A Pinch of This, a Dash of That to Win a Pin
Adam Busby pivots abruptly from counter to range. Face flushed, he flips fillets into a crackling pan.
Minutes are ticking down for him to finish the meal of his life. But his gnocchi remains uncooked, his pork unsliced.
Five hours ago, Busby was given some basic ingredients -- pork butt, red mullet, cabbage and little else -- and told to make magic.
It was, in effect, his final exam after days of braising, baking and sudden-death menu making, as he and a few others worked to earn the designation of Certified Master Chef, the super-select top rung of American cooking.
But first, the 40-year-old chef must pull this off.
“Where’d the pan go?”
He finds and grabs it, slices the pork, calls for sage.
A judge shouts a warning:
The Certified Master Chef test runs 10 days from dawn to dark at the Culinary Institute of America’s campus by the Hudson River.
It shares some traits with the bar exam, a marathon, “Iron Chef,” boot camp and murder mysteries where characters get picked off one by one. But it is unique for its under-the-gun cooking trials. Chefs must produce the finest tournedos, tortillas and mahi mahi day after day to leave with a black master chef pin on their double-breasted whites and the “CMC” after their names.
The five candidates who took the test this year -- successful chefs who manage country club restaurants and teach -- paid $3,000 each plus expenses.
And some of them, they knew, would not pass.
Cooking begins before dawn on Day 2.
As students in paper toques get the kitchen ready, master chef candidates huddle with their apprentices across the hall offering fine points on marinades and parsley prep.
Candidates were each given a different “mystery basket” of ingredients -- perhaps monkfish, pork or rabbit.
They are told to create a four-course menu in 30 minutes, observing strict limits on calories, fat, protein, carbohydrates and sodium. Then, the chefs must cook the meal -- for 10 -- in four hours.
“I’m going out on a limb here,” said Busby, deciding to write a Thai menu.
The other test-takers are James Corwell, 36, on the faculty at the culinary institute’s Greystone campus in California, as is Busby; Paul Ramsey, executive chef at a North Carolina golf resort; Aidan Murphy, executive chef at a St. Louis country club, and a Midwestern chef who would drop out about halfway through.
Chefs work in stations a spatula toss from each other. As apprentices skitter by with hot pots, Busby quickly pans rabbit, grates a lime peel and builds his meal.
Watching it all with a pencil and clipboard is Russell Scott, one of the master chefs judging the candidates.
Today he considers kitchen craft. He notes knife cuts. He dips a spoon into saucepans. He pokes his pencil through garbage-bound pans of stalks and peels.
Over the hours, dishes of braised monkfish and herb-crusted beef are coming together. At the end, the candidates place their food on plates so it can be whisked down the hall for judging.
“Take it away,” Ramsey says for a salad, only to instantly shout, “Wait!” He forgot spiced almonds on some plates.
With less than a minute left, Busby is still garnishing his soup. The limb he’s gone out on might be breaking. But he gets it out just under the wire and high-fives his apprentice.
The relief doesn’t last long. In the judging room later, a stern-faced Victor Gielisse paces before two long tables that look like a dream buffet of calamari and glazed pork loin laid out on white china.
He motions to these concoctions as if they were blue-plate specials.
“This spinach here,” he says, “full of sand!”
Other judges’ comments can be just as tough: limp flavors, undercooked lamb, the food tasted hurried.
The master chef candidates are warned: They must do better if they expect to pass.
Of 2 million trained cooks in the United States, about 60 are certified master chefs.
Although many chefs are great at, say, Mediterranean or Southwest cooking, a master chef must excel in American, classical and international cuisines, as well as cold buffets and nutritional cooking. Minor sections of the test deal with things like wines and cost control. Masters must do everything well.
Candidates spend the months leading up to the test consumed with cookbooks and fine points of charcuterie. Murphy jogged to build endurance. Corwell, who is lean, tried to put on a few pounds for extra fuel.
All prepared by cooking. Busby and Corwell even practiced timed cooking drills with a master chef.
“For the last year, it’s in the back of my mind every time I take a knife out,” Busby said.
Spanish onions are straight ahead. Chervil and apples are in the coolers to the left, beans to the right.
Another day, another mystery basket. Another assignment: a three-course American meal. The chefs can pick extra ingredients from a storeroom, but they only have 20 minutes.
Corwell, jotting notes and moving double-time, feels as if he’s in a reality TV show. He grabs one red pepper -- no, two. Four limes. Are there plantains?
The test is getting harder. Candidates have little time to think. Good decisions, and good cooking, must come instinctively. Fail two major segments and you’re out. One candidate withdrew the night before.
Fatigue is causing Corwell to forget things he knows. “It’s like I fall into potholes,” he said.
By evening, even the judges are drinking triple espressos.
Busby, with his tall frame, seems to bound from burner to counter -- “almost thrashing,” one judge says later. Corwell, by contrast, grills his goose with economy of movement. Murphy looks over his shoulder at the clock.
Not enough time.
Murphy will miss his window, costing him crucial points on a night that he will fail. He not only manages to smile amid his misfortune, but embraces his disappointed apprentice.
“You did a good job,” Murphy said. “It’s one of those days.”
At judging this night, Corwell’s goose is deemed chewy. Ramsey’s sausage is compared to meatloaf. But the dressing down of Day 2 has given way to collegial one-on-one reviews. Busby gets kudos for having “the eye of the tiger” in the kitchen. Gielisse, so dismissive on Day 2, is avuncular.
“You need to take a deep breath,” he tells Corwell, “and pop a couple of Motrins.”
The Certified Master Chef Exam was created in 1981 by the American Culinary Federation, a professional group. As American cooking came of age, chefs wanted to create a meaningful master standard like those in Europe, only tougher.
“In America, we needed to be above anything and everything so we could stand up to the scrutiny,” said Ferdinand Metz, a driving force in the standards and an early CMC.
Still, many great chefs never take the test. Big names in cooking -- Paul Prudhomme, Wolfgang Puck -- are not certified masters.
Of those who do take the test, more than 8 of 10 fail.
Chef Anthony Bourdain, author of “Kitchen Confidential,” says the test, which stresses rarely used techniques like making aspic, is sneered at by restaurant chefs, although he admires people who do it.
Metz says the standards have helped American cooking. Test takers are serious about the craft, he says, and willing to risk failure. There are chefs with fame and fortune who won’t assume that risk, he says.
Day 10 is like capping nine days of mountain climbing with cliff scaling. It accounts for half a candidate’s score.
A morning devoted to cooking is just the warmup for one final mystery basket.
The day is do or die for Murphy and Ramsey, who each failed one major section. Busby and Corwell have passed everything and can get a pin tonight with a strong showing.
In the kitchen, Corwell cuts up a veal shoulder. Murphy snips open Arctic char. The “shik, shik” of knives sharpening is drowned out by shrieking blenders.
Corwell makes crabmeat ravioli like a jeweler, hunching down close as he cuts out perfect round pillows. The strain shows in his glassy eyes.
Busby bellies to the floor to retrieve a pan lid under his stove. To make it through this last day, he sets a picture of his wife and baby daughter on his counter.
Busby conjures a complex meal with seared red mullet and milk-braised pork. But he has lost crucial minutes during menu-writing by requesting items not available.
Will it cost him when it’s time to put the food on plates? As Busby works, apprentice Christopher Lyons reaches over his shoulder to pan-flip the gnocchi.
Scott calls, “15 seconds!”
Busby is still garnishing. Proctors look on gravely, but Busby is consciously taking advantage of each second.
He waves off the last plate as time expires.
Judging lasts into the evening, leaving the four chefs to stew in their juices.
Ramsey is called in first. He didn’t make it.
Murphy gets the bad news next. “Hey, it was only 10 days of my life,” he said.
Corwell is called, leaving Busby pacing.
The mood is grim until Corwell comes back holding a master chef certificate. The apprentices applaud.
“I did it,” the smiling chef exclaimed.
Busby enters the judging room next.
When he emerges a short time later, he’s beaming. He stretches his arm over the shoulders of Lyons, his apprentice, and the pair lurch down the hall like giddy drunks.
A black pin is attached to Busby’s whites.