National President of the American Culinary Federation
The career of Rene Marquis, the American Culinary Federation’s (ACF) new national president, reads like a Hollywood movie script.
The career goals of Master Sergeant Rene J. Marquis, CEC, CCE, PCEC, CCA, AAC did not originally include the U.S. Army. But two chance meetings would take the 21-year veteran to fifty-two countries around the world, cooking, teaching, and competing while proudly serving his country.
Chef Rene’s interest in cooking was sparked by his first job, washing dishes for a Chinese restaurant in his hometown of Lewiston, ME. During his senior year in high school, he enrolled in the culinary program at Lewiston Regional Technical Center. At a culinary competition in New Hampshire, he met Culinary Institute of America (CIA) chef-instructor Fritz Sonnenschmidt, who said, “Come to my school.” That moment changed Rene’s life.
Chance meeting number two came following Chef Rene’s CIA graduation while he was working as garde manger and chef tournant at the Broadmoor Resort in Colorado Springs, CO. A four-star general from a nearby military base frequented the dining room and enjoyed Chef Rene’s creations. One day he asked, “Why don’t you come be my chef?”
After serving as an enlisted aide to two generals, Rene Marquis requested to be assigned to the 18th Airborne, Ala Carte Troop Feeding Dining Facility at Fort Drum, NY. At the rapid-deployment, state-of-the-art venue, he served as a shift leader. While at Fort Drum, Chef Rene was deployed four times to locations including Bosnia, Kuwait, and Panama.
Rene served as the senior chef-instructor in the States at the Quartermaster Center and School with the Army Center of Excellence, Subsistence in Fort Lee, VA. There he taught the flagship culinary course for all of the military services—the Advanced Culinary Skills Training Course, which focused on mastering the fundamentals of cookery and pastry preparation.
In addition to his teaching duties, Chef Rene Marquis was drawn to the world of culinary competitions. On several occasions, he had been selected for the Culinary Olympics, the largest American Culinary Federation (ACF) sanctioned competition in the world.
Chef Rene served as the enlisted aide to the commander of United States Special Operations Command, one of only 90 such positions in the entire army. He regularly judges culinary competitions, proctors ACF certifications, participates in charity fundraisers, starred in a YouTube cooking series called Dinner Boot Camp, and won on Alton Brown’s show, Cutthroat Kitchen, Season 1 Episode 7.
He has been an active member of the ACF for several decades and was recently installed as the association’s new national president. With the importance of chefs now expanding into so many disciplines, Total Food Service wanted to share the vision of Rene Marquis for the role of today’s chefs across the country.
Can you please share what sparked your interest in the industry?
I only did two things growing up in my hometown of Lewiston, ME: I played hockey and I worked in a kitchen because it was warm! I started at a Chinese restaurant called Cafe Hut as a dishwasher and then worked my way to handling fryers on weekends.
After being there for almost two years, I got an opportunity to work on the woks and made fried rice. That’s all I did and then one of the chefs from the restaurant decided he was going to open up his own Chinese restaurant down the street and I went with him. I was intrigued by how much I learned in the restaurant. I had a high school culinary vocational class, which was really cool.
From there, I went to a culinary competition while I was in high school at the Balsams in Dixville Notch. I had three master chefs as my judges, and long story short, I put out this beautiful mirror frosted with powdered sugar and a watermelon basket. I didn’t win a prize, but three of the judges (Axanar Smith, Anton Florian, and Joe Amendola) came to me and said, you need to come to our school.
I asked what school, and they said the CIA. I’d never heard of the CIA outside of the federal agency! There was a three-year waiting list at the time, but they found me a spot for the class beginning in July 1990, and there I went.
What were your takeaways from the CIA?
The takeaway was time management and scheduling. I had classes in the morning. I worked in the school store in the afternoon. Every night, I had an event or a club that I was in. Monday night was gourmet. Tuesday Night was Epicurean. Wednesday night was ice carving. Thursday night, I played hockey with President Ferdinand Metz, because I was on the CIA hockey team. On weekends, my roommate and I worked at Anthony’s Pier Nine catering on the other side of the river, going towards West Point.
As you look back at your culinary education, are we teaching the next generation correctly? What is it we should be adding to today’s curriculums, especially as you move into your leadership role with the ACF?
I’ve seen culinary programs evolve, and I see the way that we’ve changed. We used to teach, what was called, direct functionality by teaching just classical recipes. Now, we have to change and teach things differently and modernize some things. I’ll give you a good example. Our technology for equipment has changed from just having a four-burner stove and a convection oven.
We have all these different cooking techniques now. We have all these different ways of reheating and recirculating and doing all this magic with food. You must look at these Turbo-Chef ovens, and you must look at some of the equipment that has been made, where they can steam, bake, and fry all in the same piece of equipment. That is taking us away from the traditional way, putting things in a pan, sauteing it, letting it rest, slicing it, and putting it on the plate. Technology has evolved and dramatically changed how we cook.
There is so much conversation throughout the industry about the challenges of the labor market. Can you please share your read?
Pre-COVID, I thought we were in a great place. Now I see post-COVID that we are in a very different place. It’s almost as if people don’t have to go to work and smell like a French fry when they come home to their family. Frankly, many industries pay better. I think part of the shortages we have in the industry is that people don’t want to deal with working in a traditional restaurant environment.
In other words, we’ve taken the art out of culinary art, and we’ve turned it into food production?
Yes and no. Yes, I agree with that. But I don’t think we’ve done that. I think that changes in society with the growth of takeout and delivery and third-party apps like Uber Eats and DoorDash have changed how we eat.
It’s strange, we’re always worried about the chef and the cook being ServSafe certified. Then we send out our food with a third party, who has no certification training or no opportunity to understand what food safety is. How did society accept that we’re worried about the cook washing his hands and not about where our food is sitting in the car being delivered to our house? So that’s a gray area for me.
What other significant changes need to be recognized for creating change in the chef’s role?
Restaurants and businesses got very sophisticated during the Pandemic. They became retailers learning how to sell bags of flour and gallons of milk and things they never sold out of their front door before, because there was no flour on the shelves to make bread. There was no sugar on the shelves to make desserts because everybody was at home.
It’s amazing because I worked with F.DICK knife company prior to joining Land O’ Lakes, and I saw our sales rise because everyone was at home cooking. Everybody was buying knives, cutting boards, cooking equipment, pots and pans, and kitchen tools during COVID-19 because they were all cooking from home and they needed those necessities.
Do you see takeout and delivery as the predominant way that America eats now?
No, I think there’s a time and place and time for all of that. I think things that were once convenience foods are now more convenient. I think a lot more people are accepting the fact that foods may be pre-prepared. And I just travelled through an airport last week, and you see these machines that have these salads that are already pre-done. All you do is you put your dressing on and shake it up.
Is that taking away from the foodservice industry? No, because it is still prepped and, packed, and made by human beings. But the problem is, there’s no customer interaction. So, there’s a person, then there’s a step missing. It’s kind of like how we added the “Uber Eats” layer of delivering the food to the chain.
It’s interesting because we thought we had made progress when we went farm to table and cut out the middle person. Because the farmer produced the food, it went to the broadliners like SYSCO or US Foods, and then was delivered to the restaurant. Well, now we’ve gone in the opposite direction. With the chef making the food and then someone delivering the food to the customer. So there’s no interaction, there’s no facetime with the customer.
So is hospitality as we knew it dead, or is it being redefined? And as you look at your role, and this constituency that you represent, is it up to the chef to bring that facetime/interaction back into the dining room?
Yes, I think it is. I’ll tell you this, from the education side, from the NACUFS with college and university students’ standpoint, they have more students than they’ve ever had. And now I’m hearing about culinary schools. They have way more students than they had before pre-COVID.
So, I think the industry is coming back. It’s just going to take time. It’s not something that’s going to happen overnight, like COVID did. The key to success in this post-Pandemic era is about educating the customer. We are finding that people will pay more now for better and cleaner food. The dining guest wants to know where the food came from more than they did before COVID because they’re more educated. They’ve done their own cooking, research, and trial and error. So now they’re trusting the professional chefs to do it again.
So many of today’s chefs aspired to become or somehow became brands, TV shows, books, online presence, etc. Since you got into this, how has the role or the branding of a chef changed and evolved?
Wow, that’s a really tough question. The role of the chef, I don’t think, has changed. I think the way that we credit the chef and the way that we honor the chef has changed.
Because I’ll tell you, when I went to culinary school, and there were no food networks, or cooking shows that are on ABC and Fox, etc. The good news is they have helped raise the profile of our industry. The bad news is the realization that you’re going to go to culinary school and, unfortunately, not remotely coming close to becoming the next Food Network star. It is misleading because when I was in the Army, I saw these individuals thinking I’m going to go to culinary school and become the next Bobby Flay or Guy Fieri.
The truth is that all of this stuff is just about timing and being at the right place at the right time. I’ve worked with some of those chefs on the Food Network when I was on Cutthroat Kitchen. I did some cooking competitions with Guy Fieri, Alton Brown, and Bobby Flay. They’re just great chefs, but everyone has their own specialty.
You need to remember that every chef makes a contribution in their own way to our industry.
You mentioned your time in the Army. Thank you for your service! How did it expand your horizons and how did it help you grow?
After graduating from CIA, I worked at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. While I was at the Broadmoor, a four-star general asked me to come work for him.
Then there was a conference at the Air Force Academy, and I was cooking breakfast, lunch, and dinner for some four-star admirals and generals, not knowing anything about the service or what they did. One of the generals said, ‘Hey, come work for me’, but I said no thanks for now. Two months later, I got a fax from him that was like 27 feet long! But it basically said Come join the army. We’re going to pay off your student loans and give you a cash bonus. So I said, “See you in three weeks!” and I journeyed to South Carolina, where I attended advanced cooking training at Fort Lee, and off I went.
How did your career in the military turn you on to competitive cooking?
I was working for a very powerful army general in Florida. I discovered that the Army was involved with selecting a Culinary Arts team for the United States that competes at the Culinary Olympics and the World Cup, as well as other international competitions. But I found out the army had a Culinary Arts team.
I got the chance to try out for that team and won a spot on the 1999 team. The amazing thing is, once you’re part of USACAT (United States Army Culinary Arts team), it’s something that you get to keep for the rest of your life. Never did I think I would have the chance to compete at multiple culinary Olympics and multiple culinary World Cups. I would have never gotten that opportunity just playing hockey.
How does the world of cooking competitions differ from working in a kitchen every day?
It’s more similar than you think because I think your customer is also your competitor. So, I look at food differently. When I send food out to a customer, and the plate comes back empty, I know that I have won. My wife’s a chef as well and we use that very same philosophy in our home. When we have guests over and the plates come back clean, I’m thinking: we won.
But cooking competitions are a sport and are not for everyone. Some chefs can teach, some people can compete, others can do demonstrations, and very few can do all the above. The takeaway about cooking competitions is you get instant critique and gratification on what you did well and what you need to improve. Competing has been integral in my career because no one thought chefs in the Army had any talent.
So, kicking everybody’s butt in the civilian world as a military chef was a way to make a statement. It has spread to the other branches of the service. There used to be the Freedom Chef Challenge with the Navy, Marines, Coast Guard, and the Army. They squared off in a cooking competition called the Freedom Chef Challenge.
I’m proud to say that all three of the army teams I was a part of won the beautiful Eagle Trophy out there at Fort Lee. I am so proud to see my and my partner’s names on that trophy for each of the three consecutive years we won. It’s interesting the Army started the competitions as a push for their culinary training program with a goal of certification.
When did you get involved with the ACF and how has it impacted your career?
I got involved when I was at the CIA, I became the student chapter president of Hyde Park Beekman Arms culinary chapter. It’s been a motivating factor and helped me elevate my career with an opportunity to continue to learn. Involvement with the ACF is all about education, mentorship, certification, and apprenticeship that, which are the foundations of a successful career for a chef.
It is interesting that, when I got involved, we didn’t have social media. You found out about the ACF, by physically talking to someone, either on a phone that had a landline, or you were standing in front of the person. Now, you can find out about the ACF by going to any social media page or seeing someone’s post about an ACF meeting. I can’t begin to tell you how proud I am of our chapter here in Tampa Bay.
As you set your agenda for your term as president, what are the highlights on that agenda?
For me, it’s really just helping the food service industry and helping our chefs transition to Post-Pandemic life. I hate still using the word, COVID, but it affected so many people in our
We’re starting to see already the industry rebound, but we want to rebound to the point where there is a full recovery. ACF certification was something for many that was put on hold for many during COVID. Many of the larger professional food service companies that have sporting venues and manage contract feeding for schools and catering had pre-COVID, and the requirements were for their chefs to be ACF certified. They’ve finally made that a requirement again.
It’s back in the mix because we see them reaching out to chapters and reaching out to Chefs saying: we need you to get certified by the end of the year and/or you have six months left to get certified. What is important to remember is that our ACF certification guaranteed that the employer they were hiring someone who could really cook without fear of an inflated resume.
My goal is that just as a doctor is called “Doctor,” we want to see a certified chef called “Chef”. As the ACF pushes certification, more people in the industry are going to want to attain this level of certification. With that will come both better pay and better position.
How can the ACF share opportunities for chefs outside of the traditional restaurant kitchen?
Our new board, committees, and task forces already give us a bigger reach. We’re trying to create a bigger web so that we can capture more people on the web. We will be looking to re-establish great partnerships with other associations in our industry. We need to reignite our strong partnerships with healthcare and research chefs.
Frankly, we need to pay better attention to when each of those groups has their conventions so that we can help each other. I literally left the ACF convention in a hurry to get to the second and third days of the NACUFS convention because I was judging that competition in Baltimore.
Your career path led to a move to the corporate side with your work at Land O’ Lakes. What attracted you to that opportunity?
It’s very different from not having to work a whole lot of nights, weekends, and holidays. That’s one benefit of being on the corporate side. But the other part of being on the corporate side is my role as a corporate chef and dealing with customers who are in the industry. Not only do I get to bring them my professional experiences, but I also get to bring them the experiences and the challenges that I’ve been through with the American Culinary Federation.
The chefs we work with see our jackets and ask what those letters mean. The fact that they don’t know what the letter means hurts my feelings, but at the same time, it creates a new conversation about certification, and with that comes interest in the ACF. I find that one of the biggest battles we are fighting is that many restaurant chefs think they’re at their highest level and don’t need the ACF.
But the truth is you’re never going to be able to go from being a restaurant chef to a country club chef, or to a Ritz Carlton chef, or a corporate chef unless you have some formal levels of certification. We are trying to create an understanding of the importance and differences of both professional and personal connections. If you still feel ACF is not for you as a restaurant chef, it may be a great tool for your kitchen staff. It’s a great way to lift them up.
Are chefs responsible for public schools and kids in K-12, adopting healthier eating or is the chef just part of the message?
My wife leads the International Chef’s Day Initiative, an international collaboration with chefs to share our noble profession with students, educate children about food and sustainability, and make healthy food choices. I think that what our kids eat is everybody’s responsibility, from the parents to the babysitter, the nanny, the neighbor, the grandparents, the chef, and the cooks.
I used to teach culinary school at the high school level. I always told my students: listen, you may forget math, you may forget science, you may forget history. Pay clear attention in this class because you’re going to need to eat every day for the rest of your life! The other thing I’m seeing after COVID is that we’re starting to see more common trades come back, such as carpentry, automotive, and electronics, because, like culinary, they are life skills. In our case with culinary programs like SkillsUSA and the Pro Start, you can graduate a high school program and be confident of finding a job.
What’s the next step for somebody who would like to get involved with ACF?
Visit us online, or go to a local chapter meeting. It all starts with a Google search.
Many times, it comes from the outreach of our chefs. We’re finding that our ACF chefs are going to restaurants and taking the time to talk to the chefs and introduce them to the ACF. One of our biggest challenges is how we embrace the restaurant chef who’s not interested. Because they don’t need what we’re offering to keep their position. But we have to educate them and tell them it’s not just for this position, it’s for the future in any role, and for their staff. We want to help that chef write their next chapter.
All photos courtesy of the American Culinary Federation