“One of the chefs walked by me on the second day of the buffet, catering day, and he said, ‘Good luck Chef, you’re the only one left.’ I was like, ‘What?'”
That’s how Timothy Bucci, CMC, CCE describes the moment he found out he was the last man standing in ACF‘s 2019 Certified Master Chef® exam. After day two, Michael Matarazzo, CEC, had to withdraw from the exam. After day three, Seth Shipley, CEC, CCA and William Rogers, CEC did not score high enough to advance in the exam, leaving Bucci to face the next six days with all eyes on him.
“The good thing for me is I’m good at zoning other people out. Don’t get me wrong, the people watching through the glass, and the evaluators standing around… it makes you nervous,” he says. “I was [aware of the cameras], and I joked around with my apprentice when my towel kinda caught a little bit on fire. I said, ‘That will make some good TV.'”
If it’s a spoiler that CMC is right there in the letters behind Chef Bucci‘s name, then you were not among the thousands who were glued to YouTube during the live stream of the eight-day exam. He did pass — in dramatic fashion, of course.
“I’ve coached students and student teams. I tell them, just because [the evaluators] write something down, doesn’t mean it’s negative. But when you’re in the moment, when they come up to you and then go back to write something down, there’s no way you cannot think, ‘What did I just do? Was it right? Was it wrong?’,” he laughs. “You just have to keep on going.”
That’s a bit of advice Chef Bucci, a culinary arts instructor at Joliet Junior College, has been adhering to his whole life. Taking the CMC exam this year was the culmination of a dream that he’s held for 30 years.
“When I joined the ACF, I met Steve Jilleba at a Chicago chapter meeting. I started doing a little research and [the CMC exam] has been on the back of my mind for a while,” he says. “After I started teaching, I started getting more into the competition scene, really just trying to continue my growth and learning. … Just trying to find any way that I could to prepare myself.”
From 2000 to 2008, he competed in around 60 competitions and was on ACF Team USA from 2010 to 2012.
“Anybody has a chance.”
In 2014, he was scheduled to take the CMC exam, but cut his thumb and had to get stitches a week before it started. He was mentally ready in 2014, he says, but after the cut, he lost that feeling. Chefs whom he sees as his mentors, including Joseph Leonardi, CMC, Steve Jilleba, CMC, CCE, AAC and Stephen Giunta, CMC, continued to guide him and help him prepare. It took a few years, but in 2017, Bucci’s confidence had returned and he began to sharpen his skills.
Even still, he walked into the Schoolcraft College kitchen in March 2019 carrying some lingering doubts — and perhaps the burden of fate.
“I remember telling Joe Leonardi [years ago] if I drew Dover sole and chicken that it was going to be a hard fabrication day,” Bucci says.
As he entered the kitchen on day four, he was faced with chicken, Dover sole and #540, consommé Doria. (Click here to read synopses of every day of the test.)
Just by thinking he wouldn’t do well if he drew those items, “I had already set myself up for failure,” Bucci says. “That’s why I think this is so much more mental. … Being mentally ready to take the test is probably more important than cooking really good food.”
After three hours of cooking and a 30-minute plating window, Bucci served the required dishes in the classical menu. But it wasn’t enough. He failed.
According to the scoring methods, all of the exam majors must be passed to earn the CMC designation — but his average score was enough to earn him a retest day on Sunday. The rest is history.
“I finally started having fun after the day I failed. It was eye opening. That’s the day I turned the corner, and then from there it kept going uphill,” Bucci recalls. “By day seven, eight, nine, I was having more fun. … It was hard, but I remember telling my apprentice, ‘If I go late today, I’m going home.’ I just laughed and said, ‘No pressure, huh?'”
The grueling eight-day test which some of the best chefs in the world have tried and failed might seem like a nearly impossible one. But Bucci wants other chefs to know that it’s not.
“There are chefs out there that could pass this test. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a ton of work, but work and effort and mentorship, it certainly makes it easier,” he says. “Reaching out to any of the master chefs for a mentor is so highly valuable. They are all willing to help you out. They want you to pass.”
“You have to put the effort in. You have to put the time in. But they are more than willing. I have emailed multiple chefs, chefs that didn’t really know me, and I got feedback,” he continues. “Anybody has a chance.”