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Amuse Bouche: The world’s hardest tests

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By Scott Mechura EBS Food Columnist

Food TV put us on the map.

And by ‘us’ I mean, chefs, cooking and the culinary world.

I’ve done my best over the years to bring awareness to our industry and educate people about just how hard this work can be. From the occupation of line cook—which is as challenging a job as any contractor, sheet rocker, electrician, plumber or brick layer—to the mental and physical stress of being a chef in charge of any sizable club, restaurant or hotel.

But what should really grab your attention is the fact that there are five exams in the U.S. that are regarded as the most difficult in America. In no particular order, they are:

The U.S. Medical Licensing Examination

California State Bar Examination

Master Sommelier Diploma Examination

Certified Master Chef Examination

Uniform Certified Public Accountant Examination

What’s fascinating to me is that despite the hospitality industry often being viewed as “not a real job,” two of the five on this list are in the hospitality industry.

Being completely opposite fields from mine, I have no concept of the difficulty of the other three exams listed here and for many reasons, I’m glad these three tests are so challenging. Imagine the devastating results of a poorly educated accountant handling the finances of large corporations, not to mention your own money. 

And do you want someone who wasn’t able to pass their final medical exam diagnosing your possible terminal illness? As the late comedian George Carlin once said, “somewhere out there is the worst doctor in America. And someone has an appointment with them tomorrow morning.”

And while obviously every bar exam is difficult, the California exam is so challenging that people have been known to sue the California Bar for being too difficult.

But now let me put the other two exams in perspective.

Having passed the Level One Sommelier Exam, and watched more than one documentary on passing the level four Master Sommelier Exam, it almost feels like it takes the joy out of wine altogether.

Aside from wine theory, in which you must know every single grape, varietal and region in the world in great detail, you must also blind taste five wines. One could be an Oregon Pinot, or it may be an obscure varietal from South Africa. Either way, you need to identify only by the small portion you have been poured. And the time allotted to come to this conclusion? Only five minutes. When we attempted this in class as a group, those five minutes went by like a cartoon clock whose hands are spinning around the clock face. And of the thousands of level one and two sommelier in America, there are only, depending on the year, about 240 masters.

And that isn’t even the hardest test.

The Certified Master Chef exam is so challenging that very few chefs in America even attempt it. And fewer and fewer take it each passing year.

You will not even be considered if you do not have a formal accredited culinary diploma, and years of experience already in the field, which must include management of people. As well as hours upon hours of experience, education and working practical knowledge in human resources, sanitation, nutrition and cuisines from every continent.

Described by many as “grueling,” the test is 120 hours and lasts eight days. Taking into consideration there are 192 hours in eight days, that allows a mere 72 hours in over a week in which to eat, sleep and regroup. 

You are watched and scrutinized by a panel of experts and fellow Certified Master Chefs almost by microscope. It isn’t enough that you completed a task, recipe or project perfectly, but the entire process along the way has to be perfect and in a very specific manner or timeframe.

Once you’ve completed this test and join the ranks of your peers, you don’t have much time to rest, because your certification expires in a mere five years. So, while on TV we’re considered entertainers, remember those five tests, and which apply to those who prepare, cook and serve your next meal.

Scott Mechura has spent a life in the hospitality industry. He is a former certified beer judge and currently the multi-concept culinary director for a Bozeman based restaurant group.

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