The birth of Michigan Chefs de Cuisine

by Milos Cihelka, CMC, AAC, HGT

While I was working in New Jersey, I joined a New York chefs organization called the Vatel Club (named after a famous French chef). The members attended the meetings in suits and ties. In 1959, after moving to Detroit I heard of a local chefs’ club called the 200 Club.

Their meetings were held in Cooks Union Hall, their secretary was the Union office worker, all correspondence held in Union files. The chefs arrived in dirty cooks’ uniforms from work, had cold cuts with sandwich bread dinner with beer and after a short meeting played cards and drank more beer. When I showed up in a suit and tie, they looked at me with contempt, as though saying “Who the hell does he thinks he is?” Well, I thought I was a chef.

Their only activity was an annual Chef of the Year election, a popularity contest. My suggestion to hold a culinary art competition to decide the winner was met by jeers. I felt like an outsider and did not remain a member for long.

In about 1970, while I was the chef at the Detroit Athletic Club, I received a phone call from chef Jan Verdonkshot of the St. Louis Athletic Club. He asked me if I was willing to start a chapter of the American Culinary Federation in Detroit. I wondered how he found me. He said they inquired around and were told that if someone could do it, it would be me. It was perhaps a two-edged compliment. I found out why.

Evidently, several of the local chefs tried before to form a new chefs’ club. As they assembled for their first meeting, Roger Foster, chief of the Cooks Union stormed in, told them there will not be another chefs’ club in town and threw them out. Wow! Chefs were reluctant to anger the Union. It was obvious, that this was a hurdle I had to overcome. I realized, to accomplish that, I had to “grab the bull by the horns.”

I called Foster and made an appointment to see him. Behind closed doors I told to him what I intended to do. His face turned red. I explained to him, that the American Culinary Federation had nothing to do with the Unions. In fact, they had chapters already in many strong Union cities, such as Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. I told him I wanted to inform him of my plan first, before he hears rumors. He cooled down, we shook hands and it was done. I then visited prominent chefs of the area asking them to join me. Verdonkshot sent me all the information I needed to start.

With big fanfare a new restaurant opened in Detroit. It was named Con Tiki, Hawaiian themed, with big flaming torches on the sidewalk. They had an Italian chef named Giovanni DiCorrenti. He helped me recruit candidates. We had six chefs at our first meeting. Little by little we started to pick up new members. We decided to name our new chapter Michigan Chefs de Cuisine Association.

We voted in a board of directors. There were some who would have wanted to lower our standards to the level of the 200 club. I had to watch out for them.

I attended several ACF conventions in different parts of U.S. In Detroit, we held Culinary Salons. I established the Apprenticeship Program and we had an inspector going to workplaces. We selected the Oakland Community College to give one day per week classes for the apprentices. Our chapter kept growing. MCCA became known in the ACF community.

Around 1986 the ACF was holding culinary competition tryouts in Chicago for selection to the National Team for the 1988 Olympics. To take part, the chefs had to have previously won gold prizes in regional competitions. Several Detroit-area chefs participated in the tryouts and they all won gold. The selection committee claimed they could not have all Detroit team, so only one was chosen. The rest were very disappointed. After their return home, they decided to form their own team. They asked me to be their coach-manager. I accepted, knowing well it will take a lot of work.

The team consisted of six chefs — Bill Wolf, Gilles Renusson, Mike Green, Kamel Kassem the captain, Mark Kuzma and Joseph Beato. We had two advisors, Leopold Schaeli and Leon Korstjens. We held many practice sessions and then competed in Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit and Vancouver. The next big competition was in Singapore, where we faced national teams of Japan and Switzerland. Michigan Team came third after penalties for finishing late pastry display.

In the Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt every member of our team won gold medal for every platter displayed, a total of 13 gold, two with distinction. As a result, we were awarded the Grand Prize of the salon.

The MCCA chapter is now very strong and active in the Detroit Metro area and beyond. We have 480 members including a very stable 275 Professional and Senior Professional members. Over 57 percent of our membership is certified, which is unheard of in the USA. We have more certified chefs at any of our 16 levels of certifications on five tracks — Culinary, Pastry, Education, Administration and Personal Chefs — than any other chapter. We also have more CECs (101) and more CMC/CMPCs (9) than any other chapter in the USA. We have been recognized many times with Chapter Achievement Awards, Central Regional Chapter of the Year and National Chapter of the Year on multiple occasions.

Chef Cihelka submitted this history of his chapter in response to a call for historical stories to coincide with the ACF’s 90th anniversary celebration. If you have an interesting story about an ACF chef, chapter or competition past or present, please share it with us.