On August First, a room full of decorators will attempt to become Certified Master Sugar Artists at the ICES Convention in Reno, NV. (If you are not familiar with ICES, please check them out and consider joining – http://www.ices.org). When people see CMSA after my name, they often ask what the letters mean and what it means to be Certified. I thought this was the perfect time for a blog post on all things related to certification.

Let’s start with a definition.
Adj. 1. certifiable – fit to be certified as insane (and treated accordingly)
insane – afflicted with or characteristic of mental derangement; “was declared insane”; “insane laughter”
2. certifiable – capable of being guaranteed or certified; “a certifiable fact”
certified – endorsed authoritatively as having met certain requirements; “a certified public accountant”

Clearly, the second definition is the one we are really using, but I find that people use the first almost as often when speaking of the Certification Program. When I took the test, the program was truly in its infancy and people thought that I had lost my mind to try for my CMSA. After all, wouldn’t I be embarrassed if I didn’t make it? Did I really want to be judged in a live situation? Isn’t it better to do the cakes without being under a time limit? Sometimes people look at the certification cakes and think that the adjudicators must be crazy to give someone CMSA status for those cakes. Sometimes we adjudicators think we must be insane to take on our role and several THOUSAND emails. I will tackle all of this and so much more! Please note that these are my opinions only and that this post is a quick overview of the program. I could not possibly put everything in this blog….well I could, but it would be really LONG! Here’s my cliff notes on Certification:

1. What is involved in becoming certified?

Certification testing only happens at the ICES convention. You can sign up about a year in advance. You must pay a fee and fill out an application form. It is first come, first served – we do not make a judgement call as to whether you are ready. You decide if you are ready. You will have to file a plan by a set date. The adjudicators will review your plan and notify you whether – on its face- the plan meets the minimum requirements.

On test day, you have 8 hours to complete a three tier cake, a single tier cake and a non-cake display piece. There are several dozen techniques divided into four technique levels (1-4) and you must do one from each level. The technique levels are assigned point status the same as the level – a level one is worth one point. You have to do a total of 8 techniques during the test and those techniques have to be worth 21 points. You get to choose the ones you do. You are judged on how well you perform every aspect of that technique, by its traditional standard. You receive a score from 1-10. If you receive lower than an 8 on ANY technique, you cannot be a CMSA. ( You can achieve Certified Sugar Artist, CSA, if you do not score lower than a 7 on ANY technique, but fail to achieve CMSA status).

It isn’t enough to do your chosen techniques well, you have to also cover a cake in fondant, ice a cake smoothly in buttercream, have a clean work process and – perhaps hardest – put together attractive pieces that do not look like you randomly stuck 8 techniques on them. Please understand this isn’t going to look like a major cake show competition piece most of the time…unless you are incredibly fast, that simply isn’t possible!

2. How hard is it to get CMSA?

It isn’t a cakewalk…no pun intended. On any given year, 16-24 people attempt certification. Our lowest year, only two people became certified masters. On our highest, it approaches half. Those numbers might seem daunting, but the scarier number is those that fail to complete the process. Every year, we lose several people during the plan approval process. Every year, by the lunch break on test day, we have several tell us they are so far off track that they will not finish in time. Every year, the conditions in the room are tough and it affects almost every candidate.

You have to remember that you are in a new environment. It might be too hot, too cold, too drafty, too dark, too anything for you that day. Although we warn them not to do this, someone always finds themselves working with a different type of fondant, royal or buttercream icing, often with disastrous results. You could have won every major cake show in the USA or your country, but that doesn’t guarantee you certification. As adjudicators, we have to look at only what you do on test day. We cannot compare your work that day to work you have done in the past. It is just your work done that day!

You are also not judged in comparison to anyone else. The adjudicators do not compare one person’s lace points to another’s…only to the recognized standard. It does not matter who else is taking the test when you are. You only have to do YOUR personal best, in relationship to the standards for the techniques.

The test is hard enough that some people have taken it two to three times before achieving certification. Some have received CSA status, but keep trying again for that elusive CMSA. Does that make them “certifiable”, as in crazy? I think not. I think it shows how very badly they want certification and how incredibly dedicated they are to achieving it.

3. How do I get ready for certification?

First, you need to go to ices.org and download all of the information on the test. Read everything you can get your hands on. As an adjudicator, I find that people often put together plans that show that they have not fully read the handbook. There is nothing as frustrating to an adjudicator as to have to directly quote a rule from the handbook to a candidate who designed a plan that does not meet the rule. The plan must be written with the complete guidance of the handbook. The handbook isn’t perfect and cannot possibly tell the candidate everything, but it tells them so, SO much. Every year, the handbook is revised and tweaked in an effort to make everything as clear as possible.

Second, you need to have an arsenal of skills that you can do at MASTER level. That often means taking classes with the best teachers on the subject. That means that you have to be able to do more than the minimum standard for that technique. A master does more than the minimum. This is not the time for “It’ll do”.

Third, you have to put together an achievable plan. I recommend that you design one that will take seven hours, not eight. You need that cushion because, invariably, something is going to go wrong. For me, it took almost an hour for me to get my extension work strings to stop breaking. If I had made an eight hour plan and lost that hour, I would not have finished the day I tested. I would not have those pretty letters at the end of my name.

Finally, you have to practice. A lot. And then some more. And then again. The adjudicators are surprised at how often we can tell that people did not sufficiently practice. This is especially true for people who work at a leisurely pace. Working against a clock is incredibly difficult if you are not used to it. I will admit that I did not practice my entire plan before I went. But, I worked in a very busy commercial shop and was used to playing “beat the clock”. This could have gone poorly for me and, looking back, I see that I was really lucky and blessed that my lack of practice did not bite me in the butt!

4. Do I really need to be certified?

That is a question that only YOU can answer. For me, it was important. I wanted to be the first from Oklahoma. I knew I was working to become a respected instructor and I felt like those letters gave me validation for that career path. Did I NEED it? No. Do those letters earn me any more money? No. Did achieving a CMSA mean that the cake tv shows wanted me on their shows? No. Did I WANT to be certified? Yes. Do I believe in the program? Absolutely. Do I think that having CMSA after your name will come to mean more as the program progresses? You bet.

5. Who are the adjudicators?

There are two types of adjudicators. When the program started, someone had to be able to decide who passed the test and who did not. The ICES Board approved six Honorary CMSAs. These six ladies carried the program the first year. As people achieved CMSA status, some have moved into the role of adjudicators. The Test Administrator and the Certification Committee Chair for the Board have selected the CMSAs they believe are qualified to adjudicate. Not every CMSA has the background, skill or desire to adjudicate.

Three of the Honorary CMSAs no longer adjudicate. It now takes nine adjudicators to handle the load on test day, so that means that six people are ones who passed the Certification test. There was a working thought that eventually the Honorary CMSAs would not be needed as adjudicators. Whether that happens or not does not matter much to me. I respect ALL the adjudicators and am excited that this year we are starting to train Apprentice Adjudicators – people with CMSA certification who have not judged as much as the current adjudicators. We are hoping to build such a large, talented pool of adjudicators that we could test more people or at more than one time during the year.

The adjudicators travel at their own expense to convention, two days early. They answer hundreds and thousands of emails about the Certification plans. They help edit and write the handbook. They are currently working on an adjudicator’s handbook. They are part coach, cheerleader, counselor, advisor, judge, jury and role model for what it means to be a CMSA. They are often the face of the program. I am honored to be part of this group.

6. When do you find out if you passed?

The announcement is made Saturday night of convention during the awards banquet. No one reads the names of those who fail to achieve certification. First, the Certified Sugar Artists are introduced. Then the Certified Master Sugar Artists take the stage. YOU would know if you did not meet your goal, but ICES will never announce that. No one wants to embarrass anyone. You can fill out a confidentiality agreement and you will be told before the banquet where you tested. You cannot tell anyone or talk to the other candidates about how you did. You are not told how anyone else did.

7. I think I want to take the test. Now what?

Come watch this year’s test! Spectators are allowed and we want you to see what is involved before you take the test.

Email me. I wrote a Girlfriend’s Guide to Certification. I am happy to share it.

Talk to everyone you can find who has taken the test and get their advice. Listen to their information. They may save you from committing a costly error.

8. Applaud those who take the test and honor those who achieve certification on any level.

The people taking the test on Wednesday are brave and deserve our respect for reaching for their goal. This will be a long, tiring day for everyone involved in the certification process. When you see the cakes in the Cake Room…think to yourself -could I do all that in eight hours? The next time it takes you hours to decorate a zebra stripe cake at home, think about people trying to do extension work, plus seven other skills in that amount of time. It is truly impressive that people are able to work under pressure in a foreign environment and be able to create master level work. I am incredibly proud of the candidates and wish them all the best of luck. I hope that some of you will consider going for certification. It won’t be the easiest thing you ever do, but it will be one of the proudest. Are you certifiable?


2 thoughts on “Certifiable

  1. Thank you for this valuable information. I heard about it last year at ICES when Chef Mark Seeman received his CMSA and wondered what it took to qualify. I am far from ready but hope to be one day soon.

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