CMC applicants to take a break between exam portions — a move that supports chefs who can’t front the time, travel requirements or exam costs all at once. “The good news is: If you pass the first part, you own it and can move on to the next as fast or slow as you need to. You can even wait a year or more,” Chef Hall says. Like Chef Leonardi, Chef Hall says earning his CMC was a personal goal more than anything. However, the expanded employment, travel and networking opportunities that accompanied his 2013 certification allowed the former country club executive chef to move to another side of the industry for a change of pace.
The modified exam was slated for a February 2020 rollout, but the pandemic put planson hold. Now, the AMCO plans to roll out the modified exam in October at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan, with plans to offer the second portion of the exam not long after. If the new exam is a success, Chef Hall says, it ideally will be offered twice a year.
In addition to the exam structure, some of the subject material has changed. The group used both internal and third-party subject matter experts to review the entire body of content — ultimately deciding to drop the platter requirement to be more current with today’s la carte and plated trends. Another major change is that applicants now have access to the entire list of recipes that will be included in the test so that they are able to prepare. “In years past, you had no idea what you were going to get so it was just a shot in the dark,” says Chef Hall, who adds that recipes now also include a wider range of dishes and techniques from global cuisines. The group also removed some of the barriers associated with freestyle work with mystery baskets — reducing the number of ingredients in the baskets themselves while allowing more freedom to use outside supporting ingredients. The move gives candidates an opportunity to showcase their personal styles.
For detailed information on the steps required to certify at any level, as well as contact information, required documents and practical exam site locations, visit acfchefs.org.