It is the pinnacle of culinary achievement in this country: Certified Master Chef. For the three Canadian chefs who have embarked upon this daunting and challenging journey, it represents the culmination of their life’s work. It is a journey that is not taken lightly, but with focus, commitment, determination and a passion to succeed.
Developed by industry Master Chefs and faculty from the Canadian Centre of Culinary Arts & Science at Humber College, the Certified Master Chef (CMC) program is the newest certification under the Canadian Culinary Institute (under the auspices of the CCFCC) and also the highest attainable culinary designation in Canada.
The CMC program requires a minimum two-year commitment with a maximum allowance of four years to complete all components. Currently, there are three professional Canadian chefs who have achieved this distinction: Judson (Jud) Simpson of Ottawa, Ontario; Tobias MacDonald, of Vancouver, B.C. and the most recent recipient of the CMC designation, Michael Allemeier of Calgary, Alberta.
À LA MINUTE magazine recently talked with each of these Master Chefs to learn more about their journey along the road to success. Read on to discover what they had to say about the rewards, challenges and memorable moments of that journey.
What was your main motivation for wanting to achieve the CMC designation and how did you maintain that drive while going through the rigorous training and testing process?
Michael Allemeier: My father was German and I lived on three continents growing up. He always had an active role in what I was going to do for my career. He was always emphasizing how the system works in Germany where the “masters” of every craft were responsible for the culture, education standards and things like that. The masters were also responsible for educating the apprentices, who would go on to become journeymen and then masters themselves, thus completing the circle. That system always made sense to me. Getting my CMC was not so much a matter of “if” I was going to do it but “when” it was going to happen. Another reason I wanted to do the program was that I am in education now. To me, it seems like a very relevant designation for what I’m doing. I’ve always believed in practicing at a very high level and I’m fairly competitive by nature as well. So it was like, “Why wouldn’t I want to do the hardest designation available within my craft?”
Tobias MacDonald: I participated in the program when it was first offered because it is the highest academic achievement we can reach as chefs in Canada and I wanted to be a part of it. The program was designed to be as good as the American program and we wanted to be equivalent to that program without the rigid atmosphere and with a larger academic component. Other countries have similar programs but I believe we allow people to better prepare for the actual examination process.
Judson Simpson: As a lifelong learner, it was natural for me to want to proceed with the program. It was also a little bit personal for me because I brought the program in while I was National President of the CCFCC. So it was a way for me to validate the program. Indirectly, I got a lot of drive from my family because I am not the kind of guy who gives up. I wanted to be sure that this wasn’t going to be something that I could easily give up once I had started. My wife Lisa and I have four boys and I didn’t want to send the wrong message to them if I were to give up. It was all about setting the right example.
What past career or life experiences helped prepare you for the CMC process?
MA: In the three kitchens I have run, the standards were extremely demanding. Good enough was never good enough. That was a pretty good environment for me to prepare to throw myself into the whole CMC environment. When you come up against something as big as the CMC, it is very natural to look back at your roots and where you came from. Thinking back to the standards that my mentors such as Simon Smotkowicz and Takashi Murakami instilled in me when I was impressionable and just starting out, it really helped me through the whole process of the CMC program as well.
TM: I was on the National Team from 2005-2009. Then I coached the Junior Team for four years, then I coached the National Team so I spent a good 12 years of my life immersed in competition. I approached the practical exams in very much the same way I would approach a competition. I am pretty lucky that I have the competition repertoire to pull from and that experience was invaluable.
JS: I relied on a combination of my work and competition experience. The only reason I say competition is not for the skills I learned in competition but for the stamina required to be successful. Being able to handle the enduring, persistent and demanding schedule of competing nationally and internationally was really helpful during the CMC process.
What were the biggest challenges in completing the CMC accreditation process?
MA: One of my biggest concerns was not so much about failing the exam process, but in possibly disappointing the people like chefs Smotkowicz and Murakami. But overall the biggest challenge for me during the process was time management. Some of the courses required up to 30 hours a week. So you’ve got a full academic load, full-time study, plus I’ve got a family, plus a career. Time management, by far, was the biggest challenge, especially during the first two years. Almost everything else in my life got pushed aside. The CMC program is about fully committing yourself. You can’t go into the process and not be fully committed.
TM: For the lack of a better way of saying it, just keeping my head on straight was a big challenge. It can be tough going back to school as not only a teacher but as a mature adult. It’s a little bit different head space that you have to get yourself into.
JS: The biggest challenge I had was with the online material. You have to understand that many people such as myself who will take on this challenge are not chef instructors so we don’t often have our nose in a textbook. Cooking behind a stove has always been my strength and is something I do all the time so I didn’t really have much of a problem with that. Of course, during the evaluation, it can be a bit intimidating being judged by legends in the industry but over the course of the program, I have to say the online material was the biggest challenge just because I’m not in that kind of academic environment every day.
What are the biggest benefits of achieving the CMC designation?
MA: I know that I’ve done it but it hasn’t fully set in that I’ve done it, since it was only a couple of months ago that I completed the program. Because I was so fully engaged in the process over four years, I have to remind myself from time to time that I’ve actually finished it. Ultimately there is a great sense of relief and pride in knowing that it is done. As for how it might affect me down the road, now that I know I have this designation, I’ll have to hold myself to an even higher standard in everything I do.
TM: It certainly has earned me a level of respect from among my peers and colleagues. For it to truly to become something special, though, we need more of us to become involved with the program. I look forward to watching the program grow as people become more engaged and the program becomes more widely accepted by Canadian chefs.
JS: The biggest benefit is that it is a tremendous personal achievement. There is no monetary gain, such as might the case in some other countries with a Master Chef program where it is almost like a person with an MBA who gets a higher salary. It’s all about making sure that I can leave my industry and my business better than when I came into it. I look at it as if I’ve done something and continue to do things that can help others on my team along.
What are some of the most memorable aspects of your journey to Master Chef and why are they significant to you?
MA: I’ve always had a bit of a sweet tooth and always respected the pastry side of things. For me, one of the most memorable aspects was how my pastry skills and baking have improved. There’s an academic component to the CMC program as well as three kitchen exams focused on making a pastry. I especially enjoyed adding multiple layers and growth to my baking experience and skill set.
TM: Just completing the program was a major milestone — along with getting to finally sleep in! Certainly it gave me a huge feeling of accomplishment. I know that in some way I have climbed my own Mount Everest. But there us still plenty of room for the program to expand and grow so that we can emulate the success of the American program.
JS: During the developmental stage of the CMC program when I was National President, it was a very big thing. We had talked about a CMC program in this country for 20 years so it was a really big deal to bring it to fruition. It was also important that we didn’t bring in a kind of cookie-cutter program like the U.S. or other countries. We wanted something that would be unique to Canada.
Who most supported you on your journey to Master Chef?
MA: I think I’ll always remember how the community rallied around me. Whether it was peers, colleagues, industry contacts or family and friends, people were genuinely interested in how the process was going. I also found that even my students became engaged with the process. With that kind of community support, I never felt alone. But first and foremost, I thank my wife Meredith. I’m happy to say that our marriage survived both my career and the CMC process. And of course my two boys who missed their dad when I was busy with work, studying or completing assignments. I also can’t forget our Dean at SAIT, Tom Bornhorst. He was unconditional in his support and as Dean, we was always a great person to talk to when I needed good advice.
TM: Bruno Marti was the person who really encouraged me to take this on. He was also my employer when I started. I received nothing but support from him.
JS: Without a doubt, my wife. We have four boys but she pretty much raised them. I wasn’t always home and certainly with the CMC program it was like having another first child. I mean, I missed the first five years of my son’s life — I was always working. With the CMC program, I was either working or doing homework. Lisa really was the one who held it all together and encouraged me to carry on.
What are a couple of key pieces of advice you would give to a chef considering embarking on the CMC journey?
MA: First, people need to understand that the CMC is a beast of a project. It is probably bigger than you could ever imagine. It is a full-time commitment and you need to go into it with that awareness. You also need to be prepared to change and be prepared to embrace both the good parts of the process and the challenges. Second, you need to find some good people to support you — people that can objectively taste your food and objectively evaluate your ideas. Ultimately, you also need to build excellent habits.
TM: The number one thing I could say is to get out there and cook. Whether it be in competitions or stages at Michelin-starred restaurants, you need to really get out there and see what the top chefs are up to and see what’s possible.
JS: They shouldn’t be intimidated by the program. Yes, it is daunting but it is not something to be intimidated by. It is something to take seriously. It is, I would say, the equivalent of an MBA in the business world. This is a big deal for chefs. It is a rigorous program but if you are a lifelong learner who craves that kind of challenge, you should go for it. It is a tremendous achievement that is recognized worldwide. I know many CCC’s have the skills and it would be great to see them in the program.
Judson (Jud) Simpson, CMC
Chef Simpson is Secretary of the Canadian Culinary Federation, Vice-Chairman of the WACS Culinary Competition Committee and the recipient of an honorary bachelor’s degree from Humber College. His competition experience spans 30 years and includes individual and team competition, mentoring, coaching and judging. Chef Simpson is also Executive Chef at the House of Commons in Canada’s capital. With a verifiable mastery of current management skills, he has been able to build and maintain control of a highly effective and efficient brigade. He has broad experience using technically advanced foodservice equipment as well as cutting-edge knowledge of trends and developments in national and international haute cuisine.
Tobias MacDonald, CMC
Tobias MacDonald grew up in the Kootenay region of British Columbia. After high school he studied chemistry at Mount Allison University in New Brunswick. His restaurant career began at the local golf course by washing dishes and then cooking as a way to pay his way through school. Once in Vancouver Chef MacDonald worked for a number of restaurants, including an apprenticeship under Bruno Marti at La Belle Auberge Restaurant in Ladner. He then moved abroad to Switzerland to work at Schloss Falkenstein with Max Eichmann. Returning to Vancouver, Chef MacDonal went back to La Belle Auberge as Chef de Cuisine. He managed La Belle Auberge until 2012 when he moved to Vancouver Community College to begin teaching. As an Instructor at Vancouver Community College he continues to develop young chefs, and takes pride in sharing his knowledge with younger cooks.
Michael Allemeier, CMC
Chef Michael Allemeier has traveled the world and Canada learning his craft. Prior to joining SAIT (Southern Alberta Institute of Technology) as a Culinary Instructor, Chef Allemeier has run some of Western Canada’s most exciting kitchens, including Bishops Restaurant in Vancouver, Teatro Restaurant in Calgary and Mission Hill Family Estate Winery in B.C.’s Okanagan Valley. Chef Allemeier has also had many opportunities to be on television, including being one of the principle hosts of Food Network’s Cook Like a Chef. Other TV guest appearances include: The Thirsty Traveler, Anna and Kristina’s Grocery Bag and Canadian Living TV to name a few. A published author, Michael co-authored the book Bishop’s – The Cookbook.