Earning the title of Certified Master Chef, the highest level of accreditation from the American Culinary Federation, is no easy feat. In fact, there are only 67 chefs in the U.S. who have gotten the certification (plus eleven Certified Master Pastry Chefs). There could soon be a Certified Master Chef in our midst, but it's likely you haven't heard of him. He's Travis Smith, chef/owner of Bistro Colorado, at 1552 Bergen Parkway in Evergreen.
Smith started Bistro Colorado as an upscale food truck in 2012 and then opened his Evergreen eatery a year later; he still operates two trucks in addition to the restaurant. But his path to becoming a Certified Master Chef began some thirty years ago as an apprentice at a couple of hotel restaurants in downtown Denver. Early in his career, he studied under mentors who had earned the certification and decided even then that it would be life's goal. In the intervening decades, Smith cooked for the Army for twenty years, and more recently was the executive chef at Breckenridge Ski Resort.
"I've been looking at this exam since about 1998," he explains. "I realized that these people [his mentors] are sharing this level of knowledge that's so hard to attain. It's one of the last things on my bucket list."
The hurdles to becoming a Certified Master Chef are many, Smith explains. You must first work your way up through the ACF's heirarchy, which includes five levels for cooking professionals before master chef. Then you must submit an application to take the CMC test, which includes a $300 entry fee and two letters of recommendation from current CMCs. The test itself is an eight-day ordeal of cooking and exams that's only held every few years. Depending on the year and location of the test, more additional fees, totaling about $4,500, are required to cover expenses incurred by the ACF for administering the test (food, material, judges' compensation, etc.).
This year's exam, the first since 2014, takes place from September 30 to October 8 at Schoolcraft Community College in Livonia, Michigan, with room for fourteen applicants. And just getting there is no guarantee of success. In 2014, only two of the ten applicants passed and received certification.
For the first seven days of the exam, applicants are tested on their skills in healthy cooking, buffet catering (meaning classic French salad and terrine preparations, not setting up buffet lines), classical cuisine, freestyle cooking, global cuisine, and baking and pastry. Applicants who maintain at least a 75 percent score on the first seven days move on to a final challenge on day eight, which is split up into two tests: continental and Northern European cuisines and a market basket.
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Smith is no stranger to the stress of competition; while in the Army, he headed up teams that competed in the International Culinary Olympics, taking home multiple medals, including at least one championship, over several years. At Bistro Colorado, his style of cooking reflects the most important judging criteria for the CMC exam, so in some ways, he's practicing every day. "It's a balance of the classics and current techniques," he says of his menu, "with attention to temperature, seasoning, textures and appearance."
But the chef is also making sure to get in some additional practice. Last week, he held a chef's dinner with a six-course menu covering all but the final round of the exam, taking diners through a healthy first course of ratatouille; a terrine made with smoked salmon and salmon mousse; a classic French Dover sole floreal (the fish was rolled and stuffed with shrimp); a rack of lamb with root vegetables and sweet0potato purée; a Korean kimchi-style salad; and a chocolate mousse and brownie dessert.
Colorado only has a handful of working chefs who have earned the Certified Master Chef honors; two of them are Ed Janos of Cook's Fresh Market, on the 16th Street Mall, and John Johnstone, who works at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. With a little luck, Smith will soon be added to that roster.