After debating the merits of certification, Glenmoor Country Club’s Executive Chef Penelope Wong found the CEC certification process both frustrating and exhilarating.
If you read my piece on certification, what I’m about to say may shock you. On June 24th, I gained my certification and I am now a Certified Executive Chef (CEC).
If you’re a club chef considering going down the certification path, this blog might appeal to you. If not, maybe you’ll get a good read out of it. If you’re already a certified chef, this might piss you off about me even more. Either way, this was my experience from start to finish in becoming a CEC.
It all started about four years ago when I befriended a Certified Master Chef (CMC) at the annual Chef to Chef Conference. Through many ups and downs, this led to meeting and befriending more CMCs (they’re contagious). Throughout my years of friendships with these Chefs, I have been fortunate enough to be able to cook with them on a couple of occasions. Inevitably, each time we were together they would urge me to consider certification at the highest level. After turning them down several times, I finally caved.
I began submitting budgeting needs for every step of the certification process and I was lucky to get both motivational and financial support from my General Manager and Board of Directors here at Glenmoor Country Club. I then delved into doing everything I had to do to attain CEC certification.
At the beginning of last year, I began online refresher courses for continuing education requirements in addition to collecting proof that I had completed enough certified education hours (CEH) from attending suitable conferences, like the Chef to Chef Conference.
The required course work included nutrition, sanitation, and safety as well as culinary supervisory management. I personally found this coursework to be tedious and monotonous as I’ve been the Executive Chef of Glenmoor for thirteen years and a cook for nineteen. It was hard for me to convince myself that taking these courses was not a waste of time. I got through them rather quickly and finally qualified to take the written exam. Once I had the written exam scheduled, things seemed to be moving along quite well and I was both excited and nervous to embark on this journey. Passing the written exam was relatively simple. I was actually surprised by how many of the questions were relevant to what we do on a daily basis as Executive Chefs.
Once the written exam was completed and successfully passed, I qualified to take the practical exam. The practical is a three-hour cooking exam that features a market basket of ingredients you must use while demonstrating a fundamental knowledge of sound cooking technique as well as classical knife skills. Your menu must consist of a three-course meal using items from the market basket. You must show a minimum number of classical knife cuts, butchery skills and a number of various cooking techniques as well as sauce work, including an emulsification.
Signing up for the practical exam is supposed to be as simple as reaching out to your local test site administrator to find out what dates are available. Once a date is confirmed, paperwork must be sent to the American Culinary Federation’s national headquarters to notify them that you are taking the practical exam. Immediately upon passing the written exam, I tried to contact my local test site administrator. I left countless voicemails and emails. When I finally heard back, there were several conflicting dates among all the local judges but that perhaps there may be a date set for July 1. As July 1st approached, I left more voicemails and emails week after week, day after day. I needed to make sure I had enough time to submit my paperwork to ACF headquarters stating a confirmed test date. July 1st came and went, and still, I had not heard anything back from the local test site administrator.
Nearly two months later, I received a courtesy email reminder from national headquarters making sure I knew that I qualified for the practical exam so that I could get that date scheduled before the qualification timeframe expired. I replied stating my current circumstance and the difficulty I was having in trying to set up my practical. I was told my name would be placed at the top of the list once a date was set in my area. When I hadn’t heard anything back in at least three more months, I reached back out to my contact at headquarters to find out if there were any possible dates set. I was told that the last practical was a couple of weeks ago. So I then inquired about the last email stating that my name would be at the top of the list. I was told the exam was scheduled only for culinary students.
Try to imagine my frustration at this point.
So there I was in the midst of our fall season. And my goal of earning my CEC was still incomplete. Adding insult to injury, this whole frustrating process was simply to attain some initials that somehow summarize or validate my career for the last nineteen years.
Not long after my post about certification that struck a nerve among so many of you in addition to a few ACF administrators, I was contacted by national headquarters and told that a test date had been confirmed in my area and that my name had already been placed at the top of the list.
At this point, I had to do it. I had to put my money where my mouth was. It almost seemed like a dare.
I began by touching base with a couple CMCs and CECs to help guide me. I reworked my menu at least eight times. I practiced the whole thing from start to finish about four times with the fifth time being so half-assed because I was tired of cooking the same menu. I figured if I wasn’t ready at that point, I never would be.
Taking the practical exam was one of the most nerve racking experiences of my life. I went through the motions feeling overwhelming nervousness. Then, once I got started, I calmed down. I started to feel like myself again. Finally, after working through the initial nerves, I made all the mental notes necessary to familiarize myself with an unfamiliar kitchen and set up. Then I did what I do best. I COOKED! As I breezed through the tasks, I started paying attention to what and how the other candidates are doing, making more mental notes of what not to do. Then I started to feel good each time the judges hovered over my workspace, reviewing my items labeled “for future use” before walking away with a slight grin indicating a satisfactory judgment.
Then, it was as though nobody else existed in that big test kitchen but me. And I was simply there doing my thing. Then I looked at the clock and realized, “F***! I’ve only got eight minutes until my service window opens and I’ve not even pulled any proteins to start cooking!!!” But somehow, as most Chefs do best, I pulled something out of my ass and produced twelve perfect plates to present to the judges. Then, wishing I had known I was allowed to bring an assistant with me, I groaned at the pile of dishes I had yet to attend to in the dish pit while feeling like I was on cloud nine (if only for the simple fact that the whole nightmare was over).
I listened to the judges critique my craft, and found myself snickering when they couldn’t stop talking about how I had earned the high score for the day and they were all asking for multiple recipes from me. Then I told myself, “I would totally do that all over again!”
To this day, the initials CEC are nowhere to be found on any of my credentials nor my signature lines. Do I believe in certification? I still don’t have an answer for that. But it was one hell of a day in the kitchen.