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.”

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.

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.

How one formerly defunct ACF chapter came back with fresh perspective

by Jocelyn Tolbert

The Cape and Islands Chefs Association was, for many years, one of the strongest ACF chapters in New England. But a little more than a decade ago, the group dissolved.

Several factors contributed to the chapter’s formal closing. “It was a little before my time — before I moved to the Cape. But from my understanding, it was just a lack of interest,” says Chef Michael Pillarella, CEC, executive chef of the Wianno Club in Osterville, Massachusetts. “The local chapter wasn’t providing any positive traction in regards to education, certification, and just building camaraderie. There were a lot of strong people involved, but there was no draw to bring them to the meetings.”

Today, though, ACF Cape Cod is back. Chef Pillarella and Chef Michael “Mickey” Beriau, CEC, (a former member of the original chapter) re-formed the group about a year ago and, as the new President and Vice President, are out to make ACF Cape Cod stronger than ever.

The lessons these chefs learned can apply to fledgling chapters as well as those which have been around for decades, so whether you’re thinking of starting your own new chapter or trying to invigorate an existing one, read on.

Dan Ferrare, CEC,CCA, Treasurer, Michael Pillarella, CEC, President, and Joe Ellia, secretary, ACF Cape Cod and The Islands Association

Dan Ferrare, CEC, CCA, Treasurer, Michael Pillarella, CEC, President, and Joe Ellia, secretary, ACF Cape Cod and The Islands Association

Why did you decide to do this?
Basically, there was a void — an empty space for our chefs here. There’s a chapter in Boston and one in Providence, Rhode Island, each about an hour and a half away. But they didn’t meet the needs of the Cape Cod chefs. Our seasonality is different, our talent and labor pool is different. We didn’t have much in common with those other chapters.

So you were basically starting a brand new chapter. What was the process like? 
The ACF process is pretty well organized in how to bring a chapter to life. The most important thing was to have a meeting. We wanted to make sure there was enough of a draw. We had about 50 to 70 attendees to our initial meeting, and it was enough for me and Mickey to decide to go forward.

What challenges did you encounter?
One of the biggest challenges for us was opening a 501(c). It just wasn’t as easy as starting a club and inviting some people.

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How did you get the word out?
We did a very grassroots campaign. We invited people initially, and just kept on our marketing angle, which was “bring a friend,” “bring a fellow professional.” That kept it building for us. We had very good success with recruiting and driving finances. Our last meeting, over 130 people were in attendance.

Did you have any of the old members coming back?
We’ve had 12 to 15 individuals who were in the previous chapter who are very excited about its reemergence, and are willing to assist in any way possible.

Had you ever done this before?
This is my first chapter. I’ve been a member of the Boston and Rhode Island associations for a while, but this is my first crack at it. It’s a bit more work than I first imagined it would be.

What’s the time commitment like?
It’s a lot of free time. I’d say you realistically have to put in five to seven hours a week in-season to make sure all your duties are covered.

You mentioned the “season” a couple times. Can you explain that a little more?
What we do is, our meetings are held from late September to early May, and then we take a hiatus for the summertime, which is when everybody here is crazy busy. Then we go back to our normal lives. That’s worked out for us very well. [In this region,] we’re all in the same boat, so come May it’s time to focus on work. And come September we can return to focusing on our chapter.

That sounds like a big endorsement for “Knowing your audience.”
It is! One of the points we’ve made is that we’re here to serve the chef and we need to understand that. What’s good for all the chefs is good for the chapter.

What advice would you give to people who are thinking of starting a new chapter of the ACF?
I think the most important thing is to surround yourself with fantastic chefs and individuals, and let their talents shine. That’s how I operate this chapter. I took on a fantastic VP, secretary and treasurer, and the rest just falls into place.

Tall Hat Tales: The History of the Toque

If there is one professional symbol denoting excellence that’s recognized around the world, that image is the chef’s towering white toque. Yet few know the full story of how a tall, multi-pleated hat came to represent the world’s most universal profession.

The first record of the toque appears in the seventh century A.D. when regime change forced chefs from the Middle East to flee their homelands and hide among the black-robed monks in Greece’s mountain monasteries.

Legend has it that the skills of the chefs, though welcomed in the monasteries’ kitchens, made them hard to hide. To escape detection, the visiting chefs donned the attire of the resident monks including their top hats, called a skoufos. As months turned into years, the now-resident chefs retained the hat but abandoned the cumbersome veil.

Similar hats appeared throughout the following centuries. Arabs brought the hat across North Africa into Spain along with exotic spices and the forerunner of paella. The over-700-year reign of the Iberian Peninsula left many lasting influences including the design of the toque, worn this time by members of the nobility.

English urban legend tells how the food-loving Henry VIII became incensed when be found hair in his royal soup.  When it was discovered the hair belonged to a well meaning but careless chef, there was a concern heads might literally roll.

But a good chef was too valuable to lose, so rather than execution, the King (who was married for 24 years to the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon), remembering the fashions of the visiting Spanish nobles, ordered his royal chefs to wear shortened caps or scarfs when cooking.

By the mid-1700s chefs throughout Europe were donning wide assortment of headwear. It is a young pastry chef named Marie-Antoine Carême who must be thanked for bringing the white hat fully into culinary tradition. As a young bread and cake maker, he and all the fellow members of Paris’ pastry guild wore white caps, called casque à meche, with white jackets to prevent the ever-present white flour from covering their street clothes.

When once again political turmoil invaded the world of cuisine, to save both his career and most probably also his life, Carême shifted from creating sugary centerpieces for the royal court to crafting savory dinners for Napoleon’s chief diplomat, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. Proud of his early training, he wore his white jacket and soft toque as he worked.

Sadly, Carême’s toque blanche and its matching jacket fell into disuse after his death. It wasn’t until another French chef, this time the famed Auguste Escoffier, appeared that the toque’s fame quite literally soared.

Having served in the military, Escoffier had seen the value of order and defined positions. He noted that the officer with the highest plumes commanded the highest respect.

As a chef in some of Europe’s most elegant hotels, he remembered and resurrected Carême’s soft white toque. He stiffened and raised it to a military height of 18 inches, complete with 100 tightly ironed pleats.

Various culinary stories have attempted to explain the reasons for the addition of so many pleats. Some sources say they represented the 100 sauces or 100 egg dishes a Master Chef must know in order to claim his executive title. In reality, the 100 starched pleats simply strengthened the toque’s tall structure.

Today, chefs wear a wide variety of headgear from skull caps to scarves to formal toques, all representing the diversity and creativity foundational to the culinary profession. Yet the tall white toque remains the towering symbol of the industry — one at the sight of which the world knows to say “Yes, chef!”

Ana Kinkaid is a food historian and the editor of CONNECT, a quarterly online magazine designed exclusively for chefs, culinary educators and dedicated students.