A Master's Touch


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.

Ryan Wiest started at Rudys' at 19 and stayed five years before moving onto a hotel kitchen in Germany. He came back to visit on a Friday afternoon before heading off to his next job at the Claridge Hotel in London.

"Classical" is Wiest's summation of Speckamp's approach. "The Old-World style and basics ... There's not many of these chefs around."

Speckamp's been chef at Rudys' 2900 since the place opened in 1983, serving what the Zagat Survey calls a "Continental-American" menu. The restaurant rates a 27 on the latest Zagat Survey 30-scale, where even such a paragon of culinary excellence as Jean Georges in Manhattan rates two points short of perfection at 28.

Speckamp -- one of four CMCs in Maryland -- has built the career of a man possessed of fierce intention, which only suggests that outcomes can be deceiving.

Never cooked at home

He entered the field with about as much resolution and commitment as any 14-year-old boy could be reasonably expected to muster. He never cooked at home and never thought much about it. No one in his family was in the food business, but he had a pal who worked in his family's restaurant. That looked more appealing than the straight academic program in school. So young Rudy figured he'd try being a cook. His parents resisted, but eventually allowed the boy to begin work as an apprentice in a hotel kitchen in the Bavarian town of Kaufbeuren.

One thing led to another and another. Somewhere along the line, casual notion became abiding commitment. A chef took shape.

Perhaps it's best not to say "a chef was born," as Speckamp doesn't subscribe to the idea. He's inclined to stress knowledge over inspiration, discipline over innate gifts. There are no secrets, no magic in cooking, he says.

"Of course, talent comes into it to a certain extent, but we are craftspeople first," says Speckamp. "Food is not an art, food is a science first."

Speckamp already had 28 years of experience and a few regional cooking awards to his credit before he arrived at the Hyde Park, N.Y., campus of the CIA to take the CMC exam. For the 10-day stay he had packed clothes, his knives, his Escoffier and Larousse Gastronomique, and, oh yes, his rowing machine.

Rowing machine?

It was January, and Speckamp figured local roads would be too icy for the jogging regimen he maintained in those days. Physical stamina would be crucial for the exam, perhaps the difference between success and failure. So -- the rowing machine.

Every day he'd be up and on the machine around, say, 4:30 a.m. Then out to breakfast, then to the CIA kitchen to begin the day at about 7 a.m.

The exam -- only given to experienced practitioners qualified by the federation as certified executive chefs -- includes written and hands-on sections covering a wide range of cooking techniques and knowledge: menu development, cost control, classical cooking, Asian and American food, patisserie, among other topics.

In charcuterie, for example, the 16 chefs in Speckamp's group drew assignments to create different types of sausage. Speckamp lucked out, drawing weisswurst, a veal sausage popular in Bavaria. He knew more than enough about how it was supposed to taste.

"All the flavor has to be brought out there, so you don't need the mustard," says Speckamp.

Essentially, it's salt, pepper and mace, ground and stuffed into a skin with sufficient attention to cooking temperature so the whole thing doesn't explode.

"In American cuisine, I got a pig's knuckle. What are you going to do with a pig's knuckle?"

He seared, then roasted it, removing the skin to be crisped and used as seasoning in another dish.

No problem, he says. Neither was the harrowing last day, which accounts for half the total score for the 10 days. Two four-course meals for 10 must be cooked in two four-hour segments, one in the morning, one in the evening. The food has to be on the plates and out within a 20-minute limit.

Speckamp remembers he drew an assignment to create a Spanish meal in the morning. The evening of that day has somehow faded in memory.

Details, details

The only hitch he can remember during the 10 days was a butter sauce for a fish dish that did not develop the proper consistency.

He figures he lost a few points, but it wasn't fatal. Nearly 30 years after he started this journey, stoking up wood-fired stoves around dawn each day at that hotel in Germany, he was, officially, a master.

God and the devil have been said to lie in details, and so it goes with the line dividing the master from his young charges in the kitchen. These are often subtle matters.

There's the small matter of the vinaigrette for the frisee: while a young cook suggests a grapefruit base, Speckamp advises a sweeter start with orange juice for this rather bitter green. There's the question of putting bread crumbs between layers of butter-brushed phyllo dough for a quail dish, the better to keep the pastry shell crisp. There's the garnish on the vegetable terrine and scallops appetizer: two fresh basil leaves quick-fried in oil, so delicate they're barely there at all.

Some parts education and other parts -- what, exactly?

Ruhlman wrote that a few of the chefs conducting the CMC test say it measures learned skills, yes, but some other ineffable thing, something you either have or you don't.

"Sometimes it's not what we add, but what we take away," says Speckamp. "You have to let the integrity of the food speak. There's nothing more difficult to achieve than simplicity done well."

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