What Does It Really Take to Be a Master Chef?

The process is definitely not how you see it on TV

Photo courtesy of Dusit Hospitality Management College

MasterChef has given us ideas on the daily struggles and victories chefs experience in the kitchen. The competitive cooking television show has become an international hit, being produced in 40 countries and airing in over 200 territories.

But in France, being a master chef doesn’t happen in just a couple of seasons and episodes; it is a lifetime goal, and French chefs are seriously vying for a spot in the prestigious and exclusive society of Maître Cuisiniers de France every year. It is one of the highest honors in France and it ensures the preservation, advancement, and perpetuation of traditional French cuisine.

Cyrille Soenen is one of the master chefs who belong in this roster. He started as an apprentice at the Hotel Ritz in Paris and eventually landed in several Michelin-starred restaurants like Duc d’Enghien, Le Drouant, and Restaurant L’Espadon. “Before being a master chef the judges will look at your culinary skills and path—where did you start and what did you do,” says Soenen.

He was also lucky enough to have started at Hotel Ritz, thus creating a good foundation. “If you want to become a chef in fine dining, then start in fine dining. Don’t start in random cafeterias if you want to be awarded Master Chef of France.”

The first step to becoming one is to be a good chef. And Soenen always keeps these things in mind: “Know all the basics. It’s like the foundation of a house. You have to make sure that the foundation is good. Train in [French] cooking and know the proper ingredients to choose in the market. Not everyone knows how to do that, really.”

However chefs can still lose the award if they fail to exemplify the ideals that make one. “You need to make sure you know well what you are doing and showcase your French cooking and technique; make sure that you are using the right ingredients and in the right time or season. It’s very important, and chefs tend to forget about it.” Aside from that, a Master Chef of France needs to implement cleanliness and comfort in his kitchen, must manage his guests properly, keep his restaurant operating smoothly, and at times, represent the association and gain exposure in the media.

Soenen has been Master Chef of France since 2015. He is constantly learning and imparting culinary lessons to younger chefs as part of his responsibility as master chef, though Soenen still enjoys cooking and eating the most. “A lot of people think that master chefs need to eat fancy food all the time. I like good food that’s prepared simply. I’m perfectly fine with a simple roasted chicken. People could go a little bit too much on food and so it becomes complicated.”

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