Certified Master Chef Joseph Leonardi paid a visit to SUNY Delhi last Friday to talk to culinary arts students about his journey to reach the highest level of professional certification for a chef in the United States. Leonardi is the Director of Culinary Operations for The Country Club, one of the oldest and most exclusive country clubs in the country, located near Boston, MA. He was accompanied by SUNY Delhi alum Thomas Downey '17 who currently works under him as a chef de partie.

Leonardi earned his Master Chef certification from the American Culinary Federation in 2017 after making it through a grueling 8-day exam process. There are currently only 67 certified Master Chefs in the nation.

The title didn't come easily. Leonardi described the application experience as brutal.

"I failed my first attempt," he told students. "I wasn't happy with my performance on day one, and it snowballed from there. I didn't make it, and it was utterly devastating."

"It doesn't matter if you fail, what matters is learning from your mistakes."

The failure taught him an important lesson that he wanted the students to know: it doesn't matter if you fail, what matters is learning from your mistakes. "Anyone can learn a set of skills, but what separates a successful person from the rest is never giving up. You have to have the drive to succeed."

More determined than ever, Leonardi took the exam again the next year and passed with high marks.

"What it comes down to is that I truly love this profession," he said. "The reaction I get when I hand someone a plate of something that I produced with my own hands - that's why I became a chef. As a chef, you work long hours, you're up late, there's stress, temper tantrums, and exhaustion. At the end of the day, you'd still rather cook than do anything else."

"The reaction I get when I hand someone a plate of something I produced with my own hands - that's why I became a chef."

While at Delhi, Leonardi was also looking to hire culinary students to work for him at The Country Club this summer. Having hired Delhi alum Thomas Downey last year, he was hopeful that Delhi's culinary program had produced other promising talents. "I'm looking for students with passion. I would much rather work with someone who has heart than someone who thinks they know everything."

Thomas Downey started out as a seasonal worker at The Country Club and now enjoys a permanent position. He connected with Chef Leonardi through his SUNY Delhi instructor Victor Sommo. "I sent in my resume, did a mystery basket challenge, and got the job."

"With passion and a willingness to push yourself, you can go amazing places."

Chef Leonardi said he was impressed with how Downey handled himself as a young chef. "He was enthusiastic about the job. He had the right drive and attitude. He has a bright future in this profession."

Downey agrees that attitude is key: "With passion and a willingness to push yourself, you can go amazing places."

Kandice Drysdale, a sophomore in the Culinary Arts Management program, was inspired by Leonardi's talk and plans to apply for seasonal work at The Country Club this summer. "I started out cooking for my younger siblings at home and it developed into a passion. I would love to be where Chef Leonardi is one day. I'm excited to start planning my career and see how far I can go."