Percy Whatley Takes Us Inside His Training for the Certified Master Chef Exam, The Toughest Test in Cooking
by Percy Whatley, Toqueland Contributor
[Editor’s Note: Toqueland is proud to present our first guest contributor, Percy Whatley, Executive Chef of The Ahwahnee in Yosemite National Park, California. Percy is preparing for one of the most grueling challenges a toque can attempt: the Certified Master Chef exam. The exam is notoriously difficult (just watch the embedded video below to get a sense of what he's in for), and there is no certainty of passing (only five of twelve candidates made the grade in 2010), so, I’m especially grateful that Percy has agreed to put it out there and chronicle his CMC training for Toqueland over the next year and a half. Herewith, his first monthly installment.- Andrew]
Greetings, residents of Toqueland.
I am writing to you from the Denver airport, on my way back to Yosemite from my first training session for the Certified Master Chef exam. This journal entry was begun in a Cleveland hotel and finished here in Colorado. I’d have done it back at my desk at The Ahwahnee, but this is an extracurricular activity and my “normal” life will swallow me up the moment I return to The Ahwahnee, so it’s now or never.
A few years ago, Kevin Doherty, chef of Boston’s TD Garden, which like the Ahwahnee is a Delaware North Companies property, and I were nominated by Chef Roland Henin, our corporate chef and mentor, and a Certified Master Chef (CMC) himself, to be the “chosen ones” and be supported in the venture of training and developing with the goal of passing the Certified Master Chef exam. The CMC exam takes place over eight days and 130 hours, and includes challenges in disciplines ranging from Classical Cuisine to Buffet Catering to Freestyle to Global Cuisine to Bakery and Pastry. (Read more about it here.) Only 66 people have attained the level of CMC: one is Roland himself, who famously mentored Thomas Keller; another is Richard Rosendale, who just became the US candidate to the Bocuse d’Or 2013.
We hadn’t been able to find the time to start down the CMC path in the intervening years, but not too long ago, our corporate bosses sat us down at a long and important-seeming table and explained that the time had come: They wanted us to dig in and start prepping for the CMC, the plan being that we’d tandem train, meeting up periodically to cook together and critique each other while offering moral support and, when necessary, commiseration.
Who were we to argue? Let the adventure begin!
Kevin and I are typical chefs in that we are ever-mindful of costs. Usually, we’re talking food costs, but in this case, we were trying to minimize travel expenditures, so we presented a plan in which we’d take turns visiting each other’s professional homes so that during each training session, one of us would have a “zero distraction” environment. The committee went us one better, suggesting that we identify a “neutral” ground where we could both be free of daily concerns. We took them up on the offer, resolving to spend a week per month some place between our two coasts, where we would cook, develop, and train together.
For our first session, we settled on Cleveland’s Progressive Field, a DNC property and home of the Cleveland Indians. We both arrived in Cleveland on February 1, after long workdays and complicated travel itineraries, mine involving a two-hour drive and two-connection flight plan. We were dazed and confused, but we rented a car and snaked our way downtown to the hulking Progressive Field. Since we are between baseball seasons, Progressive is what’s known in the industry as a “dark building,” meaning there are no events or games scheduled there. It’s cold and dark and the cinderblock corridors are eerily empty and quiet: We could hear the electric hum as each light we flicked on warmed up. We felt like we were starring in a post-apocalyptic action movie or zombie saga, except that we were the walking dead… and we hadn’t even sliced our first onion yet.
We unpacked our tools and equipment, and arranged the ingredients we planned on cooking according to the day that we were going to work with them. Then, we realized that we had nothing left to give. We split, and, over a light dinner, discussed what we were going to cook over the next two days: We had chosen Classical Cuisine as the discipline to work on this week because it’s the most challenging area, requiring you to cook directly from the most famous cookbook of all time, Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire. As its name indicates, it’s not a cookbook, but a guide; it doesn’t spell out techniques or presentation. I liken it to sheet music: Escoffier is the composer; you are the musician.
In the Classical Cuisine portion of the CMC exam, you have four hours to cook and 30 minutes to serve 10 portions of a consommé, a fish course, and a relevé, or main course. That probably doesn’t sound very difficult, but consider that you need to present six portions in Russian-style (platter) service and four composed plates for the stern-faced judges, guys who wear the CMC initials you covet on their white jackets, to evaluate. (A number of chefs also patrol the kitchen making notes as you work; see the video featured above for a look at that and other aspects of the exam.) You try keeping all that in mind and not second-guessing your palate, or keeping your hands from trembling when the moment of truth arrives.
To maximize our time together we agreed to cook two “poulet sauté” (sautéed chicken) preparations. Amusingly, though we decided separately, we both chose the same first preparation: Poulet Sauté à la Hongroise (Hungarian-style, the sauce finished with paprika and tomato). For our second preparations, I chose Poulet Sauté Doria (accompanied by cucumbers stewed in butter), and Kevin chose Poulet Sauté Stanley (sauced with onions cooked in stock, then finished with a little cream and pinch of curry). We also chose, though would not be cooking this week, a soup, a lobster course and a salad, all from the great book.
We had breakfast at 8am in the hotel and made the two-block walk to the field. This would be our life for the next two days. The wisdom of selecting a neutral location was already apparent: our universe had been whittled down to this little pocket of Cleveland where all there would be was cooking, sleep, and more cooking. It felt like we never left those tunnels at Progressive, and that’s a good thing. (We scarcely even needed to shop because one of our Regional Chefs counterparts at DNC is James Major, a buoyantly funny guy with a heart the size of Lake Eerie, who had his team prepare some stocks. The rest of the food, Kevin had shipped from Boston and a quick trip to the local Whole Foods provided the rest. .. or so we thought.)
To say the least, there are some things lost in translation when putting practical cooking to the test of what Escoffier intended. If you’ve read Le Guide Culinaire, then you know what I’m talking about: The day presented one challenge after another, and not just creatively. Because Progressive was dark, anything we forgot to ship or shop for was simply not there—we kicked ourselves for not having shallots or parsley, two things you’d be able to help yourself to in any functioning kitchen. Also, since Progressive is not a fine-dining venue, there was a real dearth of small cooking vessels: the smallest pot on hand was a single four-quart saucepan, which presented some problems in, say, micro-reductions, which require you to employ an ever-smaller series of saucepans. (Going forward, we’ll both have an equipment box that we ship from training site to training site.)
We managed to pull our platters together, but didn’t come anywhere near a Master Chef-level presentation—our techniques and flavors were sound, but the service window, especially the last five to ten minutes, really tripped us up. When we looked back over our stations at the end, we also realized that we’d left a mess. “What happened there?” I thought. No CMC proctor would be impressed with the state of our kitchen at the end of service.
Nonetheless, it was a great day: We both run huge enterprises at which we’re the boss, the chief, the chef. By the end of this session, we felt like utter newbies, like we were back at our first day in cooking school, getting oriented, learning the ropes, trying not to embarrass ourselves. It’s a good feeling. It’s important to shake up your world every now and then.
The following day went much better and we felt much more comfortable, though not near the level the test will require. We decided to focus on some of the required dishes for the exam, such as a consommé classically garnished according to Le Guide, a Consommé Princesse, garnished with a royal custard enriched with sweet pea purée, a shrimp omelet (you have to make a shrimp butter to finish the creamy sauce at the last minute), and guinea fowl with Suc de Mandarine (a jus reduced to a glace, then enriched with Mandarin juice). Because we will be furnished with a commis (assistant) for the actual exam, we shot for six hours of cooking and a 30 minute window of service, which we accomplished, though not to perfection. When it was all over, we looked at each other and searched for a way to express our status. We agreed that we were 100 times better than the day before, but 1,000 times removed from where we need to be. Not the most comforting thought, but we all need to start somewhere.
I’ll write to you all again after our next session in March, where we’ll stage a mock Classical Cuisine exam at Chicago’s Soldier Field. Acting as our judge will be Roland Henin himself. It’ll be tough cooking in front of the master, but that’s what we’ve signed up for and that’s what we’re going to do. Between now and March we’ll each be taking every opportunity in our own kitchens to sharpen our skills, focusing just a little bit more intensely on everything we do on a daily basis.
See you next month . ..