How getting certified made me a better chef


by Hari Pulapaka, Ph.D., CEC, executive chef & co-owner, Cress Restaurant, Deland, FL; Associate Professor of Mathematics, Stetson University

So you’ve got a cooking degree and you’ve spent a few years slinging it on a line in a fast paced kitchen, all the while wondering about what the future holds. Perhaps you’ve opened your own restaurant and in addition to cooking, you’re running a tenuous business. Or maybe you’ve been in the food industry for decades, have seen it all, and feel a sense of “been there done that.” I was like you — except, very different.

I attended culinary school at the age of 38, having never stepped into a professional kitchen. I was writing blow-hard essays about the United States food system in my very first class in culinary school. I was slow as dirt compared to the whippersnappers around me.

Hari Pulapaka at Cress
photo by Agnes Lopez

I opened my first and only restaurant in the thick of the worst financial crises since the Great Depression, three years after culinary school, with only two restaurant gigs under my belt. Both were lowly positions — one unpaid, the other low-paying. A culinary instructor I admired greatly (and still do) told me about the ACF Certified Executive Chef (CEC®) Certification and urged me to pursue it. Ironically, I was an apprentice evaluator when he sat for his CEC Practical Exam.

After a cursory read of the requirements, and following a long Saturday night of dinner service, I woke up in the dark before dawn to drive a few hours for an early morning meeting with certification fate. I knew that I was good at putting out food that tasted good, but to my dismay, at the end of the test, two Certified Master Chefs deemed that even though I clearly cooked with passion, instinct, and talent, I was not ready to be a CEC just yet. I remember every word of feedback that came my way. Essentially, my sanitation and organization skills didn’t meet the standards.

At the time, I was somewhat miffed because I thought I was easily the most creative candidate, and while having never practiced for the practical exam, was able to produce an inspired three-course meal easily within the allotted time frame. I was, after all, a working cook. A year later, I sat for the exam again. This time, I ran some specials at the restaurant as practice for my exam menu. I passed easily and even received a compliment from the head judge that in all his years of evaluation, he hadn’t seen such a thoughtful and resourceful handling of the whole chicken. One evaluator thought I had too much sesame oil in my salad dressing. Sure.

Hari Pulapaka in the kitchen
photo by Agnes Lopez

The journey towards certification gave me pause and introspection in a way that day-to-day cooking doesn’t. Of course, there’s the execution under some pressing conditions in an environment of critique and judgement, but we do that every day we cook for our guests. So, why bother? Well, practicing and proving to your peers makes you better. It just does.

Recently, I was one of 10 candidates nationwide who dared to sit for the Certified Master Chef (CMC®) Practical Exam. Essentially, it was a repeat of my first attempt to be a CEC. I didn’t practice enough and I wasn’t really clear on the requirements. Compared to my colleagues, I clearly wasn’t equipped. While they were rolling in pre-set carts of mise en place during the setup window, I was trying to remember where I had left my back pack. I made some mistakes from which I thought I recovered, but at this level, mistakes are not permitted. There was still some subjectivity. After all, as artists, we are going to differ, but the journey has toughened me for when I re-take the CMC.

I didn’t get a chance to cook my food that time around, but that may be by design. Without a doubt, I am a better chef because I dared to try. Next time, I will fare better. That is the power of the journey towards certification.

ACFlogo_tag_CMYK_lowresVisit our website to learn more about American Culinary Federation Certification for chefs, culinary educators and culinary administrators. Questions? Click here to contact the team.

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