TCC faculty members are almost as much learners as they are teachers. Those degrees or certificates or whatever qualified them to teach may have been issued decades ago, but they continue, on their own, to increase their knowledge and skills.
Few, however, go as far as Sherry Sipho, Katrina Warner and Alison Hodges of TCC Southeast’s Culinary program have done, putting themselves through the rigor of demonstrating what they’ve learned to a team of outside evaluators as they seek certification from the American Culinary Federation (ACF).
Hodges, already a Certified Pastry Chef, hopes to advance to the rank of Executive Pastry Chef. Warner, although she has excelled in numerous competitions, has yet to receive a certification. She’s aiming to be a Certified Executive Chef. Sipho seeks certification, her first, as Chef de Cuisine, a mid-range accolade.
TCC doesn’t require ACF certification. It doesn’t affect tenure, promotion or salary. So why put themselves through such an ordeal?
“It’s a bucket list thing for me,” Hodges said, adding that it’s also sort of a homage to a good friend who passed away. “She was always nudging me to do this, so every time I mess up practicing, I call upon her to kind of push me, help me mentally.”
Sipho said that she decided when her children finished high school and college, that it was her turn. She earned her culinary arts degree at Southeast and, after adding her bachelor’s and master’s degrees, joined the TCC faculty. “It’s not for show,” she said of the certification, “but I’m always encouraging our students to join ACF and get that certification. Then I thought, ‘You’re telling them to do this and you’re not even doing it?'”
Warner said that ACF certification is something she had long put off, but that the accreditation process undergone by TCC has “shown me how important it is to be certified, to show what you know. Anybody can walk around and say, ‘I’m a chef,’ but this actually shows that you put in the work, put in the time and you can say that, yes, you are a chef.”
Certification requires much more than the practical exam demonstration. Depending on the level sought, candidates must furnish extensive documentation of education and experience before even being allowed to go through the process. Additional continuing education classes may be required. But the practical exam is considered the make-or-break time when candidates are challenged to show, not tell, what they can do.
That’s why they had some butterflies on a Saturday in June when waiting for the practical exam, one of the most difficult hurdles to earning certification from the American Culinary Federation (ACF). Hodges worried that the room would be too warm, and her chocolate truffles would melt. Warner fretted about having every component of her entree and then getting them to mesh. Sipho wasn’t bothered by the actual cooking, but she was skittish about working under the eyes of the evaluators, “walking and watching.”
“I wouldn’t trade places with them,” said Nellda Gallagher, a fellow faculty member who holds three ACF certifications. “But I went through it, survived, and have the scars to prove it.”TCC Southeast is one of only five ACF practical exam sites in Texas, and Gallagher is in charge of everything from the paperwork to ensuring the kitchens are prepared to rounding up the outside evaluators to photographing the final products. The facility can manage nine applicants and was maxed out, some of them coming from as far away as Houston and Corpus Christi.
The exam is intended to challenge the candidate’s ability, under the stress of a time limit, to create whatever dish or dishes are required. The candidates know ahead of time what they’re assigned and can bring with them all the ingredients pre-measured but not combined in any way. Similarly, they can have washed, but not cut, their fruit or vegetables and meats must wait to be carved.
Everything must be completed in three hours with points taken off for excess time. Too many penalties, and you fail the exam. It’s not an arbitrary criterion. “That’s the benchmark because that’s the way it is as a real chef,” Gallagher said. “We’ve all sat at a table thinking, ‘Where’s my food?'”
The three had been practicing for weeks, making their dishes over and over, trying to improve bit by bit. It was an outlay not only of time but of money, especially since some of the ingredients were costly, including — for Warner — lobsters fresh from Central Market.
Evaluators look at every facet of the process — the candidate’s skill with knives and other tools, the cooking techniques called for, proper sanitation practices, choice of plates and other dishes, how the final products are displayed, and, finally, the taste and texture. Just as the proof of the pudding is said to be in the eating, taste is the largest factor in scoring — 40 percent.
The moment of truth arrives when candidates stand behind the final product like soldiers at attention, while the evaluators deliver the critique — positives and negatives. “It’s really intense,” Gallagher said. “They explain everything they noticed, and you don’t know until they’re done whether you passed or not.”
The good news is that they all did.
So, was it about what they expected?
Sipho’s dreaded evaluators “just talked to us like regular people. It was a very kind atmosphere. I was a little nervous when I first started, but after that, I went, ‘Oh, I’m good.'”
Hodges’ chocolate truffles didn’t melt. In fact, the room was so cool, she said, that “I was getting ready to dip my truffles, and I looked over, and they had set (hardened). I had to redo them. But overall, I really did have a very good day.”
“It was very nerve-racking,” Warner said, “but the overall result was … we passed, we all passed. And I’m so happy and so excited and so relieved.”
And so, is anyone up for seeking an even higher certification?
“I don’t know,” Sipho said. “I told Nellda one and done, but you know. My mother always told me never say never.”