Culinary school wasn’t in the cards. They became cooks anyway.

by Jocelyn Tolbert // photos by Sandy Neal and Dina Altieri

Sandy Neal always had a passion for life.

Traveling abroad in Spain and France, he fell in love with lively open-air markets spilling over with meats and fish, fruits and vegetables, wine, cheese and pastries. He marveled at the traditions of European families and friends. For a decade he designed costumes for the opera and created custom couture pieces for celebrities and socialites.

Sherri Riley’s story was a little different. She worked front-of-house in restaurants for years, in her spare time dreaming of owning her own bakery and café. Eventually she took a job working in insurance sales outside of Washington, D.C. to support herself and her daughter.

But in 2017, their paths began to converge. Both Neal and Riley’s mothers had fallen ill and each went home to become caregivers.

“I found myself back in Chicago because my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t know how long I was going to be here,” Riley recalls. “I didn’t have income coming in and I was really at a crossroads. I was looking online and saw this posting for a culinary program called Silver Fork.”

Neal headed home to Chicago, too. “For three years I was my mother’s primary caregiver. During that time my responsibilities included preparing her meals and making sure she ate,” he says. “After mom passed I struggled with debilitating depression. I simply had lost all motivation to get up and live life. My passion for art and design was gone. … I was unable to put my professional life back together. I knew I needed to fix things so I went to the Center on Halsted looking for some kind of help, so I took a tour of the facility and discovered Silver Fork.”


Center on Halsted is a community center in Chicago’s Lake View neighborhood focused on serving the local LGBTQ community as well as anyone who comes to them looking for help. It offers support groups, art galleries, recreational activities and job readiness programs.

The center’s Silver Fork program is a vocational training program for LGBTQ and allied adults who are unemployed or underemployed.

“[It’s a] free nine-week culinary program,” says Nicole Pederson, Center on Halsted’s director of culinary arts. “The focus is on culinary job readiness, knife skills and recipe reading and fundamentals of moving through the kitchen.”

Participants receive hands-on training in the culinary arts from local chefs. The program includes several days of experiential learning modules including à la carte and catering functions to give participants customer-facing experiences. Field trips to local industry partner organizations and stages are pivotal components of the program, including field trips to local trade shows and wine-tasting and cheese-making workshops.

Silver Fork includes both culinary and baking instruction, as well as front of house service training and two licensure courses. Participants currently have the opportunity to earn Chicago Department of Public Health Certified Foodservice Manager and Beverage Alcohol Sellers and Servers Education and Training (BASSET) certifications. The 2017 cohort that Riley and Neal were a part of also included a pilot program in which a few candidates would be chosen to receive extra instruction and take the tests to receive the ACF’s new Certified Fundamentals Cook® (CFC) certification. 

“Not everybody is suited for the same path.”

Chef Dina Altieri

Chef Dina Altieri by Waldemar Reichert

“When I heard about the certification, I just jumped on it,” says Chef Dina Altieri, CEC, CCE, who taught Neal and Riley’s Silver Fork class. “It was so important to me.”

Chef Altieri has been teaching in the field of culinary arts and hospitality for more than two decades. She left her job at a college behind to take the job at the Center on Halsted, hoping to affect change — change in peoples’ lives, and change in the conversation around what the path to a career in food service looks like.

When many imagine a culinary student, she says, they imagine an 18-year-old high school student who’s involved with C-CAP or ProStart to get scholarships for culinary school.

“That’s just not the story for a lot of people,” she says. “What about the person who wants to get a little bit of training and then get out there and work in a commissary kitchen or an institutional kitchen? There are millions of employees. Not everybody is suited for the same path.”

The CFC certification can help forge that path for those who don’t look like the traditional culinary student. It requires only a high school diploma, GED or 75 Continuing Education Hours; two 30-hour courses, one in Nutrition and one in Food Safety and Sanitation; and a passing grade on the written and practical exams. No work experience is necessary, and the 30-hour courses can be done anywhere: online, at a nearby college or within a job readiness program like Silver Fork.

“Training programs like these, they’re change agents. The whole point is to instill some change in our clients. They might have fallen on rough times or have barriers to employment, or both,” Altieri says. “We need to offer accessible touch points for everyone who wants to enter food service, not just people who can devote years of education to it.”

“The only grocery store in her neighborhood was a liquor store.”

Sherri Riley in class at Silver Fork

Chef Altieri and her coworker, Chef Sean Bush (“We were like Batman and Robin,” she says), hand-picked the pilot group from the 12 or so students who were about to start the Silver Fork program.

“I wanted to see how they did on a written quiz. I know it’s a part of the certification, so I wanted to make sure they could read culinary questions and answer appropriately,” Altieri says. “But I also went on heart. Who are the people in the class that have the grit and the resistance and the heart to have me push them, coach them, and frankly give them extra work?”

Altieri and Bush chose four students who they thought could make it through the more rigorous curriculum. This being a free program at a community center, they didn’t have a lot of resources to help prepare Riley, Neal and their classmates for the written and practical exams that were facing them in only a few weeks’ time.

“I brought in my culinary books, the book we use for Knowledge Bowl … I gave another one CIA’s The Professional Chef, I gave them a great ACF book on culinary fundamentals and asked them all to study,” she recalls.

That “heart” that Altieri selected for proved to be essential. The students worked full-time to make sure they aced their tests.

“We were there from nine to five every day, five days a week. We went over the culinary basics, standard recipes, mother sauces, knife skills, sanitation,” Riley says. “The chefs were wonderful. The program was very well laid out. Everything was phenomenal.”

Riley (left) and Altieri

At 54, Riley wasn’t a traditional culinary student. “Not exactly the best age to be going into such a demanding job,” she laughs. But she drew inspiration from her classmates.

“I met these kids. They were in their 20s or teens, and the amazing thing about them is that you often hear in the news that you don’t really expect them to show up at these programs. They would leave two hours in advance to come. … It just blew my mind that we just don’t give them enough credit for finding their way.”

Not only did her young classmates show up, they proved that they were capable and ready to meet any challenge that came their way.

“[In Chicago], we have issues in urban areas where there are food deserts. I saw it firsthand,” Riley recalls. “This young lady had never seen celery. She didn’t know what it was. She would ask me. I said, ‘This is spinach, this is parsley.’ And one day I said, you’ve never had fresh vegetables? The only grocery store in her neighborhood was a liquor store.”

“The fact that this young lady traveled two hours [every day] to come to a program to learn something new was amazing. She practically raised herself. Never been part of the system. Mother was drug addicted. She finished high school, and she came to the program. It changed me.”

In fact, her classmates’ experiences so affected Riley that that faraway dream of owning her own bakery became something bigger. “I saw that I could really make a difference by creating a café and using it as a training ground for people in the community,” she says. “I could maybe make a place for prison workers, children… they could have a place that they could start, regain or reclaim.”

“My biggest source of pride”

Sandy Neal at Center on Halsted

Sandy Neal at Center on Halsted

At the end of nine weeks, three of the four students in Altieri’s pilot program passed their exams and became CFCs. The final student had a family emergency on test day, “but he would have made it,” Altieri says.

“[We did it in] nine weeks at Center on Halsted, and I think that’s pretty impressive,” Altieri continues. “They were high passes, 80s and above. They did great. [It proves] you don’t necessarily need a year of high school-level vocational training or a year of culinary school to pass that exam.”

Neal now works as a server assistant for Free Rein, a restaurant in the St. Jane Hotel in Chicago.

“I gained so much from the Silver Fork program. All of the basic practical skills and vocabulary to function in a professional kitchen, but more than that, there were life lessons that Chef Altieri infused into the curriculum,” he says. “Things like the importance of teamwork to get the job done, to always strive for excellence and take pride in a job well done, order, cleanliness and organization, respect for self and for others, and to always reach beyond our preconceived ideas of what is possible, for something greater. Some of it seems obvious, but I desperately needed to be reminded.”

“Of course there were also the certifications, not just Food Handler but Food Manager and BASSET, both necessary to gain employment in the food service industry,” he continues. “My greatest source of pride regarding certifications, however, is my American Culinary Federation Fundamentals Cook Certification.”

Sherri Riley at Center on Halsted

Sherri Riley at Center on Halsted

Riley’s dream of a bakery is on hold while she’s still taking care of her mother. “It’s going slow. I’m still seeking more training,” she says. “I’m working with Boka Restaurant Group on the catering side, trying to learn as much as I can, be a sponge in my old age.”

“It was a very proud moment of achievement, getting the certification,” Riley continues. “Now I’m trying to make it all come together.”

“Through food, and with the help of Silver Fork and Chef Altieri,” Neal says, “I rediscovered my creativity process, my passion, and found an entirely new career path.”

The road to becoming a Personal Certified Executive Chef

by Jocelyn Tolbert

Chef Leah Schuler, PCEC

Chef Leah Schuler, PCEC, is one of only a handful of chefs who has received the Personal Certified Executive Chef certification. We recently talked with Chef Schuler about her journey to certification, which she completed in summer 2017.

How did you begin your career?
My Culinary career began as the owner/operator of my own small catering business.  I finally got to a point where I was wanting more for my career and didn’t want to be defined as just a caterer. I was always interested in Health and Nutrition for my entire adult life, so also wanted to expand on that aspect. I wondered what successful working Chefs were doing.  I then closed my business and enrolled in the Culinary Institute at USC.

What made you decide to get your certification?
[At USC] I met a couple of Certified Executive Chef Instructors that were in different aspects of the Industry. I was also working for a Catering Company day and night to make ends meet while attending school. I received my Culinary of Arts Certification, but felt as if that was not nearly enough for me. I was capable of achieving more than that. It was brought to my attention that there was a certification through ACF that was for someone with my type of experience. I immediately got my application in to ACF and began the process of studying for my exam. Simultaneously, I started working for a large foodservice distributor as a produce specialist.

What was the process like? What was your biggest challenge?
My biggest challenge in getting my certification was working long hours, being required to travel and yet keeping my focus on my goal. Within a few months I completed both my written exam and practical. Along the way I have attended conferences that have helped me to network and build a support system. I am now in the healthcare industry as a chef and am studying for my Certified Dietary Manager exam.

What has ACF Certification done for you since attained your PCEC last summer?
Being ACF certified opens doors with companies that understand what the certification means: dedication, determination, drive and focus. Many doors have opened for me, but I’m not finished. I look forward to the many opportunities out there for me because of my affiliation with ACF.

Interview: Lawrence T. McFadden, CMC


Chef Arnaud Berthelier, CMC (left), and Chef Lawrence T. McFadden, CMC

Chef Lawrence T. McFadden, CMC, is General Manager/COO of the 146-year-old Union Club of Cleveland. In February 2018, Chef Arnaud Berthelier, the club’s Executive Chef, successfully completed the CMC exam as well, making the Union Club of Cleveland the only club in the world with two Certified Master Chefs on staff. We recently talked with Chef McFadden about his chef’s achievement and what it means for their kitchen.

Recently, your chef, Arnaud Berthelier, earned the ACF Certified Master Chef designation. What was the motivating factor for you to encourage him to pursue this certification?

Arnaud is a unique chef in the fact that he is completely self-motivated. In fact, just get out of the way. He arrived with us already enrolled in the examination, so my role was support, understanding and slight mentorship of what those eight days might look like. Russel Scott and others had worked with him the previous years getting him ready in a sense of requirements. Chef is a tremendous cook so none of us can take credit for his talents, but we can all be proud to support his successes.


Do you have any other chefs or cooks who are certified that work for you? What differentiates a certified cook versus a non-certified cook, in your opinion?

Yes, we have two other CECs in the kitchen. The difference is the visionary view these individuals have with their careers. They understand that education will continue to create opportunities during the span of their work lives. Much like a person who has a bachelor’s and then enrolls in an MBA program, they are lifetime learners.

What value does ACF Certification bring to your business? How can it improve your bottom line?

As stated above, the individuals who continue to advance their careers are individuals who will continue to learn in other aspects such as financial literacy, leadership tactics and of course technical knowledge. These certifications should attract prospective employees, enhance the establishment’s brand and generally add value to the professional view of our profession.

Why would you encourage cooks and chefs to earn certification?

Encourage or expect? When you create a brigade of certification the peer pressure of belonging is heightened as everyone wants to become part of the same tribe of certification. So, professionally and personally, the kitchen manages itself regarding continued education and advancement. Harvard Business Journal says you will re-learn your job four times in your career, so certification is no different. Those who don’t get education are left behind.


How did you help and enable Chef Arnaud to take the CMC? What can an operation do to encourage ACF Certification?

I simply got out of his way, allowing him to do what was needed to be successful. Allowing him to take the examination on his terms, not my interpretation, void of politics, past practices or traditions. It helps when you are working with one of the best chefs you have ever seen was a major plus. An operation’s responsibility is to be goal-setters, challenge those who need a slight push or explanation of the important for continued education. It’s not the certification but the journey, exploration and research that gives back to the individual and organization.

Did you notice a change in your employees when you became a CMC? Did you notice a change in the staff when Chef Arnaud became a CMC?

Of course, pride and joy, bragging rights and the ability to inspire themselves to the next level. The CMC is just the start of the journey, and as stated above, 17 years later I am a far better professional than in 2001’s examination. For Chef’s staff, many don’t understand what he has accomplished yet as he has only been with us for five months. He was already a great cook, and the fact that he was a great cook and stepped into the arena of potential failure is probably the most impressive part.

Any other comments?

CMC is a lifestyle, not a cooking test. Those who have passed and continue into the career ladder are well educated, healthy, driven, have re-invented themselves several times and aren’t afraid to learn what they don’t know.

Jamaican Chefs test for ACF Certifications

The first batch of Jamaican students were tested for ACF certification March 29-31 at Montego Bay Convention Center, Rose Mount Cres, Montego Bay, Jamaica. Thirteen Jamaican chefs tested for various levels of ACF certification, and three of Jamaica’s ACFcertified chefs tested to become certified as ACF Evaluators, qualifying them to assess candidates and award certifications.

This project is part of a pilot program of the Jamaica Centre of Tourism Innovation, which is working to help more locals get certifications thereby raising the country’s profile on the international culinary stage.

Courtesy of Chef John C. Schopp

“I’m very happy with the progress we’ve made with this very important initiative. My Ministry is determined to provide more training opportunities to increase certification and innovation for the very talented people of Jamaica,” says Jamaica Tourism Minister Hon. Edmund Bartlett. “This is the essence of what is going to build out the professional pathway in tourism.”

“This will open opportunities for Jamaican cooks and chefs to elevate their skill set,” says Chef Jeremy Abbey, ACF Director of Certification. “The big hope is to increase the quality of Jamaican gastronomy using ACF standards as the benchmark.”

“I decided to pursue this certification as I believed it’s a phenomenal program that the Ministry is hoping to implement in the Jamaican hospitality industry. This program will help individuals to become more competitive in both the local and international job market allowing them to focus on their area of specialization,” says Ashley Reid, a recent graduate of the University of Technology, Jamaica, who tested to become a Certified Culinarian. “I learned a lot through this entire process and the chefs are very forthcoming, providing useful criticism to each candidate to help them to grow. My critics stated that I had confidence in the kitchen and showing my art however I was slightly nervous and a bit harder on myself for presentation. I was pleased with the outcome of my dish and the overall testing opportunity.”

While the results of the tests have not yet been returned, ACF is already at work on more initiatives like this one. “It’s already been talked about by other people to move this model to other countries,” Abbey says. “There’s talks for Barbados and Trinidad and Tobago, and we have some interest from South Africa and Taiwan.”


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ACF Names Three Certified Master Chefs

After an exciting display of culinary expertise, Gerald Ford, CMC, Joseph Leonardi, CMC, and Shawn Loving, CMC, were named to the prestigious group of culinarians known as Certified Master Chefs® (CMCs®) by the American Culinary Federation (ACF). The ACF Certified Master Chef designation is the highest level of professional certification that a chef can receive in the United States. The 2017 exam took place Sept. 30-Oct. 7 at Schoolcraft College in Livonia, Michigan.

CMCs with Stafford

“The American Culinary Federation is proud to honor our 2017 class of Certified Master Chefs,” said ACF National President Stafford DeCambra, CEC, CCE, CCA, AAC. “The skill, creativity and discipline called for by the exam are considerable, and the experience gained is invaluable to the chefs themselves and to the culinarians they mentor. We are inspired by their commitment to the culinary arts and congratulate them on an extraordinary achievement.”

The newly certified chefs traveled from across the U.S. to test their culinary mettle.

Gerald Ford, CMC, winner of the Les Amis d’Escoffier competition in 2010 and former executive chef of Château Robert in Montgaillard, France, is executive sous chef at The Everglades Club in Palm Beach, Florida.

“The ACF Certified Master Chef exam was by far the single hardest, most intensely demanding thing I have ever done. Regardless of how much preparation I put in prior to the exam, every day I cooked I became a better chef. The entire process will forever impact my career and the way I learn. I encourage the future leaders of the industry to embrace the process and put in the work. Take the test.”

Joseph Leonardi, CMC, captain of the silver medal-winning 2012 ACF Culinary Team USA and 2009 U.S.A.’s Chef of the Year, is director of culinary operations at The Country Club in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts.

“A lot of time, dedication and sacrifice went into the CMC exam and it all paid off. I’m delighted that I proved to myself that I’m able to do it. I had to be sure I was prepared mentally and needed to believe in myself. I felt confident in my skills and ability because chefs train every day. At the end of the day, it’s just cooking at the highest level.”

Shawn Loving, CMC, is culinary arts department chair at Schoolcraft College. A seasoned culinary competitor, he also served as executive chef for the U.S. men’s and women’s Olympic basketball teams in Beijing and Rio de Janeiro.

“For me, the CMC exam was primarily a test of perseverance by staying connected with my inner self to combat self-doubt. Ultimately, my goal was to give my all to make every meal as if it was my last opportunity to present to the jury. The CMC certification means that I have a responsibility to continue on my quest to be a forever student and culinary professional. My desire to effect the future generations in the most positive and impactful way will guide my future.”

The path to the CMC title requires immense dedication to the craft of cooking and calls upon the candidates to demonstrate their abilities across a broad range of styles and techniques. During the progressive, eight-day practical exam, chefs are tested on healthy cooking, buffet catering, classical cuisine, freestyle cooking, global cuisine, baking and pastry, Continental and Northern European cuisines and “market basket,” a mystery basket of ingredients from which they must prepare a five-course meal.

Chefs are evaluated and assessed by current CMCs and earn points based on kitchen skills, presentation and taste, as well as on the leadership they demonstrate in working with a student apprentice each day. Candidates are required to maintain a 75-point average in order to continue.

Chefs Ford, Leonardi and Loving received their certifications after successfully completing nearly 90 hours of culinary demonstration throughout exam. With the addition of these chefs, there are now 68 current CMCs in the United States.

“The ACF Certified Master Chef designation is a journey of culinary excellence,” said Ron DeSantis, CMC, AAC, MBA, and CMC exam evaluator. “Regardless of the outcome of the exam, each chef becomes a better and stronger culinarian. Having been part of the ACF CMC exam for more than 25 years, I am proud that the chefs of our nation have the outstanding craftsmanship required of this level of certification.”

CMC and CMPC are the culmination of the progressive ACF credentials that enable foodservice professionals to certify their skill, knowledge and expertise at each stage of their careers.

CMCExam Graphic


More information on the 2017 exam and the new Certified Master Chefs can be found at For day-by-day photos of the exam, visit ACF’s Flickr page.

For video highlights, visit the ACF CMC TV page on our website. To see the live stream from day eight of the competition, visit the ACF YouTube page.