Becoming a Master Chef

A popular reality show, Master Chef, pits amateur chefs against each other, enduring grueling culinary tasks in order to attain the title of “Master Chef.” The American version of the show is hosted by Chef Gordon Ramsay and begins its third season on the FOX television network. The show began in the UK in 1990 and its increasing appeal has spawned several different versions of Master Chef such as Master Chef, Junior Master Chef and Celebrity Master Chef in many countries, including Australia, India, Finland, Norway, Italy, France, Greece, Turkey, Germany, and Vietnam.

Master Chef

Perhaps, because of the show’s widespread audience and popularity, the phrase, “master chef” is too often used casually. Most people are unaware that a Master Chef is actually a professional classification.

The word “chef” comes from the French phrase, chef de cuisine which means chief of the kitchen. Today, “chef” refers to professional cooks of any rank. Like many other professions, there are different levels of achievement designated for chefs. At the top of the pecking order is the Head Chef, responsible for everything that relates to the kitchen, including personnel management, ordering and purchasing the inventory and the creation of the menu.

The Sous chef is next in command and directly assists the Head Chef, organising schedules, covering the Head Chef’s duties when he is away, and filling in and assisting the Line Cook when necessary. The Sous chef manages inventory, employee training, as well as the kitchen’s sanitation and organization and is responsible for carrying out the commands of the Head Chef, for checking the lines and for rotation of all products.


The Kitchen Brigade


Next in the kitchen hierarchy is the Chef de partie, also known as a Station Chef or Line cook. This person is responsible for a specific area of the kitchen. Larger operations may employ several cooks and assistants, but most only have a station chef working in that area. For larger operations, there is a designation of first cook, second cook, and so on, dividing the workers into their ranks. In a particularly large kitchen, the commis chef is the basic chef who directly assists the Station Chef. This may be an apprentice, or someone who recently finished culinary education, and is training to learn all of the station’s duties and functions.

Station Chef titles are fairly self explanatory. They include the saute chef, fish chef, roast chef, grill chef, fry chef, vegetable chef, pantry chef, butcher, pastry chef. The rounds man, swing cook or Tourant Chef, fills in as needed at the different stations.

At the bottom of the pecking order are the two types of kitchen assistants; kitchen hands and stewards. Kitchen hands assist with any unskilled tasks, such as peeling vegetables or washing greens. Stewards tasks include general washing, cleaning and scullery duties.

Becoming a Master Chef

Not every kitchen has a Master Chef. A Master Chef is the highest ranking that an American chef can attain and is a difficult honor to achieve. There are less than 100 Master Chefs in the United States who can boast this level of distinction.

Only the American Culinary Federation (ACF) can bestow the title of Certified Master Chef. The first requirement to become a CMC is becoming certified as an executive head chef, pastry chef or culinary educator. Master Chefs in waiting must be sure to have completed all prerequisites listed on the American Culinary Foundation website before applying to take the Master Chef examination.

The second requirement is passing the exam. This test is held only once per year, lasts for eight days and is extremely challenging. Examinees must demonstrate knowledge and proficient execution of anything that includes the classical technique. They must be skilled in food preparation and demonstrate a mastery of sanitation and safe kitchen practices.

Master Chef applicants should study the manual that can be found on the ACF website. According the AFC website, the testing categories are; healthy cooking, buffet catering, classical cuisine, freestyle cooking, global cuisine, baking and pastry, continental and northern Europe cuisines, and market basket.

The eight segments are each graded in two parts; kitchen skills and presentation and tasting. Examinees must achieve a minimum of 75 points out of 100 for each section. Candidates are ineligible to continue the exam if they fail any segment. Each section’s content and activities are described in the manual, so that the master chef in waiting can prepare adequately for each portion. Master Chefs in waiting should practice their basic skills, such as knife work. They should also be physically and mentally prepared for an extremely grueling testing schedule.

It is a good idea for candidates to secure funding for the CMC exam. The application for the exam requires a non refundable deposit of $300 that is applied toward the total test fee, which, in 2012, is $3,800. The Master Chef in waiting can expect a total cost for the exam to be between $4,000 and $6,000, taking travel, room and board into consideration. The application can be found on the American Culinary Federations official website.

To apply, the candidate must submit a completed application, a letter of intent to take the exam, letters of recommendation from two Certified Master Chefs. Candidates should also include a letter of support from their current employer and an updated resume.
There is also a certification for pastry chefs, for those who prefer preparing desserts. Though the process is rigorous and the cost is steep, becoming a Certified Master Chef is a prestigious accomplishment. Certified Master Chefs are in elite and rare company. Of the twelve candidates who began the CMC exam in 2010, only five chefs received certification.

In 2011, the Bureau of Labour Statistics reported that chefs earn between $25,000 and $75,000, with a median salary of about $42,000. The notoriety of having the rank of CMC can boost a chefs potential salary, toward the upper end of that spectrum, as well as help acquire investors for those elite chefs who are interested in owning their own restaurant.