It’s Not Just About Certification—It’s About Learning

By | October 11th, 2017

Edward Leonard, Director of Culinary Operations and Executive Chef at The Polo Club of Boca Raton, believes certification furthers learning—and that’s what matters most.

I recently read Joanna DeChellis’ Editor’s Memo on certification and it caused me to pause and ponder the age-old debate about certification.

In her piece, she asks if being certified will make the member experience better, if having a CMC on staff will matter to the members and if the chef’s certification will make the food any better. Here’s the thing: Being certified matters if you make it matter and if it forces you to continue to learn, to push to be the best you can be and to give back to the culinary community.

This debate is funny to me as I strongly believe in the process of getting certified and what it means for a cook. I know my DNA and how I’m built. With or without my CMC, I would be the way I am. That said, taking the exam, preparing for the exam, being part of the circle has and will continue to open doors for me.

I’ll give you this: Where certifications might be lacking is the inclusion of the word “chef.” Being a “chef” means many more things than simply being able to cook. Certification is only a test of one’s craft skills—not of being a chef.

When I was ACF President, I made it part of our five-year plan to make certification more meaningful. We revamped the program so that all levels of certification would have to go through practical testing with other chefs in a kitchen in order to earn a certification. To receive paper certification without work or effort only serves to boost someone’s ego and, in truth, puts a stain on those who work hard for their certifications. Receiving a chef certification, whether global or other, but not having to take an exam and prove your skill is a farce.

But those who attempt to earn certification must study, prepare, and practice. The adage “practice makes perfect” is no lie. The process makes the individual a better cook as he or she learns or relearns lost skills. When it comes to the CMC exam, there are no shortcuts. And in the end, pass or fail, you will be a better cook afterward than you were before you started.

Too many club chefs do not push themselves. They do not take the time to learn and evolve. They do not understand trends and certification wouldn’t matter to their members because it doesn’t matter to the chef. Many of these chefs, even with long tenure, are let go because they do not advance the program. They do not raise the bar year after year or try to evolve. They get complacent. And the club sector is competitive. GMs and members want their programs to better than other clubs or restaurants in town.

And so, Joanna, yes, the food will be better if it’s prepared by a chef who is certified or is working to become certified. And, yes, the member experience will be better as well. The culinary world values a CMC certification for a reason and many industries, including ours, pay CMCs a higher salary than those not certified.

When I became a CMC, I accepted my responsibility to train, mentor, inspire and give back. This has furthered my learning. I have since mentored five culinarians who are now CMCs. And they have mentored countless others. I have found that the majority of chefs who have earned the CMC designation have a powerful drive. They push to learn. They thrive under the pressure of three initials that demand they be of a certain standard. Does this mean that chefs who do not have the initials don’t push, learn, or try to be better? Of course not. The culinary world is vast, it has many talented chefs from all levels, certified or not.

But the question of whether or not certification matters is simple. It matters. No, it’s not for everyone. It comes down to a personal choice and those without certification can be successful. But learning matters more. And certification furthers learning. I have said many times that I may be a teacher and a mentor, but I will always remain a student of the craft and profession.

Education—whether it is studying for an exam, entering a competition, visiting another club chef to see what he or she is doing, going to a conference, reading, web searching and even listening and watching your team—is paramount. As is respect and camaraderie.

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4 Responses to It’s Not Just About Certification—It’s About Learning

  1. Chef Edward very well written

  2. Andy Lehmann says:

    Master Chefs Leonard and Holzer.

    I am a student that learned at an adult age the importance of what a Chef is and what it means to certify. I was overly impressed by learning at Schoolcraft College with 5 CMC’s who oversaw my advancement. It was only through mistakes, retrying, and creating again for them that pushed my goal of eventually certifying into a reality.

    Since Certifying to the level of CEC my learning curve has only jumped higher with CEH’s and further pushing myself to be better. Certifying was a choice and something I felt necessary in my career. Further, having witnessed the CMC exam last weekend, I know that what was asked of those Chefs to achieve was the utmost in talent and education they had prepared with for the test. How awesome to see educated, talented, certified professionals pursue excellence.

  3. Arno Schmidt says:

    Having a goal in life is important and for many people getting three letters attached to their names is a worthwhile achievement. Studying, learning and having an open mind is needed in all trades and professions. The problem is that the ACF has gone way overboard with creating a clutter of needless titles and classifications. Cooking should be compared to art and is judged by what humans – our customers – like and dislike. The certification judges can judge technical skills but are human beings and judge by their experience, ethical background and eating preferences, and cannot claim that they represent the likes and dislikes of all people in the world. You can’t tell chefs what is right or wrong, the customers decide. Gastronomy is based on harmony of food, service and the environment.

  4. Alan Lazar says:

    Great article!!

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