A master chef finds his niche in academe
By Eric McHenry
When Noel Cullen encounters one of his recipes on a restaurant menu, he's not sure quite how to feel. It's gratifying to see that he's contributed something to the culinary canon, he says. But he must also swallow a little bit of that proprietary pride.
"From time to time I'll see my recipes copied, and sometimes changed and chopped," says Cullen, MET associate professor of hospitality administration and one of only 51 certified master chefs in the United States. "It's both flattering and frustrating. Unfortunately, you can't have a copyright on a recipe."
Cullen originals include Prawns Darragh, a prawn and risotto dish, and Chicken Colcannon, chicken filled with a mixture of potatoes, kale, scallions, and chopped smoked salmon.
These are worthy creations for a chef who is himself a rather exotic combination. Equal parts culinary artist, administrator, and pedagogue, Cullen is the only person in the world to have earned both a doctoral degree and certified master chef status. In 1997 he was elected president of the American Culinary Federation (ACF), the largest professional association of its kind in the United States. He has been executive chef for the finest kitchens, including those of the Shelbourne Hotel in his native Dublin, where he managed a staff of 70, and the Gresham Hotel, also in Dublin, where on his watch the Savarin restaurant came to be ranked among the world's top 50. And he's won individual and team gold medals for both Ireland and the United States in the Culinary Olympics. He's now a coach of the U.S. national team.
Cullen, who began a formal apprentice chef program at the age of 13, says cookery has always been his enthusiasm. He became interested in education while helping develop Ireland's national culinary curricula as an advisor to the Council for Education, Recruitment, and Training in the mid-1980s. Concurrently teaching, consulting, cooking, and studying, he built an educator's résumé to complement his culinary credentials, ultimately earning his Ed.D. from SED in 1992. From time to time, he says, he feels a tug to return to the kitchen full-time.
"I miss professional cooking enormously at the high end," he says. "When I go into a big commercial kitchen and observe, I always want to get my hands on everything."
What he doesn't miss are the exhausting labor and long hours, which kept him from fully enjoying family life, he says. And if he were to leave academe, he'd have to deal with another significant absence: "the students," he says. "They're what keeps me teaching."
To attain his certification as a master chef, Cullen was grilled in a grueling examination that rigorously tests all of an entrant's kitchen skills, including knowledge of management, supervision, sanitation, and nutrition. The test takes an astonishing 10 days to complete and culminates with the notorious 'mystery basket' challenge.
"You're given a basket and required to do a four-course meal for 10 from the ingredients provided," Cullen says. "There are just all sorts of things in there: proteins, starch, vegetables, various fillings. They put in more than you need, to ensure that you understand quantity and proportion, although in some cases they put in a small amount of something, and you've got to figure out what to do with that. You're judged in blind tasting by six of your peers. It is by far the most onerous part of the competition."
The test has a failure rate of 80 percent, which certainly helps account for the paucity of U.S. certified master chefs. Cullen says reforming the process is one of his objectives as president of the ACF. Many qualified cooks, he believes, are deterred by its difficulty and duration. No more than 10 people, he notes, have taken the test in any one year since its inauguration in 1983. He says he'd like to replace the compressed 10-day format with an exam that can be taken in sections over a period of up to three years.
"I don't want to change its quality level," he says. "I just want to change the perception that it's unpassable. Speaking as an educator, when 80 percent of the participants fail, there's something wrong with the test."
Far from diminishing the prestige of certification, Cullen says, boosting the number of master chefs would actually enhance the cachet of the title by making it familiar to more of the dining public. Not that it doesn't carry some clout already -- Cullen says that headhunters from ritzy country clubs and hotels, working down their master list of master chefs, approach him once or twice a year with big offers. He finds these more flattering than tempting, he says.
"I don't know whether, physically, I could do it anymore," he says of commercial cooking. "It's a seven-day spread. You don't go home when the whistle blows. You go home when the last guest is taken care of."
He adds that his present life affords him more than enough opportunities to act on his chef's impulse.
"I do a lot of cooking demonstrations," he says. "I'm involved in food-related research and development. Of course I teach cooking at BU. And I cook at home. I have to!"