What it’s like to be an apprentice at the world’s toughest culinary exam

ACF’s CMC exam provides a unique learning opportunity to culinary students


In the weeks before the American Culinary Federation’s 2019 Certified Master Chef (CMC) exam, something was different in the halls of Schoolcraft College in Livonia, MI, where the eight-day exam was hosted this year from March 1 through 10. There was a sense of excitement and anticipation in the air — and everyone could feel it.

“Even weeks before the exam when none of the chefs were even in the school yet, the energy in the school was different because you could tell we were getting ready for something that was super important,” says student Marielle Hill, who is graduating this spring with an associate’s degree in culinary arts.

And it was an important time — not only for the chefs vying to earn the highest culinary credentials, but for students like Hill, who were handpicked by Shawn Loving, CMC, CCA — chair of the culinary arts program at Schoolcraft and a Master Chef himself — to do apprentice work during that week.

Lauren Jones
Lauren Jones, a Schoolcraft student working toward her bachelor’s degree in nutrition and business

Being selected to work as an apprentice at the exam is an honor — and highly selective.

“I was approached by Chef Shawn back in October after class. He had asked me and one of my classmates if we were interested in being apprentices for the CMC Exam. He explained to us that we were chosen based on our skill set, our confidence in the kitchen, and our ability to work well under pressure,” explains Katelyn Dziewit, who plans to pursue a career in dietetics and nutrition. “Each apprentice for the exam was chosen by the instructors at Schoolcraft College, there was no sign up sheet, so I was ecstatic leaving school that day. I went through waves of excitement and nervousness about being an apprentice, but I knew that it was an opportunity that I could not pass up because of the experience I would gain.”


A Unique Learning Experience

Hard work and talent is what helped them land the CMC apprentice position, so a lot was expected of the students during that week. There were long days of duties that included gathering supplies for competing chefs, preparing mise en place and cleaning. And through it all, students had to do their best to ignore the cameras and the crowd to focus on the tasks at hand. From measuring ingredients to cutting herbs and vegetables to getting pots and pans, it was a fast-paced week filled with many duties and few opportunities to take breaks.

Running on adrenaline and enthusiasm, the apprentices were up for the challenge. Despite the long days that were akin to working in a busy restaurant, they focused on what their ultimate goal was — to help the chefs they were assisting truly showcase their skills.

“We were there to make their job as straightforward as possible,” says second-year culinary student Sam Peters. “Chefs really have all that stress on their shoulders. They have all this on the line, and they’ve invested money and time, and they’re trying to get to this high point in their career.”

But the week was not just about assisting: It was also about learning. Apprentices helped multiple chefs throughout the week, which allowed them to witness first-hand how these seasoned professionals work in the kitchen, as well as see the different styles each contestant brought to the table.

“I am always so inspired by every chef that I work with, and it teaches you what to do and what not to do,” says Lauren Jones, who is working toward her bachelor’s degree in nutrition and business. “So learning the flavors that they put into things, the products they use, their cleanliness, their timing, it’s all something that I absolutely love because every chef is different. I love just seeing how each chef works and I learned a lot during that whole experience.”

In fact, Jones was enjoying the experience so much that she was frustrated whenever there was downtime when the apprentices weren’t able to help out.

“I always wanted to be in the kitchen,” she says. “I wished there were more candidates because that would have been more chances to get in the kitchen and continue to work.”

A Schoolcraft student assists Timothy Bucci, CMC, CCE, — the only chef to successfully pass the CMC exam this year.

A Week of Inspiration

In addition to providing a unique opportunity for students to learn and grow, the CMC exam also gave them an idea of what they can possibly achieve in the years to come.

“My favorite part was being able to really get a glimpse of the level I want to get to one day. It’s totally different when you are side-by-side with a chef trying to pass the test than to watch it — you get to understand every little detail that goes into a master chef’s food,” says Jacob Wing, who works as Loving’s lab assistant. “For me, the CMC exam was one of those moments I’ll never forget. It set the bar of what I want to achieve in my own career so much higher and it will forever be an experience I will draw on for inspiration. If I had to compare it to something, it would be Game 7 of the World Series or the NBA finals, and I can’t wait to be back.”

ACFlogo_tag_CMYK_lowresIf you would like to learn more about starting an ACFEF apprenticeship program in your kitchen or becoming an ACFEF apprentice, please click here.

Questions? Send an e-mail to our Apprenticeship department or call us at (904) 484-0217.

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