“Here I go again.” That’s what ran through Shawn Loving’s mind on day 1 of the American Culinary Federation’s eight-day exam to become a Certified Master Chef (CMC).
The current chair of the Culinary Arts program at Schoolcraft College had been there before. Twice, in fact: once in 2010 and again in 2012. It wasn’t as if Loving needed the certification to get a better job. His resume, which begins with popping popcorn for a movie theater in Sterling Heights, includes restaurateur (The Loving Spoonful in Farmington Hills), chef for Epcot Center and Euro Disney, and Inflight team chef for the Detroit Pistons. Now, in addition to his teaching duties, he’s the USA Olympic basketball team chef as well as a private personal chef for Nike Sport commercials for selected athletes.
The CMC challenge was personal. “I watched a lot of other CMCs and saw what they stood for: their work ethics, the way they pushed themselves,” says Loving. “I became addicted to that desire. I wanted to have that feeling, go for the highest level of certification.”
For his third attempt, he used the first two tests like educational fuel. “It wasn’t about being judged, but just looking in the mirror. What are my deepest problems in the kitchen? Feeding Steph Curry and Kevin Durant and LeBron—that’s way more fun than someone telling you they don’t like your organizational skills. But I want my organizational skills to be stronger, the strongest they can be.”
So prior to his third attempt—which began last September 30— he entered competitions and cooked for CMCs, learning from their critiques. Then he checked into a hotel, despite the fact that the exam would be held at Schoolcraft. “I definitely can say that when you take the exam there’s no such thing as ‘home court advantage.’ It’s just the stove, the four burners and you.’ ”
And it began. Day 1, Healthy Cooking, required him and the other candidates to create a 1,000-calorie menu with specific amounts of fat, carbohydrates and protein and “one little pinch of salt.” His randomly assigned ingredients included Arctic char, which he served in a red pepper and saffron nage (a light broth) and a wild turkey flavored with citrus and herbs under its skin.
Next up: the 2-day garde manger challenge, less exotically referred to as “cold food kitchen.” His basket contained pheasant, foie gras and pork loin; Day 2 was dedicated to creating pâtés, terrines and galatines, and Day 3 to presentation.
His high score elated him, but didn’t prepare him for Day 4, the classical portion. “I drew lamb racks, a whole cod and a consomme. It was an absolute bear,” he says. Missing his time window by one minute, he still managed to survive and be commended for good flavor. That led to the globally focused Day 5, with three dishes from three continents: Korean braised beef, gnocchi with homemade Italian sausage, and Latin American arroz con pollo.
Meanwhile, the pressure continued to build. “You could feel it,” says Loving. “It’s like walking outside and the wind is pushing you. And you’re, like, ‘Where are you going?’”
As it turned out, into Day 6’s freestyle challenge and an oddball basket with jackfruit, skate wing, white beans, sorghum, and a pork skirt steak. “There is no such thing as cruising altitude in this kind of test,” says Shawn. “I’ve seen great chefs be flying high and then get hit by a bomb. I couldn’t let that happen.” His meal included corn succotash with bbq pork, skate wing in brown butter caper sauce, and a ragout of beans with jackfruit.
In previous competitions, his journey had ended on Day 7. But that day’s baking and pastry challenge—“I made a beautiful apple mousse, challah bread, vol au vents and some scones with Asiago cheese and spinach”—ensured that he made it to Day 8, which required two complete meals.
His first meal featured a Zurich of veal (tender strips in a delicate sauce); a Flemish dish of beef braised with beer, stale bread and mustard; and fish stew thickened with crushed almonds. “I finished it, ate a banana, changed my apron and washed my face.”
For the ultimate test, Loving transformed 29 ingredients into a five-course menu for 10, “the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life.” And then he was done. “I immediately left the kitchen and walked down the hall and cried. Altogether, I’d spent 22 days of taking the test, from 2010 to ’17. I just had to release the whole thing: all the travel, the spreadsheets, the butchering. I didn’t know if I’d passed. Whatever happened, I was going to be content and thankful. I knew I wouldn’t do it again.”
After a couple of hours, “We got called in. You get a glass of champagne. And they put the hat on you. And I can say champagne has never, ever tasted so good.”
Despite an epic ending to a seven-year journey, Loving does not feel all that different. “It doesn’t change you,” he says. “It gives you a better understanding of perseverance, and just not giving up.” Otherwise, life goes on: teaching, mentoring, chef-ing and helping take care of his mom. “Mom is the greatest cook, ever,” he says. “Everything comes back to her. And so right now one of the most important things I can do is make sure she’s got a great cup of chicken noodle soup.” And off he goes to make it. Perfectly.
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