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.”

What your food is telling your customers

By Gilberto E. Geronimo, DSL, CFM Warrant Officer 1, U.S. Army, Food Service Technician

Chef Gilberto Geronimo plates a dish

Have you ever considered how many of our interactions center on food? From first dates to family gatherings around the holidays, we usually enjoy our time with one another accompanied by good food and drink. For a chef, however, interactions involving food occur on a daily basis, from preparing food for themselves to feeding their loved ones and diners.

Communication between people occurs so intrinsically at times that we often don’t realize its occurrence. Consider the messages many Chefs and home cooks may be communicating to those that eat the food they cook. Since this form of communication is non-verbal, it can go unnoticed to even the most skilled chefs, home cooks and food service professionals.

One form of nonverbal communication that derives from cooking is Gustoric communication. Our sense of taste carries content based on the foods we eat to the brain. It sends messages of pleasure or displeasure the moment our palates come in contact with food. Gustorics communication is not limited to the sense of taste, but is also tied to the visual perception of a plate that has the proper eye appeal, colorful components, height and proper balance of ingredients — not to mention the aroma left by perfectly cooked foods.

Unknown to many in food service (particularly those who cook intrinsically or for their loved ones as part of their nurturing routine), a lot of information is communicated to someone via a plate of food’s taste and presentation. Someone who is served a savory, well presented, flavorful, colorful and nutritious meal that appeals to the senses of sight, smell and taste is receiving several messages. A beautiful plate of food has the potential to communicate that the chef is passionate, talented, skilled and knowledgeable in the artistry of cooking and cares about the quality of food that others consume.

Sitting around the dinner table with loved ones, it is likely that the message received by a family member will be an indication of love. A meal with all the proper components can communicate that their loved one cares for their well-being and health, based on the quality of food they were served. Additionally, the plate can help identify when the cook may be upset, or not in their usual frame of mind, if the food is not to the same standard or quality that he or she normally provides.

Mediocrity communicates the exact opposite to someone being served by a chef. “Reactions, either good or bad, are extremely important to a Chef, as they are like an after action review,” says Chef Adam Berry, a Staff Sergeant in the United States Army currently serving as the sole 2018 Training with Industry candidate in the Culinary Institute of America. “It gives the chef an opportunity to correct mistakes made and achieve a good consistency in items served.”

Courtesy of SSG Adam Berry

Although feedback proves to be beneficial for the chef, what does a substandard product communicate to the customer or loved one? Based on the aforementioned interpretation of positive Gustorics communication, the lack of effort (or negative Gustoric communication) can communicate the lack of passion, lack of skills in cooking and the absence of care in the nutritional quality of foods provided to diners.

However, the messages received can vary. What one person perceives as mildly spicy and delicious may be hot and distasteful to another, which can result in two different people receiving two distinct messages from the same plate. Palates and senses of taste differ due to geographic locations and the type of foods that they are accustomed to eating, making Gustorics communication a complicated yet beneficial tool in kitchens all over the globe. It can provide the chef with an overview of how they communicate through food, and can improve a chef’s skills in interpreting how others react when they pour their artistic talents onto a plate.

Of course, it can also aid and strengthen communication between loved ones at home.

Courtesy of Chef Jose Garcia

All in all, Gustorics, The Study of How Taste Communicates, is an area of great interest to health care providers because proper nutrition is essential to human health and survival. Gustorics should be of great interest to professional chefs, too. It can be used to improve the quality of food we prepare and continue to grow the food service industry through passion, dedication to food service and customer satisfaction.

10 techniques that a chef or home cook can employ to improve his or her Gustoric Communication skills:

1. Know the audience you’re cooking for.

2. Accept feedback (good, bad or indifferent) as constructive criticism to positively improve cooking skills.

3. Exercise creative flexibility that will allow you to shape your products to the palate of the customer, not the other way around.

4. Insert passion in every aspect of cooking, from mise en place to plating and everything in between.

5. Pay attention to details: those of the customer, those of your food and those of the techniques used to prepare every bite.

6. Incorporate nutritional items into every component when possible.

7. Apply a personal signature to every plate that will communicate that you have prepared every item with pride.

8. Prepare all components so that one item complements the other, including the transitions between multiple courses.

9. Be innovative in the cooking process and experiment with new ingredients that will enhance traditional recipes whilst maintaining their original qualities.

10. Continue to study the art of cooking, its origin and rich history and the evolutionary changes it undergoes every day.

Don’t fall victim to the Peter Principle

by Chef Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures

In most respects the reality of full-employment in the U.S. (everyone who wants to work has a job) is wonderful news. For those entrepreneurs who are trying to continue conducting business and grow their business, the joy of this news wears off quickly. By now, we are all aware of the “Perfect Storm” that is making landfall within the restaurant business: full-employment, rapid growth, a dampening of excitement over careers in food, less than  stellar pay and benefits and some not-so-gracious press about the work conditions in restaurants has made it nearly impossible for restaurateurs to find the right people, or for that matter – any people to fill vacant roles on their schedules.

What rarely makes the headlines is an ancillary challenge that is a direct result of this storm: Out of desperation, many employers are hiring and promoting people to positions that they are not yet qualified for. This, by definition is what has been referred to as the Peter Principle.

“In a hierarchy, people tend to rise to their level of incompetence. Thus, as people are promoted, they become progressively less effective because good performance in one job does hot guarantee similar performance in another.” – Dr. Laurence J. Peter – (paraphrase) from the Peter Principle 1969

The “Perfect Storm” compounds this problem as employers push the timeline on unrealistic promotions simply because they can’t find the right, properly prepared person(s) for the job. In other words, they throw the dice, hoping that the person will rise to the occasion.

There are numerous downsides to this type of hire or promotion. First, the performer is unable to reach anticipated goals of quality, speed and quantity of work, putting undue stress on the reputation of the business and tearing away at the customer experience. Even more significant is the negative impact that this type of move has on the employee who inherently knows that he or she is not prepared, but is still thrilled at the opportunity and the recognition. When these employees fail, they fall hard, and in some cases never fully recover.

In reality there is plenty of blame to go around. It’s on the employer, who should never put a potentially solid employee in this position; the industry, which continues to come up short when considering the training necessary for positions of responsibility; and certainly on the employee, whom despite knowing his or her shortcomings said yes to a job that they had no business taking in the first place. It is a trap without an escape route.

“A man doesn’t know what he knows until he knows what he doesn’t know.”
-Laurence J. Peter

Young cooks and chefs, beware. The job of chef is much more difficult than it looks.
The leap of skill from being a really great cook to being the person in charge is
monumental, even if your boss tries to convince you that you can do it. Think twice,
and then twice again before you agree to take the leap.

The job of chef goes way beyond knowing how to cook, having great knife skills, enjoying the wonders of a well-defined palate and being fast and sharp enough to man a busy line station during dinner rush. In fact, those essential skills are best left for the young at heart who are light on their feet. It is not common for the chef to work a grill or sauté station — not because they don’t want to do the work (although it gets more
difficult with age), but more appropriately because they have far too many other tasks on their plate. Chefs are planners, organizers, menu wizards, communicators, budgeters, human resource managers, psychiatrists, negotiators, effective public relations advocates, and team builders. Are you ready for these challenges? Do you have the time-tested experience necessary to be effective in this job?

If you think that your mastery of the skills on the line cook spectrum is transferable to the role of chef, you are mistaken. Certainly, you have to start somewhere, but before you say “yes” to the offer, ask yourself a simple question: “Is this the time for me?” If your career goal is to step into the shoes of a chef some day then make sure you build a plan focused on how to get there with a full bag of tricks.

“The great question is not whether you have failed, but whether you are content with failure.”
-Laurence J. Peter

Even the best cooks and chefs will make mistakes along the way, but they do so with the ability to recover and a plan that allows time to adjust and take guarded steps forward. In this time when there are far more opportunities than people, don’t be coaxed into a Peter Principle situation. Take a deep breath, learn to be patient and build that strategy that will provide many more opportunities to succeed and far fewer chances to fail.

Base: How low can you go?

by Chef Jeremy Abbey, CEC, CEPC, CCE, CCA

Add one tablespoon to eight ounces of water. There you have it, a liquid full of umami (tons of sodium and other stuff as well) that is used in kitchens throughout the country. Base — the short cut used to save time, money and all the while lowering the skill set necessary to elevate the culinary craft. While consistency, financials and skill set are all important to keep in mind in professional kitchen operations, it is important that we not lose focus of the fundamental skills necessary for any cook.

ACF Certification is prime way for our industry to maintain the focus of skills that are imperative to our industry. It’s important that we do not lose sight of the fundamental skills to master in an industry that is constantly looking for ways to save time and money. There are fantastic ways to practice skills on the job and continually develop your craft. Practical exams contain multiple skill assessments but every single exam has fundamental skills that must be used in order to achieve a great score. In the words of Auguste Escoffier and Eric Ripert, here are the skills that should be developed to mastery:

“The most skilled cook in the world cannot attempt anything if given nothing and it would be totally inconsistent to expect him to produce work of a high standard from imperfect or insufficient ingredients.”

Why not start with the best? You have practiced and prepared and now you are ready for the exam. Seek out the best possible ingredients you can find. Starting with the very best, will result in a better end result.

It is important to take time to learn the skills necessary to be able to identify the finest ingredients. I’m surprised at how many times I’ve been to a grocery store and find more and more ingredients that weren’t there ten years ago. Transportation and agriculture have come a long way in our food system making a plethora of ingredients available to us at a higher quality than ever before.

If you are able to shop for a practical exam at a farmer’s market, why wouldn’t you? Seek out the freshest and finest. Talk to the folks working at farmers markets and ask questions on how to determine which product is best. No one has more knowledge of vegetables and produce than the people growing it.  Find the best products for the exam and if you aren’t sure which the best is, ask the questions.

“Indeed, stock is everything in cooking. Without it, nothing can be done.”

Every practical exam requires stock in some way of another. Just like the produce, meat and seafood you bring to the exam, why not bring the very, absolute best stock possible? Escoffier’s quote about stock has been stuck in my head since before I went to culinary school. Not only is stock-making a skill to master, it is a skill to be developed over the years.

With every stock that comes to a simmer, there are subtle nuances that need to be accounted for. The amount of cartilage and gelatin in the bones, the depth of color from the beta carotene in the carrots, the sulfur level of the onions all need to be recognized and adjustments may need to be made. It excites me every time I make stock at the development of flavor that occurs and the culinary challenge of recreating the flavor profile consistent with the last batch. A lot more fun than dissolving a paste in water.

As a foundation product imperative for flavor development, stock and stock production is a crucial skill to continually work on mastering.

“Having sharp, great knives will enable you to cook very precisely. Knife skills are essential in cooking.” – Eric Ripert

Knife skills cannot be stressed enough in the foundations of cooking. Not only do they enhance the presentation of the finished product but they ensure proper and even cooking occurs. Taking the time to practice knife skills in day to day tasks will elevate your craft to the next level. During a practical exam, strive to master knife skills to the point where you don’t have to think about how to complete them.

When developing the program and menu for a practical exam, attempt to incorporate as much skill as possible focused around knife skills. How will that tomato be presented? What will this carrot look like on the plate? Would this potato cook quicker and more evenly if it was cut in a tourne?

Fundamental knife skills are an important part of any kitchen. As we modernize production methods in commercial kitchens to save time and cost, we cannot lose focus on the essential skills of knife work. Developing knife skills can lead to higher quality product that will set you apart from the competition.

“Fish without wine is like egg without salt.”

Almost half of the score on practical exams is focused on flavor development. Of all the exams that occur, this seems like the single most overlooked category. Candidates appear to be focused more on achieving the bare minimum requirements of knife skills and cooking methods and often forget to build maximum flavor. Food is all about flavor and showing skill in developing flavor must not be ignored.

Every cook should strive to master developing flavor from ingredients and ultimately the dish they are preparing. As a cook, consider the consumer or the diner. How will they experience the plate? Is there a good balance of flavors? Is there enough acid? Does the flavor overwhelm and outshine the main ingredient? As menu development occurs, these questions should be at the forefront of the mind.

During the three hours that make up most practical exams, candidates must remember to utilize as much product as possible. The best way to utilize ingredients is to demonstrate to the evaluators that you have an understanding of flavor development. Adding a touch of wine to a fish course, finishing a plate with fresh herbs, mounting a sauce with butter all add flavor and show a skill and an understanding of flavor development.

Continue to focus on flavor development throughout your day to day cooking and suddenly you may notice opportunities to build flavor.

“Good food is the foundation of genuine happiness”

In a world of convenience products, it is our responsibility to uphold the foundations of cooking. Certification provides the opportunity to focus back on skills that might not be used every day in modern kitchens but must not be pushed aside. Whether you’re preparing for a practical exam, getting ready for a career move or just want to improve skill set, foundation skills are a continual quest to master.

Cooking with the best ingredients, building great stocks, knife skills and flavor development cannot be forgotten in today’s culinary world. These concepts and skills have formed our craft and are utilized in every kitchen. How can we continue to enhance the focus and better ourselves through focusing on these skills? Practice. Every day, practice and soon these skills can be mastered.

12 Skills That Will Never Fail a Cook

by Chef Paul Sorgule of Harvest America Ventures

As cooks, we never stop learning. So, where does one begin — what foundational skills do chefs expect of every cook? Is it possible to narrow down the vast array of kitchen skills into a few essential, universal ones?

We should begin by saying that a restaurant chef will always mentor a cook in an effort to ensure that menu items are consistent and presented with the flavor profile and visual appeal that defines the operation. But to be able to accomplish that, there must be a solid, dependable skill set that serves as a blueprint. From my experience, the following skills and aptitudes are critical. These are the skills that solidify a chef’s confidence that a cook has what it takes:


Every task, no matter how small, should be done with passion and an eye on perfection. Whether it be dicing onions, caramelizing a mirepoix, slicing or snipping herbs, shucking clams or blanching pommes frites, everything is done with a commitment to excellence.


Professional cooks are hungry to build their portfolio of skills and strive constantly to improve the quality of their work.


Almost above all else, the best cooks are perfectionists when it comes to using their knives. They are precise, efficient, and fast.


Chefs expect that every cook hired works clean. They understand the importance of sanitation and practice proper procedures to keep their work area tight. Cooks need to work to eliminate cross contamination, function within the parameters of time and temperature, effectively wash and sanitize work surfaces, and always prepare foods with food safety in mind.


Mise en place is second nature to professional cooks. Everything has a place and everything is in its place. Sufficient prep work is completed to ensure that his or her station does not run out of product mid-service — this is an expectation that leads to trust and confidence.


Good cooks are where they need to be when they need to be there. They are always ready and able, as a result, to problem-solve if need be.


Chefs expect that teamwork is a given — that every cook is focused on complementing other members of the team. He or she will rise to the occasion when necessary, is supportive of others and is able and willing to ask for help when the time arises.


Speed without accuracy is wasted effort and accuracy without the ability to meet the demands of time will always fall short.


Knowledge of ingredients, how those ingredients interact, how to properly store and work with those ingredients, and which items can serve as a substitute for others is essential in the kitchen.


Kitchen communication depends on a cook’s ability to understand and practice the steps involved in all of the primary cooking methods: sauté, grill, broil, poach, roast, braise, fry, and poêle.


We speak our own language in the kitchen, filled with French, Italian and Spanish terms along with a significant dose of slang and acronyms. Any cook who is able to integrate into a kitchen must be adept at understanding and using this mixed dialect if he or she is to survive.


Chefs are beginning to learn that harsh criticism is not the best form of positive communication in the kitchen. Yet critique which points to areas that need improvement with the addition of mentoring and training is essential if the operation is to function, provide consistency, and strive to improve. Successful cooks must be able to delineate between criticism and critique and accept those opportunities to learn from their mistakes.

  1. YES, CHEF

As has been pointed to numerous times before, a successful cook understands the importance of the chain of command in the kitchen, respects the need to accept direction — especially in the heat of service — and works to maintain the semblance of order and efficiency that comes from the response of “Yes, chef.”

Skills will grow, abilities will improve and confidence will increase exponentially over time, but any new cook must begin with a focus on those critical foundations that are the expectation of every chef in any type of food operation.