chef reading a recipe

What Certifications Do I Need to Become a Chef?

One of the best things about being a chef is the fact that you can start anywhere to become one. Whether you went to culinary school or started as a dishwasher and worked your way up, as long as you have the right dedication and skills, you can be a chef. However, credentials do matter.

Many employers prefer or even require their new hires to be certified, and even if a prospective employer doesn’t require it, it looks great on a resume.

Not only that, earning certifications — like those offered by the American Culinary Federation (ACF) — provides a great opportunity to further your career goals while continuing to learn and grow in the industry. The ACF certification program is the most comprehensive certification program for culinarians offering 16 stackable certification levels recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor. Cooks and chefs achieve certification based on education, experience, and successful completion of written and practical exams.


Am I qualified to achieve an ACF certification?

Most cooks can qualify for an advanced certification after just a few years of working in the industry, or after five years with no formal education. All it takes is a desire to improve yourself and advance your career. Becoming certified through an organization like the ACF can also:

  • Enhance your professional reputation by proving you have the knowledge and skills required for a position
  • Convey confidence in yourself and your abilities
  • Show that you embrace continuing education as a lifelong goal for continual improvement and mastery of the culinary arts
  • Prove that you uphold the Culinarian’s Code of Ethics, which includes conducting yourself with honesty, integrity, and fairness in providing professional service
  • Facilitate collaboration with others to cultivate new and innovative culinary techniques and skills


chefs plating food


Which certification is right for me?

Now you might be asking yourself: “What’s the best certification to get?” or “Where do I start?” The ACF’s Certified Sous Chef (CSC) certification is a great steppingstone for cooks to develop themselves and stand out from the competition in the job market.

The CSC credential ensures that you have a strong understanding of classic culinary techniques, culinary safety and sanitation, nutrition, and supervisory knowledge. With the ACF’s unique stackable credential model, each certification level builds on the previous one. By seeking the CSC, cooks can improve their skill sets and begin the journey to obtaining the Certified Master Chef (CMC) credential, the highest level of certification offered by the ACF.


How can I best prepare for the certification process?

The ACF recommends passing the written exam first, as this helps candidates remember the classics in preparation for the practical part of the exam. If it’s been a while since you’ve opened a culinary book, now is the time to get a refresher.

While you’re working on that, consider honing the skills necessary for passing the practical exam. If you work a grill station, work on cooking steaks to the perfect medium rare temperature. Continue to practice perfect diamond grill marks and uncover ways to enhance and develop flavors. Concentrate on the timing of letting a steak rest before it’s served so you can incorporate these skills when the time for the practical exam arrives.

Good knife skills are an integral component in all certification practical exams, including the CSC. Continue to improve when that pallet of carrots presents itself for dicing. Focusing on improving knife skills and speed can make the mundane tasks more approachable and even fun.


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How much does an ACF certification cost?

The cost of certification may seem overwhelming for new culinarians looking to enhance their careers. It may be difficult to justify the expense when you’re scraping by, but the long-term benefits for career advancement easily outweigh the expense.

The ACF is a professional organization with 15,000 members nationwide. There’s likely a chapter in your area filled with chefs who are eager (and actually able) to help you work on your certification or hire you for your next job. A quarter of ACF chefs manage 60 or more employees. Some are hiring thousands every year. By joining the ACF, you can expand your network and enjoy discounts on continuing education and online learning. National membership for a culinarian is around $100 a year, and with this membership, the cost for the CSC exam is greatly reduced.

When looking to advance your career or even personal skill sets, certification can provide the path and the direction necessary to stay on track. With a few years of experience and some extra dedicated time, studying, and finances, you can begin your journey towards the top.

Not sure which certifications you qualify for? Get started at Ready for a new culinary career now? Check out the great opportunities on

By Jocelyn Tolbert, Editor-in-Chief, The National Culinary Review | July 24, 2019
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