A Master's Touch

Rudy Speckamp, a member of an exclusive group of certified chefs, shows young cooks what it takes to be one of the best.

April 10, 2002|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,SUN STAFF

At the height of the Friday dinner frenzy in the kitchen of Rudys' 2900 in Finksburg, the chef's softly German-accented voice rises above the clatter, calling attention to the rockfish with corn relish and red-pepper beurre blanc. If more than one order goes to the same table, he says, make sure the cuts are the same, either both center, belly or tail, for consistent plate appearance.

There are other such exchanges. There's a chat between the chef and a young cook about rice pilaf: when to stir and when not. An exchange between the chef and another young cook about the precise plate placement of the two egg-shaped scoops of mousse -- one dark chocolate, one white chocolate -- in relation to the berry-cluster garnish and the vanilla-sauce puddle. A cautionary instruction relayed from chef to broiler man: Those scallop appetizers go out when the pesto toast accompaniment is crisp. Not before.

In the heat of the moment, it all seems relevant.

Put the stress here on seems, as this expedition pursues something that appears more elusive as hours pass. The idea is to glimpse culinary excellence by a recognized master.

Rudy Speckamp -- who owns Rudys' 2900 along with Rudi Paul -- is one of only 58 certified master chefs in the country. Fourteen years ago he passed a practical and written examination given by the American Culinary Federation, an organization founded in 1929 to promote culinary education. Administered on the East Coast at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., the exam runs 10 days straight. In published accounts, the test sounds like something hatched in a TV network brainstorming session: OK, so, this new show, see, it's gonna be like `Survivor' meets `Iron Chef,' got it? ...

Even in a business where long days on little sleep are expected, the examination pushes candidates to new levels of stress, as the practical portions call for quick decisions and creative thinking under tight deadlines and, of course, ruthless observation.

As a measure of the difficulty of the test, consider that since the federation started giving it in 1981, more than two-thirds of the experienced chefs who have taken it failed, and many who pass don't do so on their first try. Speckamp passed on his first try in January 1988.

The American Culinary Federation says the exam attempts to objectively measure excellence.

According to Michael Ruhlman, whose book, The Soul of a Chef, included a detailed chapter on the CMC exam, some prominent restaurant chefs tend to consider the test "out of touch with reality, a waste of time and money."

Rick Bayless, chef at the highly rated Frontera Grill in Chicago, for example, says the test is valuable if you want to manage a big kitchen, or work at a hotel serving European-style food. If you showed up looking for a job with these credentials at his place -- offering refined Mexican fare -- he says, "I wouldn't basically put any credence in it. Every cuisine has its own special way of being presented, being seasoned."

Speckamp, who has occasionally served as an exam judge, makes no grandiose claims about the examination.

"I don't think there are more dedicated chefs than the CMCs I know," says Speckamp. "Are they the best chefs in the world? I don't think so, because there's always someone better."

`To lead by example'

For Speckamp, the exam was the culmination of a life's devotion to a profession, something he almost felt compelled to do.

"Maybe because of my European upbringing," says Speckamp, who grew up in Bavaria and immigrated to this country in 1967. In Europe, he says, a hotel or restaurant "cannot hire an apprentice unless they have a master chef there to teach that person. ... I always felt I wanted to lead by example."

A tall man whose build betrays many tastings of beurre blanc and Madeira cream, Speckamp turns 56 this spring. Perhaps it's best to picture him in his chef whites amid a cluster of young men in like uniform, the group working with the intensity of a surgical team placing entrees on plates with swiftness and care.

Here is chef as mentor and professor, closing a circle of tutelage that began 42 years ago in Bavaria with Speckamp as child apprentice. He teaches one day a week at the Culinary Institute of America and likes to think of his restaurant kitchen as a place where young chefs learn and move on in their careers.

Scott Cummings, for example, worked his way up from cook to sous-chef in three years at Rudys'.

"I'm like one of his children, I guess," says Cummings, 23. "I don't think there's anything he wouldn't do for me."

With the master's help, Cummings anticipates landing his next job at the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia.

"He's very hard-core on the basics: basic cooking techniques, knife skills, being very professional, maintaining composure," Cummings says of Speckamp.

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