An Alphabet Test of Nerves

Michael Ruhlman - June 1998

For the right to place the letters C.M.C. after their names, 170 chefs willingly submitted to the inquisition of the Certified Master Chef exam. Michael Ruhlman goes behind the scenes to witness the rigorous ordeal.

Two men in lab coats arrive at station six in a vast double kitchen at the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in Hyde Park, New York. One, CIA chef/instructor Ron De Santis, glances at his clipboard and says, “Chef, would you please tell us what you have prepared.”

“A duck terrine,” Brian Polcyn answers. “Straight forcemeat with seared duck and shiitake mushrooms.”

“And the sauce?”

“Orange ginger.”

Polcyn removed a slicing knife from a bain-marie of hot water and dries the blade. He places his left hand on the terrine, rests the knife on its center and, for a moment, holds still.

Polcyn is the 37-year-old chef/owner of Five Lakes Grill, a popular restaurant in Milford, Michigan, 45 miles northwest of Detroit. Along with such luminary chefs as Waldy Malouf, Nancy Silverton, and Todd English, Polcyn consults to Northwest Airlines. He has twice been a guest chef at The James Beard House in New York City. He has appeared three times since the prestigious Bocuse d’Or competition in France. He once prepared a private meal for 12 for which the host, at a charity auction, had paid $24,000. But never before in his 22-year coking career has he been as nervous as he is at this moment, his knife blade poised above this duck terrine, which he has seasoned with a Madeira reduction, inlaid with mushrooms and a whole duck breast, and roasted to an internal temperature of 145ºF.

Polcyn inhales, strokes once forward through the terrine, once back, and he cannot believe his eyes, The knife has veered to the right. Polcyn stares at his hands as if they are not his own.

The error condemns a second slice to being slightly thinner at one end as well. The interior garnish of the seared duck breast is pink and glistening; he has cooked the terrine perfectly. The judges taste without speaking, mark their grade sheets, then discuss the terrine with Polcyn. Before leaving, De Santis looks Polcyn in the eye and says in a tone that is vaguely menacing, “You really need to have good knife skills.”

“Yes, chef,” Polcyn replies. “Actually, chef, I do have the knife skills. It’s just that sometimes they don’t come out.”

De Santis puts his face close to Polcyn’s and barks, “During these 10 days they have to come out.”

“Yes, chef.”

A Few Good Chefs

Professional cooks, once anonymous labor in a blue-collar world, have become the celebrities of the $336.4 billion foodservice industry. And our food-crazed country calls them “master chefs” with promiscuous abandon. For 17 years, however, there has been an actual test designed to measure whether or not a cook works at master chef level. Those who pass call themselves Certified Master Chefs, and they are a small group of talented but little-known cooks who have reached what they feel is the highest technical and intellectual level in the culinary arts.

For Polcyn, the Certified Master Chef exam is the hardest cooking test of his life. The trial is a grueling ordeal of culinary craft and physical stamina that demands a broad range of kitchen expertise—from patisserie to potstickers, béchamel to beurre blanc, classical garde-manger to American regional and nutritional cuisines—performed on little sleep in an unfamiliar kitchen under strange circumstances. Proctors study Polcyn’s simmering pots like hostile customs officials and pick through his garbage with their pencil tips. When he has finished cooking, Polcyn will sit alone in the center of a brightly lit room as three judges, presiding like Torquemadas, deliver a verdict on his food.

Conceived by Ferdinand Metz, president of the CIA, the country’s most mightily endowed cooking school, and administered by the 25,000-member American Culinary Federation (ACF), the largest organization of professional cooks, the Certified Master Chef exam attempts to measure a career’s-worth of food knowledge and cooking experience. For those who spend several thousands of dollars to take this test, it is Everest. A pass will mark the zenith of their careers and remain a permanent emblem of excellence. In prestigious resorts and hotels, the title C.M.C. can result in more lucrative job offers.

Most candidates, however, badly misjudge what will be expected of them. Some leave the Hudson Valley midstream with tears of disbelief filling their eyes, confidence badly shaken. The ACF is so cautious about how failure might affect chef’s career that the identities of people taking the test are no longer revealed. Press releases are sent out only to announce those chefs who have passed.

Last year, the ACF allowed me to witness the proceedings, the first outsider ever admitted into the kitchens to observe the exam.

Because only judges and candidates are allowed in the kitchens, a sense of secrecy shrouds the test, leading some in the industry to criticize the ACF for trying to create and maintain a club of competition-style “technicians” who are out of touch with the dynamic world of American restaurants. Others view the test with awe and humility, bestowing upon it a level of mystique that even those who run the test sometimes regret.

“We, the ACF, are going to ask you to cook,” Tom Peer, the certification chairman, tells incoming candidates. “We’re going to give you food and herbs. You’re going to braise, you’re going to pan-fry, you’re going to sauté. Don’t make it more difficult than it is.”

“Failure is usually that of basic cooking principles,” adds Dieter Doppelfeld, who has managed the daily operations of the test for the past 10 years.

But it is, in fact, far more difficult than either suggests. According to the ACF, approximately 170 chefs have taken the test since it was first offered in 1981; only 53 have passed. Metz and other C.M.C.s go so far as to suggest that the test measures more than cooking skills, that it acknowledges an innate excellence. “You’ve either got it or you don’t,” says Peer with a shrug, implying, as may do, that if you’re not Certified Master Chef caliber now, you never will be.

On The Firing Line

Along with Brian Polcyn, six other chefs traveled last year to the CIA for the exam: Mark Linden, executive chef of the Anchorage Hilton in Alaska; Lynn Kennedy-Tilyou, chef de cuisine at La Tourelle Restaurant in Memphis, the second woman to attempt the test; Eric Kopelow, corporate executive chef for United Airlines in Chicago; William Guthrie, who, at the time, was chef at the Hotel St. Germain in Dallas and places on opening his own restaurant, Guthri’s Historical Food, in Dallas; Neil Becker, an instructor at the New York Restaurant School in New York City, who has teamed up to study with Steve Jilleba, executive chef at Sunset Ridge Country Club in Northbrook, Illinois, who has been preparing nine years for the test. Joe Scully, executive chef of the Druid Hills Gold Club in Atlanta, has flown in to assist Doppelfeld. He hopes to be a Certified Master Chef candidate in August when the next C.M.C. exam is scheduled to be administered. His reasons” He considers it prestigious. He’s ambitious and it represents the highest level of accomplishment in his profession. And he wants to earn more money. “I want to live a certain way,” he says, noting his wife and two children. “As a master chef, I would certainly make six figures.”

For Polcyn, who owns his own restaurant and who has already spent more than $4,000 to be here, money isn’t the issue. “My goal is to be the best possible cook I can be,” he says. “The better cook I am, the better my staff will be and the better my restaurant will be.” Also, given that many C.M.Cs work in corporations and culinary schools, he wants to be one of the few chefs, he says, “to bridge the gap between the technical group and the public group of chefs.”

Still another reason that Polcyn wants to pass so badly: he failed the test four years ago during the classical cuisine segment on Day Seven. “I was full of myself then,” he says. This time he’s got the right attitude.

On Day Six, at 3:20 p.m., Polcyn bolts like a thoroughbred into the kitchen, where four chefs, staggered at 20-minute intervals, are already at work. He squats at his lowboy and pulls out three sheet trays. For the first time, he sees what they contain: four rabbits, 10 skate wings, baby artichokes, chayote, dried cherries, almonds, Jerusalem artichokes, Bosc pears, two live lobsters, red beans, tomatillos, Texmati rice, scallops, various pork items, caul fat, and a pineapple—American products for the American regional cuisine section of the exam.

Polcyn has 30 minutes to compose a three-course menu for 10 using these items. After four hours of cooking, he will plate four servings and create a platter for six for each course. A kitchen proctor will grade him on sanitation, professional deportment, utilization, timing, mise en place, and cooking technique for a total of 35 points. His window, the 20 minutes allotted for plating all 30 servings, opens at 7:50 p.m.

Runners will wait to hustle Polcyn’s food to three C.M.C.s in Lecture Hall 2. These judges will grade each course on serving method, preparation, nutritional balance (each worth up to 10 points), ingredient composition and creativity (each worth up to five points), and finally up to 25 points total for flavor, texture, and doneness. The scores of the three judges are averaged, and the result is added to the kitchen proctor’s score for a total score of 100, with any score below 65 considered failing.

Polcyn’s performance after five days has been mixed. He scored high on the duck terrine (85.16), and did well on his buffet platter (81.33), for which he created a smoke-roasted pork loin, a pork terrine, marinated vegetables with radicchio, and two sweet potato tarts. But the judging on nutritional cooking—a four-course, 800-calorie meal of 20 percent protein, 30 percent fat, and 50 percent carbohydrate—jarred him with a 75.

International cuisine also was a disappointment. He has chosen the envelope containing the Spanish menu of gazpacho, calamares rellenos, saffron risotto, and vegetables. “They hated my soup,” he says with disbelief. The judges claim it lack good color (Polcyn used a blender instead of a food mill to puree his tomatoes, which made the soup pale) and depth of flavor (he should have roasted the hard Roma tomatoes).

Unusual things have begun to happen in Polcyn’s mind as he hits the midway point. Exhausted after five 17-hour days, anxious, and missing his wife and five children, Polcyn sleeps fitfully, dreaming one night that his Jeep and all his kitchen tools are stolen, dreaming another night that he cannot remember his youngest son’s face. He jars awake at 3 a.m., thinking first that he’s overslept—the daily nightmare-then realizes it’s only his throbbing thumb, sliced the first day on a Japanese mandoline. Worried that his cut will become infected and force him out of the test, he obsessively swathes it in ointment and wraps it tightly each morning before leaving his motel. At lunch, he tells his fellow chefs that there is a proctor in his motel room, checking the mise en place of his bathroom shelves.

By Day Four, two chefs had already dropped out. And now, Kennedy-Tilyou, who failed nutrition and who will be forced to leave if she fails another segment, is in the weeds at 3:45 p.m., when Polcyn hands his menu to Anton Flory, today’s proctor:

Pan-fried skate with lobster sauce
Farm greens salad with asparagus, potatoes & roasted red peppers
Stuffed roasted rabbit with morels, braised leeks, carrots & spaetzle

At 9 p.m., with all the cookng done, the chefs appear punch drunk. They loiter in the hallway waiting to be called into the judging room. Kennedy-Tilyou emerges, draws a finger across her neck and says, “My beans were raw, my artichokes were raw. Dieter got a raw scallop.” Polcyn hugs her before she leaves to pack. “It’s almost a relief,” she says.

Polcyn fares scarcely better, having erred critically at the outset by not using more items on his tray. The judges then hammer the food: he chopped up good lobster meat for the sauce; his salad did not have a good proportion of greens and the vinaigrette was too acidic; his rabbit forcemeat was greasy, the carrots were overcooked, and the sauce was light. What saves him in the end, as one judge explains, “It tasted really good.” Taste, of course, is critical. Grade: 76.65.

Before leaving the judging room, Polcyn, one of four candidates now remaining, chooses an envelope that contains an Escoffier menu:

Consommé à l’orge perlé
Filets de sole à la d’Orléans
Poulet sauté à la catalane

At this point Polcyn is a borderline candidate for Certified Master Chef. His performance is classical, one of the most difficult sections of this exam, only makes his status more precarious. The judging chamber, with De Santis as the lead judge, is more like a back-alley mauling. Consommé weak and cloudy. White sauce too thin and needing more cayenne. Chicken underdone with its sauce washed out and sloppy knife cuts. “This is not C.M.C. work,” De Santis proclaims. He is clearly angry as he concludes: “You passed. Sixty-six point oh-one. I want to be real clear about this. You must focus on details. You can draw this same menu on Sunday. You have to really build yourself up from here.”

Polcyn is visibly tired after this seventh day of cooking and the beating he takes in the judging room, but he has passed the section that tripped him up four years ago. He shakes the judges’ hands and says, “Thank you for the advice.” He strides for the door, soon to be back in his room studying for tomorrow’s baking and Asian cuisine tests.

A Heavyload of Exhaustion

The first nine days of the exam grow progressively difficult as doubt from early low scores causes indecisiveness and fatigue results in mental errors. Staring at a bowl of flour and shortening during the baking segment, Polcyn says, “That’s what this test makes you do. I cannot believe I scaled my pie dough wrong.”

Day 10, when fatigue and stress are greatest, is the most important of the test: two cooking sections, lasting nearly 10 hours, will determine 50 percent of Polcyn’s grade. Five C.M.C.s not currently affiliated with the CIA have arrived to judge: Ed Leonard, currently president of Food First Restaurant Corporation in Norwalk, Connecticut, and Brad Barnes, corporate chef for ITB Restaurant Group in Greenwich, Connecticut, each of whom earned their C.M.C.s in 1996, will judge kitchen performance. Judging the food itself will be David Megenis, who’s based in Trumbull, Connecticut, as director of culinary development for Sodexho Marriott Services of Bethesda, Maryland; Rudy Speckamp, chef/owner of Rudy’s 2900 in Finksburg, Maryland; and Victor Gielisse, chef/owner of CFT/Culinary Fast-Trac and Associates in Dallas, along with Peer and CIA senior vice president Tim Ryan.

At 6:45 a.m., Polcyn is like a fighter tensed to enter the ring. “I’m gonna kick some ass,” he says. “I feel good. I’m a better cook today than I was 10 days ago. That’s how I feel now. I don’t know how I’ll feel after I hear what the judges think. The way I look at it, I’m gonna be on the road in 12 hours.”

While four candidates have made it this far, Polcyn and Jilleba have passed every test, with Jilleba registering scores in the 80s on each day. Two others have one failure each, so, while four chefs will cook, only Polcyn and Jilleba stand a chance of earning their C.M.C. this day.

At 7:20, Polcyn breaks for station two. He begins by boning five chickens for a classical poulet sauté as prescribed by Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire. He chops the bones of two carcasses to fortify his consommé Portalis. At 7:49, he begins boning Dover sole.

For the first time in 10 days, Polcyn feels in the groove. “Rockin’,” he says.

Perhaps, though, it is fatigue-induced illusion or stress-related endorphin euphoria because Brad Barnes, the kitchen proctor, looks at Polcyn and thinks, “That guy’s pretty nervous.” As Barnes wanders the kitchen, he stops frequently at Polcyn’s station, scratching notes on his clipboard. Each time he leaves, Polcyn smiles and shake's his head, as if this is too much grade-school silliness. But early on, Barnes sees serious errors in Polcyn’s classical technique. He has used too much roux in his béchamel and velouté. These base sauces—one of which will become a sauce vin blanc finished with a tricky beurre printanier, the other strongly flavored with curry and cayenne—become too thick too quickly and Polcyn must take them off the flame. Consequently, the starchy flour taste and feel do not cook out.

Another error: he has chosen for his consommé a pot that is too wide, and therefore the raft will be too thin, losing some of its clarifying power and flavoring capacity. These small mistakes fester.

Four hours pass in a flash, and Barnes strides to Polcyn’s station, saying, “We’ll take you food any time, chef.”

“Thank you,” Polcyn says to Barnes, and he begins the mad dash of getting the food out, piping hot and perfectly presented. In the frenzy of service, Polcyn forgets the mushrooms, one of his four garnishes and must send them out in ramekins. When the last platter leaves, Scully, the assistant, leans close to him and says, “Chef, I would just walk away from this. I’ll break down your station.”

Polcyn glares at Scully and says, “I forgot the mushrooms.”

Then Polcyn turns and sees two items still on his station untouched and all his muscles clench. He has forgotten to add the curry and cayenne to the sauce soubise for the poulet sauté.

The Verdict

After a one-hour break Polcyn is back in the kitchen, evaluating the contents of his “mystery basket”—various items from which me must use to concoct a four-course meal for 10. He does not know if he has passed or failed classical nor does he think about his errors. He only cooks, no wasted movement, while the five judges, severe figures in lab coasts, evaluate the food and tally scores in a closed room.

At 5:40 p.m., Polcyn’s final course-roasted loin of lamb with mustard sauce, wild leek/potato cake with grilled Portobello mushrooms, and braised patty-pan squash—leaves the kitchen. The exam is over. During the unpleasant moment waiting to enter the judging chamber, retracing the steps of his long day, errors occur to him as small pings in his mind. The judge’s door opens and, ominously, Polcyn is called in.

Six judges encircle Polcyn beside a table where his platters lie. Rudy Speckamp begins the critique with the confident, gentle voice of a doctor explaining that the tumor is not benign. “You had so many flavors there, it was hard to harmonize them,” Speckamp says, pointing to the poached gulf shrimp, scallops, and mussels with cantaloupe and jalapeno salsa. “It was too spicy. And the herbed mayonnaise didn’t really go.” The list of errors continues: “The asparagus was undercooked…the vinaigrette was too thick…the corn sauce didn’t taste great…but I was most disappointed in the lamb—it was undercooked and tough.”

Classical was worse given the omission of major components. “I know you,” Gielisse says, “You’re a much better craftsman than this.” He concludes with a question: “Did you have any curry?”

“I forgot to put it in,” Polcyn says.

Tom Peer tells Polcyn his scores: 62.82 on classical, 62.55 on the mystery basket. He has the failed the C.M.C. test again.

Polcyn thanks the judges, says goodnight, and strides for the door, exhaling brusquely once. He pauses only to give a thumbs down sign to Jilleba and discard his toque. In an hour, he will be crossing the Hudson River in his Jeep, back at work the day after he arrives home. But he’ll soon call to congratulate Jilleba, the 54th cook to earn the C.M.C. title.

“I have the highest regard for this test,” Polcyn concludes. “I have the highest regard for anyone who takes and/or completes this test. I have no regrets. The judging was tough but fair.”

Secretly, though, he has moments of panicky doubts about his ability, freezing before asparagus on the stove and asking himself, “Do I know how to cook these?” In this way he has become a better chef.

Two days after his return, Polcyn caters an important dinner at the residence of one of his restaurant’s investors who is celebrating the closing of a multi-million-dollar business deal. The investor wants a special evening and asks Polcyn to create a menu befitting the occasion. Polcyn begins the meal with a smoked chicken consommé with brunoise vegetables and rich chicken quenelles. But a consommé foremost, he says, smiling, his teeth grit, “because last time I made consommé, they didn’t like it.” He watches as the soup is served. One guest lowers is head before the bowl and with both hands sweeps the steam into his face. He smiles. So does Polcyn. Now he’s cooking.

War Zone: Celebrities vs. C.M.C.s

“There are some great Certified Master Chefs, but how many of them run successful restaurants?” —Charlie Trotter, chef/owner, Charlie Trotter’s, Chicago

“Those who criticize it are worries and scared to put their name on the line,” –Hartmut Handke, Certifies Master Chef, chef/owner, Handke’s Cuisine, Columbus, Ohio

A wall has arisen between two hostile camps over the issue of the Certified Master Chef exam. Certified Master Chefs are perpetually vexed by the popularity and attention given to a chef like Trotter, who has no formal training but is accorded the kind of accolades usually reserved for movie stars and athletes. Those chefs who dismiss the C.M.C. exam usually do so without any real understanding of the test itself and without any inclination to find out, prejudiced by the stereotype of the old-guard European male chef struggling for hours on his partridge chartreuse and his cold buffet platter quivering within aspic armor. That, and the nagging fact that few C.M.C.s run high-profile restaurants.

“I think it’s a valid test,” Trotter says. But, he adds, “I’ve sensed some resentment toward myself and other so-called celebrity chefs.”

“I think that saying these guys can’t run successful restaurants is not really the way to approach it,” says Victor Gielisse, a C.M.C. with a consulting business in Dallas and former chef/owner of the restaurant Actuelle. “Come in and observe it. Come and show yourself there. It’s very easy to ignore something and to criticize it.”

“I think the test is great,” offers David Burke, executive chef of Park Avenue Café in New York City. “It’s got a lot to do with theory and technique that a lot of restaurant chefs never get to learn. What we’re always talking about is what’s new. What they’re taking about is what’s old, old meaning enduring.”