After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) in 1982, I became a pastry chef. I have 20 years of strong industry experience, including over 8 years as an Executive Pastry Chef for Hyatt Hotels (Grand Hyatt Tampa, Hyatt Regency Scottsdale on Gainey Ranch). Twenty years ago, I began my own company, Food and Health Communications, researching and developing healthy recipes and cooking methods and producing educational materials .
One day, I was visiting the CIA website. I am not sure why; maybe to find a picture of the school to show a friend. But I will never forget my reaction when I stumbled upon their ProChef Certification program. My reaction was nothing short of, "I want that!"
And so my ProChef journey at the CIA began.
Since graduation from the CIA along with my work experience gave me ProChef Level I status, I was able to commence the program at Level II. From the start, I was optimistic; of the four major culinary competencies listed, I already had two in my pocket: baking/pastry and healthy cooking. I was delighted to see that ProChef II required a command of Mediterranean cooking. Honestly, returning to school had begun as a fun idea. I felt that listing ProChef Level II certification on my FoodAndHealth.com website would be impressive. But now I realized that learning Mediterranean cooking methods would benefit my business. And it would be fun to brush up on the fourth, Garde Manger.
So I printed out the study guide and bought some books and videos on the CIA list. I signed up for two CIA classes: 1) Mediterranean Cuisine: Ingredients and Techniques class and 2) Charcuterie. Then I picked a December 2005 test date for ProChef II.
I found a great resource in David Edens, a California-based chef who took the ProChef II exam and was listed on the CIA site as a success story. He gave me many helpful tips. But he also gave me a wake-up call: ProChef II involves taking 11 tests over four days. It sounded pretty tough. I even learned that ProChef II is a stepping stone to the Certified Master Chef test! (Only 61 chefs have passed that test in more than 20 years in the US!)
While I was at the CIA for the Mediterranean cooking class, I made good use of my time. Before each class, I spent the whole day in the library working on the study exam. I also studied the history and culture of the Mediterranean region. The Mediterranean class was taught by Certified Master Chef Ken Arnone. I really enjoyed preparing and eating all of the tapas and many wonderful authentic foods from 7 of the main Mediterranean countries. I also ate at all the restaurants on campus daily for new ideas and great food. The Ristorante Caterina de' Medici was a favorite! But not far behind were the Apple Pie Bakery Cafe, Escoffier, St. Andrew's Cafe and the American Bounty Restaurant. I also went back up a second time to the CIA for the Charcuterie, Smokehouse and Condiment Workshop with Chef Instructor David Kamen. Charcuterie proved to be a great decision since I had not made sausage, pate or ham since my days at the CIA. Now I was really working hard on my study guide. I talked to many instructors and was surprised at how readily they were willing to share information and tips.
Two weeks before the ProChef II test, I was cooking all day, every day to practice. I made pâté and fabricated meat and fish. I practiced making many dishes in Mediterranean cuisine style, and brushed up on skills for baking, healthy cooking and garde manger.
Test week was challenging. The mornings were packed with taking tests, preparing garde manger food items and making menus and prep lists. The evenings were spent on cooking exams, which didn't get us out of the kitchen until 7 or 8 p.m. And after that I had to scurry back to the room for more study - I remember being hungry a few times because there just was not time to eat.
The first day was baking. I figured it would feel nice to "come out of the gate" on familiar ground. But even that test was challenging for a veteran baker like me. Why? First, you're in a different kitchen from your own with different equipment, ingredients and conditions. Second, you have people watching you. You have to work quickly, neatly and efficiently while under pressure. You have to serve everything on time. And finally, you have to discuss your day's performance: why and how you made your dishes and what you would do differently the next time.
At the end of each day, I would learn if I passed and was still in the running. I would be relieved when I passed. But I then I would worry about the next day and I would fall asleep studying for the next test!
By the last day of ProChef II, however, I came to really appreciate the grueling experience - I don't think I had more than 3 or 4 hours sleep on any one night. The chefs cared so much about helping us. They went above and beyond to share their knowledge. They emphasized flavor and purpose and the craft of the kitchen that makes us chefs. I learned a lot from them and from my colleagues!
Our moderating chef told us on the first day that the ProChef II experience would make us much better chefs. He was right.
Honestly, I went into this ProChef Level II certification looking to get a snazzy little plug for my website. But I got so much more. It really wasn't about the destination; it was about the journey. I acquired a much greater awareness for my cooking and a finer skill level. The CIA chef instructors treated us all as if we were all future candidates for the Certified Master Chef exam which was a lot of pressure but I like to be pushed to see what I can do. We even had a guest master chef address the class. He had so much wisdom and insight on how to make food taste good and look good and just make sense. He gave us a critique as though we were taking his test. I learned so much and am grateful for that.
I would like to someday travel in the Mediterranean and learn even more about the food. I want to visit the spice market of Istanbul. I will concentrate more on making my knife cuts more perfect instead of just going through the motions to chop everything quickly. I really love my trade all over again.
I want to go back to the CIA for more continuing education. And of course I want to take the ProChef Level III course. I look forward to learning Asian, Latin and classes for pairing wine with food and creating a chef's market basket.
Here are some photo highlights:
Pix above include: a healthy cooking test - The salad is Fatoush - it is an Egyptian salad with chopped herbs, romaine, cucumbers, sundried tomatoes and feta cheese - complete with whole grain pita triangles. The entree in the middle contains: Moujadra with Carmelized Onions, Spiced Winter Squash and Roasted Peppers for the vegetarian entree. I took an Egyptian theme and these are actually my favorite foods to make and eat - I was inspired from a Mediterranean restaurant in Miami that prepares them. Dessert was delicious and light: Pears with Dried Fruit in a Spiced Vanilla Broth.
The rolls are from the baking test. And to the right of those are the chocolate eclairs, cream puffs and pastry cream. I also had to make pound cake, pie shells, more rolls and Parisian Breasts in the 4 hour time period.
The buffet on the left is from the Mediterranean test. We were given a grab bag of a country, cooking method and meat and we had to prepare authentic dishes. I was given Greece, grilling and lamb. YUMMY! So I created lamb kabobs with three dips: cucumber yogurt, hummus and eggplant dip. The buffet on the right is the final day's work - the pate platter from the Garde Manger test. Complete with pork pate, cheddar walnut crackers, pickled grapes, ketchup from scratch and green bean salad. And no, it was NOT healthy!
Special thanks to:
Rudy Speckamp, CMC - for all of his lessons during testing - he has a very sharp eye and a lot of knowledge
Ken Arnone, CMC - for a wonderful class on Mediterranean cooking complete with stories and pictures of his travels to the area and his stories of the CMC test
Mark Ainsworth, CHE - for his guidance to all of us during our tests
David Bruno, PCIII, CEC, CHE - CIA Chef Instructor who passed ProChef2 with flying colors - I learned a lot from watching him
David Kamen, PCCIII, CCE, CHE - great instructor who helped a lot with our Charcuterie Clas at the CIA and who helped me get ready for the test
Hinnerk von Bargen, CHE - for his enthusiasm and encouragement during our testing
David Edens, PCIII - for his advice as a PCII finisher
Tama Murphy - for her help with the management portions of the study guide
To my son and family for their countless hours of sacrifice to make sure I made it to the finish! Our best memory is the chocolate eclairs - my son insisted on eating those for breakfast and for putting them in his lunchbox - he still talks about them!