The Union Club of Cleveland’s Lawrence McFadden, CMC, GM/COO, remembers his exam vividly as the mistakes he made during the test still haunt him. However, he’s learned an even more valuable lesson in the pursuit of mastery.
People often ask me about the Certified Master Chef examination. Twenty years later, it still feels like I took that test just yesterday.
The hand that gripped my chef’s knife oozed resin-filled blisters as I steered my car out of the parking lot after the exam. These blisters were painful reminders of the battle just overcame. The mental wounds were not so visible at the time.
No one tries the CMC examination on for size. Applicants don’t tempt fate without a complete assessment of their culinary abilities. And those who take it a second time after failing the first must have an incredibly strong will and ability to block out their previous attempt.
No matter how ridiculous one might look on camera or through the exam windows, the chefs who take the CMC exam are beyond talented. They are worthy of this journey and qualified to handle even the most arduous culinary feats.
True, you might catch a glimpse of an uber-qualified Chef broken down, even in tears on their toolbox during the exam. The only mistake they made was an unfamiliar dreaded ingredient on day ten. With fifty percent of the final score collected on that day, being lucky is almost as beneficial as being talented.
These master craftsmen aren’t emotionally unstable. They are simply on the brink of mental exhaustion from a mind-altering challenge they have dedicated a lifetime to.
To outsiders, this test might not be a reasonable foe. Upon closer examination, it’s more than just stamina, technique, and culinary knowledge. The real mission sought is to paralyze any known ideals or perceptions, forcing your subconscious cooking memoir to emerge. In other words, if you didn’t learn the right way, don’t fake trying to be a master.
This test broke me down. It ripped out my self-confidence and threw me back into the dark murky unsettle misery of loneliness. The overwhelming pressure was like nothing I had ever experienced, even with my previous experience in global competitions.
For someone who says the certification isn’t work, please talk with someone who earned those letters. Consider placing yourself on that very same toolbox where gooey duck or artic goose were drawn. Nothing replaces confidence like standing alone, willing your action in an atmosphere of suffocating doubt.
Plenty of chefs who are qualified have refused to take this test, leaving an achievable milestone dormant. It’s an obstacle that gets heavier as one’s career rises. There are plenty of conflicts or reasons not to take it including professional costs, family sacrifice or softening personal aspirations. Often this test is the last unchecked box in a glorious career.
Even dreaded politics don’t intervene for the most driven pupils. This exam asks and accepts qualified volunteers who demonstrate the skills of those who came before as the only cost of entry.
And when a candidate fails, a reflective self-evaluation is all they are left with. Sometimes candidates will feel slighted on the final day when a term or technique forces them to go back and learn.
As I continued my quiet drive home on that day, the throbbing lacerations to my fingers reminded me that the test is not the same for everyone. Like these battle scars, everyone leaves changed.
In every competition I’ve ever participated in, the voices in my head can become overwhelming. There are momentary respites in small victories of techniques well done, never great, but enough to move on to the next day. Even my high score on day three was quickly dashed by my own insecurities in day four.
As chefs, we know we are only as good as our last meal so where does that leave you at end of the exam?
During my test week, the broken-down mattress at the motel helped with nothing. In the wee hours of the night, damaging voices replayed the day’s execution, only slower as I watched the alarm clock tick off the minutes. If only sleep could have been found.
These were the deep dark times where I truly looked for the exact reason I placed myself in this situation. It’s here when I summon that last ounce of courage and the situation began to ease. I pushed my confidence forward. Almost immediately the tasks for future days slowed down and mastery was back in my command on the stoves.
As energy reentered my veins, a serendipitous jolt came in the form of a colleague’s fellowship. His cloche of light beamed when Chef Peter Timmins said to me, “For the first time in your professional career, you have come up against something that truly matters.”
That simple statement proved to me this test was worth the risk.
Passion for our craft is a calling. It’s not a right of time served. It’s an internal expectation that sits in your soul year after year, day after day, reminding you there is more. Even with a successful test, the mistakes I made still haunt me to this day. But there no second chance or improved dish to be placed in front of the judges. That unsettling honest conundrum of “heaven or hell” can only productively drive you toward your next goal.
Hours into my drive home, that passionate reality finally exploded. I yelled, “I can’t believe I messed up the yeast dough on day nine”.
This simple statement summed up my ten days in a culinary minefield.
While perfection can never be obtained, it’s amazing motivation. This wisdom gained through that journey is my true reward of the Certified Master Chef certification.