Certified #1 Here in Chattanooga


As a member of the American Culinary Federation, Dao Le, executive chef at the Doubletree in downtown Chattanooga, participates in numerous competitions, such as the World Chef Challenge held annually in Florida.

When you’ve committed to an expensive evening out—dining at one of Chattanooga’s top restaurants—knowing that the food you will be enjoying is the best it can be is what you’re after. And having the chef in charge certified by the ℹ American Culinary Federation goes a long way in ensuring that your meal will be a delicious, memorable one. “Having ACF certification means a chef is at the top of his or her game,” says Andrea Cagle, president of the Chefs and Cooks Association, the Chattanooga arm of the ACF.

The American Culinary Federation got its start in the 1970s as the United States was becoming better known for the talented chefs it was producing. As a result, culinary schools were founded. No longer could Europe lay claim to the world’s top chefs and culinary schools. It was happening on American soil. With that, the ACF was born. “Just as with other jobs, chefs need to be certified in their craft,” Cagle notes.

Obtaining certification is a lengthy process. A chef must graduate from culinary school or work and learn for years under a dedicated teaching chef. Once completed, chefs sit for a written exam, then must perform a number of culinary skills under the scrutiny of a panel of chefs from the ACF. Judged skills include properly filleting fish; making a consommé; and preparing and plating a complete entree—all in a predetermined amount of time. “You have to be proficient at what you do,” Cagle says. “It’s very intimidating.”

Dao Le, executive chef at the ℹ Doubletree Hotel in downtown Chattanooga, is an active ACF member. He’s won numerous medals by participating in ACF-sanctioned competitions. “With six gold medals, four silver and four bronze, I’ve been challenged to be the best possible chef I can be,” he says. “Learning and teaching from other chefs and being part of the ACF community is a valuable experience. It helps perfect my craft as a chef and person.”

The local chapter of ACF was organized about 20 years ago, but was dormant for a number of years before Cagle, owner of Kozy Cooking Catering, revitalized the program. At the time, she was an instructor for the ACF-certified culinary school at Virginia College, Culinard, and says it only made sense that the local ACF chapter become active again. That was in 2012, and there were five ACF-certified chef-instructors at the college who helped bring the chapter back to life.

There are now more than 30 members from around the Chattanooga area—chefs, culinary students and others interested in the culinary arts. Monthly meetings feature continuing education; presentations from guests bringing new products and innovations in the culinary field; and ideas for fundraising, as the ACF supports local nonprofit organizations. The ACF is the only recognized organization for chefs’ certification in the United States. “People expect more from an ACF-certified chef,” Cagle says. “And they should. The ACF doesn’t just hand out certifications. It’s not an easy thing to get.”

MEET Andrea Cagle, president, ACF Chattanooga chapter
Andrea Cagle, a native of Huntsville, Alabama, began her career in two of Chattanooga’s favorite restaurants: first, Blue Orleans, then later as general manager of Porter’s Steakhouse at what was then the Sheraton Read House. Realizing a passion for cooking, she enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta, receiving an associate’s degree in the Culinary Arts. From the outset, she knew she wanted to share her knowledge with others, so she accepted a position as the first instructor in the new culinary arts program at Virginia College in 2011. She became its program director a year later, a position she held until late 2016 when she resigned to concentrate on her catering business, Kozy Cooking Catering, full time. She also teaches a fundamentals of cooking class at ℹChattanooga State.

Now, she says, she’d like her own restaurant. She has made a huge sucess out of a joint venture–Wine and Dine series–with friend, Luronda Jennings. During her 28 years in Chattanooga, Cagle has seen a tremendous transformation in the city’s culinary scene. “Big companies have brought people here from other places,” she says. “It’s pushed us to rise to the occasion. Our city has become more beautiful, and so has our food.”

MEET Bill Wright, vice president, ACF Chattanooga chapter
Bill Wright spent 22 years traveling his native Midwest and exploring its culinary scene before settling in Chattanooga 14 years ago. A graduate of the ACF-accredited culinary program at Washenaw Community College in Michigan, he held executive chef positions at ℹ Signal Mountain Country Club, PepperJacks and Goetz Catering, as well as executive sous chef at The Walden Club before taking the position of lead culinary instructor at Culinard, the culinary program at The Culinary Institute of Virginia College, in 2013.

As a longtime member of the ACF, Wright says membership offers him the opportunity to network with other chefs as well as learning the latest trends—what’s hot and what’s not, he says. “From my culinary educators point of view, the ACF is a great way for students, too, to get externships and also get their careers started or improved in the city. “So, do I think being a member of the ACF is important? In one word, absolutely.”

MEET Nick Thiers, treasurer, ACF Chattanooga chapter
Nick Thiers, a culinary instructor at Virginia College, comes to the table with quite an impressive résumé: two degrees from Le Cordon Bleu, an associates degree in culinary arts and a bachelors in culinary management. Plus he holds more than 20 culinary certifications in his category.

In 2016, he won his category in the World Chef Championships in Orange Beach, Alabama. To say he has a passion for food is to put it mildly, but his favorite skills include sculpting fruits and vegetables for impressive presentations. Plus, he enjoys entering food competitions, so as a member of the American Culinary Federation, he enters as many as possible, helping to raise funds for organizations supported by the ACF, such as Journey Educational Services, a nonprofit for children with special needs.

“My favorite fundraiser is our annual ACF barbecue competition that we host at Bass Pro Shops every summer,” he says. “We do a lot of charity work in the community, and our sponsors and supporters help us out a lot so that we are able to do these events and donate a good deal of the money to the charity we are doing it for.”

For more information, visit acfchefs.org


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Anne Braly is a frequent contributor to Chattanooga Magazine.

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