Podcast Episode 106

The Master Chef Blueprint: Ferdinand Metz Unveils His Secret to Culinary Success

Ferdinand Metz | 61 Minutes | April 16, 2024

In today’s episode, we speak with our guest Ferdinand Metz, instrumental in establishing the Chefs’ Apprenticeship, Certification, and Master Chefs’ Certification programs in the United States. He’s also the first Certified Master Chef in history.

Honored with nearly every major award in the culinary world, including the Lifetime Achievement Award and induction into the esteemed “Who’s Who in Cooking” by the James Beard Foundation, Metz shares what it’s like to build a career and craft your own food philosophy. He elaborates on his 21-year tenure as President of the Culinary Institute of America, witnessing the graduation of over 30,000 students, as well as leading the United States Culinary Olympic Team to three consecutive world championships over 20 years.

Listen as Ferdinand talks about introducing new qualifications to regions within the industry, valuing quality ingredients in culinary arts, and creating your own legacy.

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Notes & Transcript


Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. Today, I have the great honor of speaking with Ferdinand Metz, instrumental in establishing the Chefs’ Apprenticeship Certification, Master Chefs’ Certification programs in the United States.

Notably, he led the United States Culinary Olympic team to an unprecedented three consecutive world championships over a remarkable 20-year span.

Metz’s illustrious career includes a four-year tenure as the president of the American Culinary Federation where he left an indelible mark. He holds the distinction of being the first Certified Master Chef in history, coupled with the rare achievement of earning a master’s degree in business administration.

During his 21-year tenure as president of the Culinary Institute of America, Ferdinand Metz witnessed the graduation of over 30,000 students.

He’s also been honored with nearly every major award in the culinary world, including the Lifetime Achievement Award and induction into the esteemed “Who’s Who in Cooking” by the James Beard Foundation.

Metz’s contributions have been recognized internationally, with distinctions such as the Medal of the French Republic and the esteemed Maitre d’Honneur title by the Chaine des Rotisseurs where he stands as only one of only three recipients in the United States.

So join us today as we chat about the evolution of culinary apprenticeship, special skills chefs need to stand out today, and so much more.

And there he is! Good morning. Guten morgen!

Ferdinand Metz: Good morning, Kirk. How are you?

Kirk Bachmann: I’m so good.

Just to set the stage for everybody, we haven’t seen each other in a while. It’s really lovely to see you. You’re on the West Coast. I assume, I hope, that the weather is treating you well.

Ferdinand Metz: Good idea. Unfortunately, we had a lot of rain which we, of course, need and love. So things look good for the coming year.

Kirk Bachmann: Very nice. Tell us a little bit about what you see when you look out the window there. Are there some olive trees? Some avocado trees?

Ferdinand Metz: About 220 olive trees, avocados, peaches, dates, figs. You name it, it’s all here. Herbs, of course. Lots of herbs.

I tell you honestly, for the first time, really, in my career, I’m cooking with a lot of things that are grown right outside.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, isn’t that something! That’s wonderful.

Ferdinand Metz: Wonderful indeed! It’s a totally new experience. I think it speaks to the heart of what cooking is all about.

Learning from Family and from Mistakes

Kirk Bachmann: Well said. Well said.

You know, it reminds me. We chatted briefly yesterday, and I went to my library. One of the last times we saw each other when I was still living in Chicago, you came to the house for dinner. It was so sweet. I don’t know if you remember this, but you brought this book for my children. We still have it. We made rouladen that day! We made rouladen with spaetzle and cabbage. I left the twine on the rouladen! I’ll never live it down. I was telling my father about that. “What are you thinking?! What are you thinking?!”

Oh gosh! There’s so much to talk about, but first and foremost, congratulations! I think this is your fourth book. This book – I’m not all the way through it yet. You can see that I’ve marked several pages – it’s heavy. It’s four hundred [pages]. “From many we are one.” Just a beautiful, appropriate title. I wanted to read one little quick piece here, which was just so reminiscent of what I went through in my life as well. A small hotel, bakery, this expectation from Father. But I love [it], you said – this is page 77 – you said, “The idea of family and the manner with which we all work together took much of the guesswork out of the many undefined issues. The most important to me – who takes over the family business.”

Can we just jump on there quickly? We’re going to talk a lot more about the accolades and such, but tell me about growing up in a family business with a brother who is also a master chef.

Ferdinand Metz: I think it was very challenging, but on the other hand, it was supported by tradition. When you have tradition, you don’t question a lot of things because a lot of things are already set in place. You just understand: this is tradition, that’s the way it is.

Having said that, my brother being two years older and sort of two years ahead of me in both the apprenticeships and all these kinds of things, he did very well. This, of course, follows our father’s “suggested mandate” to take an apprenticeship. We understood what that meant, suggested mandated. So we both started apprenticeships in a cafe, the best cafe in Munich, where you learned how to make the cakes and the tarts and the chocolates and the whole thing. That was a three-year experience.

Then we went on to do a second apprenticeship in cooking at a newly-opened hotel which also is a big challenge – to open a hotel up. So we became kind of rounded. Quite frankly, at the time I didn’t think it was a good idea to take yet another apprenticeship, but [when] I joined the Culinary Institute, I could go into a bake shop or a kitchen and feel very comfortable talking about the curriculum, talking about how we’re doing things, what we’re doing. I think that was very important.

The only problem with my brother was he was very good in what he was doing, and he finished as the best apprentice in the state of Bavaria. So the expectations for me were to do the same, which, fortunately, I did, but I always was under a little bit more pressure to follow him. He also did his Master Chef in Germany. That kind of gave me the impetus to look at that program here in America.

But there’s one important thing about the apprenticeship which took place in Munich, about a good hour train ride away from where my parents had their hotel, butcher shop, and restaurant. Every weekend, we would come home. There you sit. Everybody’s busy around you. Pretty soon, you get involved. Every weekend, which was to the detriment to our social life, we made pastries and cakes.

Here’s the big thing: we were allowed to make mistakes. Which was huge. We didn’t get punished for it, as opposed to the place in Munich, the apprenticeship. There was no punishment involved if you made a mistake, and that gave us so much confidence. We were so much [more] ready than some of our colleagues in the apprenticeship. It just brought it all together. Again, I kind of tried to follow that mantra into the curriculum into the CIA, hoping and allowing people to make mistakes because that’s where you learn the most.

Kirk Bachmann: It makes sense. So you mentioned that there was some encouragement, let’s say, from your father. When you and Reinhold started the apprenticeship in Munich with a specific goal in mind – I’m going to be pastry chef, I’m going to be cuisine chef – or did your father encourage you to learn everything about the business?

Ferdinand Metz: It’s everything because they had a butcher shop. We grew up actually going with our grandfather out with the farmers to pick the calves and the pigs, take them to the slaughterhouse, and start processing those animals, make sausages and all kinds of specialties. Along the way, you kind of begin to understand. There’s no attachment to the animal; there can’t be. It’s always done with the recognition, “You are providing food for people.” So we learned the butchery just by the mere fact that we were in the butcher shop all the time.

The Opportunity of Finding Your Own Way

Kirk Bachmann: Was there a point, specifically for you…you’re doing what your career path was supposed to be, but was there that moment where the inspiration actually came from you? “This is what I am meant to do.”

Ferdinand Metz: Yeah, but it wasn’t one singular moment. I think it was a progression and evolution because when you do something, you become very good at it compared to your contemporaries. That confidence tells you, “Maybe that’s what I should be pursuing for the rest of my life.” Because it felt very comfortable.

Of course, then later on, my brother had to take over the business because he was two years older. That’s just the way it was. I’m sure it’s changed by now, but in those days that’s the way it went. So I was free to go.

Kirk Bachmann: Talk about that a little bit. So you were free to go. You’re not even twenty years old at this point, right? Reinhold knows that he’s going to come back and take over the business. Was it an option for you to stay, or was it like, “There’s only room for your brother. You have to make your own way?”

Ferdinand Metz: Less than an option; it was an opportunity.

Kirk Bachmann: Better word.

Ferdinand Metz: The opportunity to see other cuisines, visit other countries. In those days, I actually got a phone call from a person I didn’t know. The individual said to me, “Do you want to come to America?”

I said, “Yeah, I’d love to, but who are you?”

He identified himself as being the general manager of the biggest hotel in New York, the Astor Hotel that served more banquets than any other place in America.

I said, “How come you are calling me?”

He said, “Because I read in the paper this morning that you won the best apprenticeship in the state, so I thought maybe that’s the right person.”

In those days, within three weeks, I had my visa and flew over to what was called Idlewild Airport, now Kennedy. They picked me up and I started at a country club because his friend was the general manager of a country club in New Jersey, which by itself was an eye-opening experience. That kind of brought me back to thinking about, “Why is there not an apprenticeship?”

My first day I walked into the kitchen properly dressed, as we know, and they all laughed at me because they all had t-shirts and [were] sloppy and unkempt, maybe not shaven. It was the typical image of what the public had of a chef cook in those days: the t-shirt-

Kirk Bachmann: Rolled up.

Ferdinand Metz: The pack of Lucky Strike in there.

Kirk Bachmann: When I hear you say the word “opportunity,” it brings me back. My father, he came to Chicago versus New York. Very similar story. When I ask him what he remembers the most about that journey, he says, “Opportunity.” He couldn’t believe the opportunity. Everywhere you turned there was so much work and so much to do. Always busy. Similar for you in New York, Chef?

Ferdinand Metz: Yeah. Very definitely.

So the country club was a unique experience in that I learned about what American food service was all about in many ways, but I also saw what tremendous opportunities you had to improve that. And improve we did.

Reinhold came over for half a year because he was already engaged. It was a nice break before he had to take over the business. A friend of mine from Chicago also [with whom we] did our apprenticeship together came, and we kind of straightened out the kitchen. It made a big difference. That was the club.

Then, of course, this gentleman who brought me over, he said, “Whatever you do doesn’t matter. You have to work at Le Pavillon, which in those days was the best restaurant in America. Pierre Franey was the chef, who was then later on replaced by Clement Grangier. Jacques Pepin was one of the cooks there. I was the only non-French person in the place. My knowledge of French improved very rapidly, by necessity, I would say.

I really consider the three years I spent there as being pivotal. It was like taking a new apprenticeship, pivotal to my career in terms of understanding quality, understanding that there’s no compromise to be made when it comes to quality. The kind of cooking was just amazing. I actually spent more time there than people would normally do because I came in at ten o’clock in the morning just to work with the fish cook and the entremetier and the rotisseur just to learn what they are doing. Then, from one o’clock all the way down to ten o’clock was my shift. I was first in charge of the entremetier, making all the soups, the souffles, the vegetables, all those kinds of things. It was a fantastic experience, so much so that I became the tournant. The tournant is the person that replaces if one of the cooks or chefs is on vacation or not able to come in, then the tournant has to be able to go to the different stations of the kitchen to help out and to fill in.

Clement Grangier was the chef who once was interviewed by “Measure” magazine in New York. In fact, I remember the editor. She spent more than a whole week at Le Pavillon to do that article. Later on, I read the article. It was really funny because Clement Grangier being the chef, he also wanted to tell the rest of the crew that he could still [cook,] taking over the Garde manger position. The tradition there was if an order of veal scallopini was placed, the entremetier would prepare the scallopinis and take them to the kitchen station where it was to be cooked. I couldn’t believe that they let the chef do that!

I came in. I helped him out. To that editor, he said, “Well, you know, we have all French chefs in the kitchen except for one fellow who is Ferneaux” – he called me Ferneaux – “who is better than any of the other French chefs.”

To go to the Le Pavillon. From there, I wanted to see [what] the hotel business was all about and make it work. Went to the Plaza Hotel. Great society hotel. Limited ballroom. Limited facility. Why? So they wouldn’t take the firemen’s balls. That was done by the science. They only catered to the high society. I became banquet chef there, and sometimes I had over twenty functions in a day. Five hundred people there. Two hundred there. Fifty here. Twenty-five there. It was a tremendous experience to work in that kind of setting.

Kirk Bachmann: I was going to ask about the Plaza. I was there in January with the family to do the tea. It felt [like] the pageantry was still there. Most of the people that I spoke with had been there for twenty-five, thirty years. That’s really important to keep that sort of standard at a certain level. I don’t know when the last time you were there. Do you believe, Chef, is that limited to places just like the Plaza, or are there still some beautiful venues in the United States that still respect what it was like fifty years ago?

Ferdinand Metz: Almost in any city you’ll find an iconic hotel that dates back to that period. The Palmer House comes to mind and some of the other places because they have lived on that tradition and perpetuated that tradition.

I remember, as banquet chef, I only had one other assistant to do all these things. You were forced to be on good terms with the bake crew in the kitchen. I need that. A couple of bottles of beers went a long way to get things done.

Kirk Bachmann: Of course. Of course.

Ferdinand Metz: Then, of course, I made a really big jump to go to the H.G. Heinz company in Pittsburgh as an experimental chef. I had no clue what that meant. I wanted to experience corporate America. Corporate America it was, in many ways. Totally different. I understood that in food research and development. Later on I managed the department as a cook.

It’s an interesting thing. I had Ph. D.s working for me. Scientists. Why? Because Heinz believed that at the very end it’s about flavor, not necessarily about chemistry, although there’s a different boat there. So I actually started out as a chemistry major in my undergraduate, and then finally realized then I’d become an expert in two things, namely cooking and chemistry. That’s not a good idea. Then I switched to business, and finally also got my MBA at the University in Pittsburgh.

That was a very interesting and huge change for me, to go from Le Pavillon and Plaza to go to a food manufacturer. I learned a lot [about] how you go about developing a recipe, but also how you go about cooking in quantities, which is totally different than what you are usually [doing]. If you have to make a cream sauce, say 700 gallons. Huge! There’s a different way of doing it.

The Need for Certification

Kirk Bachmann: And the flavor has to be there.

I was just going to insert one comment about Pittsburgh and my experience there. The cooks and the chefs of that city have such a profound respect for the craft of cooking. When it comes to the ACF, more chefs than not were members – active members – in the ACF. I remember Heinz Lauer and I did a demo for you at an ACF conference there. I think we did sauerbraten or something. It was a German dish. But you could always count on Pittsburgh to pack the house. Highest level of certifications. Was it like that when you started in Pittsburgh as well?

Ferdinand Metz: I think what coalesced the organization was when we started to think about certification and apprenticeship. Like any organization, you need a purpose. You need a goal. You need something to keep the membership excited and involved. There was nothing better than that.

Apprenticeship. We decided to do a hybrid model, hybrid in the sense that understanding that in America you should have a degree of some great practical experience. We partnered with the local community college, had some great cooperations there. What we did first: we developed a program, implemented it locally in Pittsburgh and surrounding areas, and only after a few years did we take it publicly, ACF-wide.

Certification was a different challenge because up until now, anybody could put a toque on and say, “I’m a chef.” That’s the way it was, period. For the first time, now you ask for qualifications. It’s just tough. I used to have chefs in the Duquesne Club, which was one of the outstanding private clubs in America. There are many clubs in Pittsburgh. At one time, it was the home of more corporate headquarters than any other city in America: Alcoa, Westinghouse, US Steel, all those kinds of places. So there were a lot of clubs and great clubs [where] people could be really challenged in their cooking.

Certification, having to, for the first time ever, demand some qualification was a tough road. We bridged that by [having] the leadership of the Pittsburgh chefs take the certification themselves. Those two programs coalesced the organization to a degree where they really felt proud, where they felt involved, and where they also were the beneficiary. All of a sudden, if you could say, “I’m a certified executive chef,” or whatever, you became more noticed. You became more acclaimed. Oftentimes, your salary was commensurate to that status.

Kirk Bachmann: I wanted to jump on that real quick. I wanted to talk about your role in establishing chef’s apprenticeship, certification. Also, the Master Chef certification. We’re all the way back to the 70s, and just to provide some added context, the ACF Certified Master Chef is the only certified master chef certification in the US recognized by the Department of Labor. My understanding is that it’s designed to identify chefs who, to your point, Chef, have demonstrating mastery of culinary competency and expertise through education, experience, knowledge, skills.

I’m curious how that got started and how that has advanced over the years. It’s probably a whole other podcast but just at a high level. You went from identifying or recognizing industry professionals with certifications, then it moved to this high level, which was very similar to what you were used to in Europe.

Ferdinand Metz: Basically, again, a hybrid model combining American ideas and criteria and European methods. When I started the program – because my brother had a Master Chef degree from Germany. I was thinking, “Maybe I need to go over there to take that examination,” which, unfortunately, would take six weeks to be away from your job. In America, that wouldn’t fly, period.

Kirk Bachmann: Sure. Yeah.

Ferdinand Metz: What we did was we developed the program based on the European model, and [I] was fortunate because my father and brother, both master chefs, I could understand how they are doing it, what the methods and the procedures were. So we created the hybrid model with the idea that when you have graduated from that, you’re really a complete professional.

I think there is something which is also commensurate with that goal. As a result, the program has grown, but not to the degree that we had hoped.

At one time, it was a ten-day program. Every day, you come in in the morning. From seven o’clock until ten o’clock there was a theoretical subject, whether it be purchasing or food or sanitation. Whatever. Then from about eleven until seven in the evening, you were assigned a cooking task. It could have been anything. You drew a number out of a hat, and it told you what the assignment was. That requires individuals to think very fast. The moment you get that assignment, you have to jump on it because of the timing, etc.

The program changed. I think now it’s six days, allowing people to brush up on the theory subjects, the theoretical ones, and complete them. By the time they go into the practical, they only have to focus on that. There are debates on whether that’s good or bad, but it is what it is.

Through AMCO, we are trying to make that more accessible without compromising the standards, which is really the key.

Kirk Bachmann: I was told once that when you arrive for the ten days, the original ten days of the Certified Master Chef exam, you’re not there to learn; you’re there to demonstrate your cooking ability and your knowledge. This is a general question, very theoretical. How important is it, in your mind, Chef, for chefs who respect the craft to put themselves – I know how my father received the German Master Chef as well, and when he talked about it. There was never a doubt in his mind; that’s what he was going to do, to challenge himself to the highest level, and then come to America. Is that missing today with chefs?

Ferdinand Metz: It’s different now. Chefs understand that title would allow them to not only prove to themselves, but to their crew and to their management staff that they have put themselves in the position where they really can understand and be a complete cook in many ways. That part has not changed. I think there is a general feeling that you can study for the program. I don’t think so.

Kirk Bachmann: That goes back to my original understanding.

Ferdinand Metz: You have to put in place what you know. It’s all about your passion for cooking, your understanding that less is more. By the way, that phrase, “less is more” is repeated in my book about fifty times. I thoroughly believe in that. I think it’s just such an important thing to understand when not to interfere with nature. Take a wonderful New Jersey beefsteak tomato at its best, ripest, bursting with flavor. As a cook, you shouldn’t do anything to it! Maybe sprinkle a little olive oil and salt, and that’s it.

Kirk Bachmann: Leave it alone.

Ferdinand Metz: Because you can’t improve it. This requires an understanding and confidence on behalf of the cook to do that. Many cooks say, “Oh, then I cannot show my expertise. I cannot show….” Okay. So you show your creativity, you show your expertise, and you screw it all up! You change what nature has provided. I think it takes a seasoned and experienced and confident cook to get to that point.

The Olympics as Learning

Kirk Bachmann: Very well said. Perfect segue into talking a little bit about culinary competitions. You’ve been involved with competition for a very long time, mainly the US Olympic team. Could you talk a little bit about your experience? A lot of people that hear about the culinary Olympics don’t even realize that there is a Culinary Olympics every four years. I’d love for you to speak a little bit about what it’s like and what it takes to compete on a global stage, and even competing before the Culinary Olympics. There are competitions across the country all the time. How important is that for us?

Ferdinand Metz: As long as you think it’s a learning experience, it’s very important. If you think about medals, forget it. Then you become what I call a competition cook. A competition cook cooks only for the appearance and making one plate. They never think about, “Maybe I have to make a hundred plates like that, and I couldn’t do it the way I do it for competition.” You have to get rid of that mindset and you have to understand that it only works if you can do it in a larger setting. Get away from the idea that you cook for competition. You cook for a customer, no matter what. Even if the food is not going to be consumed, but it has to look like that. It has to feel like that. It has to have the aroma. It has to have everything that you would do in a restaurant.

In my book, I have a section that talks about how to develop your own food philosophy. I think that’s crucial. The food philosophy is something that gives you guidance, that gives you something to lean on. When I came to the CIA, I had developed a fair amount of that philosophy, realizing that’s an ongoing, changing element. it’s never going to be static. It will change because you have different experiences. The challenge there was how to intertwine my personal food philosophy with the existing one at the CIA. That was a challenge. The only way we could overcome that was basically to listen to a lot of people and understand that out of that formed an institutional philosophy of cooking.

I’ll give you an example. Just to talk about bechamel in our books, we spent a whole day arguing, debating, discussing how to make bechamel sauce because we had instructors from twenty different countries around the world, different ideas, different methods, different things. But out of that came a fundamental recognition that eighty percent of what we do needs to be consistent for the student so they’re not confused. Twenty percent can be the individual input of the instructor, of their experience in the past and whatever they felt was going to enhance that process.

Again, the same philosophy carried on with the teams I was involved with over twenty years with culinary teams. In 1976, which was such an incredible year for American foods and wine. At the ‘76 tasting in Paris, wines from Chateau Montelena, the chardonnay, and their cabernet sauvignon won over the French best Grand Cru varietals.

Kirk Bachmann: Unheard of.

Ferdinand Metz: The French writer, Odette Kahn, who was the head of the French wine board, she demanded to have her score sheet back because she couldn’t believe what the scores were.

In ‘76, the same time, we entered the Culinary Olympics. We were basically a nobody. I was on the team in ‘68. We did okay. Then in ‘68 we started to understand what it was that we needed to do. As part of that experience, we were invited by the state department to cook a luncheon for the Queen of England in Boston during the bicentennial. That was, by itself, a unique experience because we were told that after the luncheon, the team should line up and if the Queen wants to say hello, she will do that. Here they were. They came out of the dining room, and the Queen made a beeline towards us, and the mayor of Boston, Kevin White at the time, put his hand on her shoulder, which is not good. You just don’t do that. The CIA and the British Secret Service were all over the place. She shunned them away. She took charge, and she gave him an ice cold look that could have killed, I think. In spite of that, went straight to us.

Kirk Bachmann: She wanted to talk to you.

Ferdinand Metz: That was a unique experience.

But going back to the Olympics in ‘76, we had a team philosophy. We carried that through. We decided to cook dishes that people could replicate in restaurants throughout America. So at the awards presentation, the announcer said – and for the first time, they had first, second, and third podiums like they have in the sports Olympics. They said, “We like the American team that came in third. We like the American team to come to the podium,” which for us was unbelievable.

Then he said, “Oh, excuse me. We made a mistake. The American team tied the French team for third,” which I thought was wonderful. Better than being up there on your own, right?

Kirk Bachmann: Oh my God. Monumental.

Ferdinand Metz: The problem was the podium was designed for six chefs. We had a lot of this going on and a lot of elbows to maintain your spot up there. That was a monumental experience for us.

That’s why I say the case of the ‘70s was so instrumental. Apprenticeship came about. Certification came about. Master Chef was started. The Olympics, the Paris tasting. All these things brought a tremendous amount of excitement and confidence, saying that America can compete and can be right up there with anybody else.

Chefs as Instructors

Kirk Bachmann: And you had so much to do with that. It brings me to some personal feelings. I’m so amazed by all of the awards and the accolades over the years, and the milestones that you’re personally responsible for, Chef. I think about myself growing up in a baker’s family and a hotel family. I’ve been involved with culinary education for thirty years now. I have a lot to thank you for because in addition to all those things that you were working on, you had the foresight to bring a level of degree to the CIA, back before anyone was thinking about that. Go to culinary school and actually earn an associates degree with transferable credit by a regional accreditor, and then a bachelor’s degree and so on and so forth. First and foremost, I wanted to thank you for that.

And also, to take advantage of this time together and have you talk about what was going on in your mind that you were thinking, “We need to elevate the educational levels of those who are studying our craft?” Brilliant, really.

Ferdinand Metz: Again, it was viewed as an opportunity to do that. When you’re the head of an organization, you have a lot of influence.

Kirk Bachmann: Yes, you do.

Ferdinand Metz: As a result, we focused a lot on the culinary aspects, not to neglect the others, but culinary is what we were all about. So when we hired an instructor, before that person was hired, they had to cook a three-course meal for the other department heads within a time frame from a mystery basket. That tells you more than any resume or anything else that you need to know.

The real question that always arose, and I staunchly defended, when people said, “You cannot make a good chef into an instructor.” I said, “Wait a minute. What would you rather do: take a mediocre chef and make a good chef of that person, or take an experienced chef and make an instructor?” I always followed the latter. As a result, I hired my former boss at the Plaza, Chef Andre Rene as an instructor. I was happy to hire chefs in their fifties and sixties [who were] a little bit burned out by the demands of the industry. They would give me another ten years of incredible experience, something which you just cannot pay for.

Kirk Bachmann: And stories, stories that you cannot…

Ferdinand Metz: That became a real stand-out point. Not only were they very seasoned, but they also, for the first time in their lives, had a life.

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. They were home at night.

Ferdinand Metz: Weekends and holidays and what have you. They also began to realize that they can form their own legacy. You know as much as anybody. When you’re in teaching, it’s not your salary, it’s not your reputation, it’s your legacy of having had an impact on so many lives of different students, which we just cannot replicate anywhere else.

Graduations are Always Special

Kirk Bachmann: So well said. To that point, I wanted to read a quote. This is from Stephen Michaelides, former Editor-in-Chief associate publisher at “Restaurant Hospitality” magazine. He says, and I quote, “Aside from Ferdinand Metz, there is no other person in America who has witnessed, supported, and actively influenced the evolution of American cuisine while stewarding for 21 years the fortunes of the Culinary Institute of America, the country’s most influential culinary college.”

I wanted to ask: what a wonderful time. 30,000 plus students that came across that podium. I know how it makes me feel. I’d love to hear how that makes you feel.

Ferdinand Metz: In 21 years, there was not one time when I walked into – and I knew it must have been fairly early, seven o’clock – I walked in. The classes were already in session, the morning classes. I always felt a sense of excitement, a sense of presence, a sense of passion for the school when I walked in. I think the same carried forward when you start to think about the curriculum that you want to institute, the standards that you’re trying to set. It always felt like a very special place. It goes right back to this comment of yours about the legacy of seeing that many students come across the stage to successfully accept their diploma and go onto the world.

Quite frankly, they made a huge difference. Culinary schools, really as a whole, contributed so much to the quality of food in America today, which you only understand if you understand what happened in the past. Which was not necessarily the very best.

Graduations. Although I attended over 250 graduations, it never became, “Oh my God, another one!” It always was so special. Always so special, because you look in the eyes of the people that graduate: hopeful, excited, passionate. You knew that many of them would really fulfill their dream of becoming a good chef or a restaurant owner, or somehow successful in industry.

Kirk Bachmann: So well said. So well said, Chef.

Ferdinand Metz: By the way, Steve, I just visited. We have a little place down in Mexico, Puerto Vallarta, and Steve has moved down there.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh really.

Ferdinand Metz: I visited him. I gave him a copy of the book.

“From Many We Are One”

Kirk Bachmann: Beautiful. Beautiful.

Let’s talk about the book. I’ve got it right here. You released your latest book, I think your fourth book, “From Many We Are One,” which reveals the never-before-told story and rebirth, like we’ve been talking about today. Globalization of American cuisine, influenced by iconic restaurants, shaped by passionate individuals – like yourself – and enriched by education. There was, as I was preparing to chat with you, I read an Amazon reviewer. That person said, and I quote, “I was fortunate to see Chef Metz cook several times. His meticulous pursuit of quality is truly inspiring. The book perfectly exemplifies his solid work. In my interactions with him, he always was a wonderful mentor, inspiring us with his actions and his advice.”

I want to ask about what inspired you to write the book and what readers can expect, but I do want to set it up. His quote is so perfect. When I think about Ferdinand Metz. Years ago, you and I were standing around a group of students. You may not even remember it because it was so casual and so informal. They were all just asking some questions, and you said, “If I gave you sugar and eggs and milk, what would you make?” It was so simple, yet the students thought it was a trick or something. Then you talked about ice cream, and then the smiles. The simplicity with which you have been able to deliver education and inspiring through your actions. I’d love for you to talk about what inspired these four hundred pages. And I’ve got notes all over the place! I’m not through it yet, but congratulations, first of all. Just wonderful.

Ferdinand Metz: First of all, the title really explains that American cooking wasn’t born in the absence of any other influence. It’s the influence of every ethnic group that ever came to our shores and started to cook their home-grown meals and share them with Americans. That’s really the title.

The book evolved. It became bigger by the minute, so to speak, because I was so excited about doing something. You say, “I want to write about this. I want to write about that.” Quite frankly, I had to admit to myself that the book is basically a broad overview. Let’s say if a student needs to know what the history of American cooking is all about, but not having to read ten books to do that. This will do it. It kind of encapsulates important events, important stages during the evolution, and to show how all that happened and what it means for us today.

Almost every chapter in this book could have its own book written. Again, I wanted to cover a whole base of different things. The book became bigger by the minute, more or less.

I wanted to add a debate about new techniques. What does molecular cooking mean to us? Nouvelle cuisine, fusion cuisine, and I blended that with some of the historical elements of cuisine and today’s application.

I also wanted to raise some social concerns. What happened to the women in our industry? Why was the media so inconspicuously absent in recognizing the value of women chefs in America? It’s amazing! Usually, the media, they want to jump on every news story they can. They didn’t do that. Why? I talked to a lot of women chefs, and a lot of our women chef graduates from the school. That came to the foreground. I wanted to cover that.

Essentially, I finished up by saying, “You know what happened to the American soccer and hockey teams? They rose from obscurity to world powers. Why? Because Title IX. Title IX demanded that every college would provide an equal number of spaces for female athletes as for male athletes, scholarships, opportunities. Maybe it’s time our food service industry invokes our own Title IX in order to highlight the contribution of women.

The same social concern was covered by talking about African American chefs, their contributions to cuisine, their legacy. I think it was just an important thing to highlight, not to glance over, but to really devote several pages to those issues. Let people know that these are issues that we are concerned with and we should really understand them.

There is some good news because, as you know, at culinary schools, a major proportion is now female chefs, female students. They have learned, and the male students have learned to work together with them. I am hopeful that in the future this whole issue of male/female and male dominance and all this kind of stuff will disappear because they have already worked alongside each other. The same thing I’m hoping to see happen with African American chefs. We have seen most recently a great influx of new Black chefs that have made the headlines and have done some great things. It’s important for our industry. Just as simple as that, to recognize that and to promote that.

A Prediction for American Hospitality

Kirk Bachmann: Along those lines, Chef, what’s next for cooking in America? What do the next ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years look like in your mind?

Ferdinand Metz: I think that we have settled in and understand that it’s not just only about great cooking as it was developed during the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Now, it’s to take that and to make a business of it. And to be customer focused. That’s the reason I devoted a whole section of the book on hospitality and on all kinds of issues that have arisen today because people have not paid attention to those.

I have a comical section in the book that talks about the experience of going to a restaurant today where the two people at the front desk talk about their weekend plans, and you should stand there and hope to get a word in.

Kirk Bachmann: Exactly.

Ferdinand Metz: Then you get to the table, and somebody throws you the menu like a Frisbee and says, “Joe will take care of you.” No kidding. Joe will? Joe comes around and does his thing and gives you a litany of the new dishes and the origin where the chicken came from which is not important. Then Joe comes around, and he has a table for two, as an example. He has the dishes. He comes and stops at your table and waits. What he’s waiting for is that you, the customer, clear the paraphernalia from the table-

Kirk Bachmann: To make room for the plate.

Ferdinand Metz: Then he has a table for two, he asks, “Who gets the fish?” The table for two!

The book talks about some of those issues, too, because I think they are important. I think this is part of this settling in period that we have started now, and that I think will carry on to the future, namely to take all the good things that we learned and combine them with hospitality.

And speaking of hospitality, there’s another certification issue which asks why don’t we have professional waiters. They have no organization, like an ACF, to lean on. They have no educational opportunities, basically. In your school and ours, they’ve worked in the dining room and have more of an idea what to do than most other waiters. They are very friendly, which is great, and they don’t have to be classically trained, but they have to understand hospitality. The reason why they have not progressed to a professional status is because there is no certification and no organization to back them up and to promote them and to advocate for their goals.

I think in this settling in period, blending our skills with a great sense of hospitality and business acumen is going to be the successful formula.

Discretionary Vegans

Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. Great advice. I was going to ask what’s next for culinarians today and front of the house, back of the house.

I can’t believe we’ve gotten to the end of the hour. I do have another question or two for you if you can stay with me, but before I get to our last question: What’s next for Ferdinand Metz? Is there another book in the works?

Ferdinand Metz: I’m kind of thinking of doing another book of vegan dishes.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, wonderful. Yeah.

Ferdinand Metz: I do that. My wife and I, we were challenged by our daughter, who is vegan. She challenged us to be on a vegan diet for a whole week. We did that – more than that. We did it for almost three-quarters of a year. I learned a lot about that. I learned an awful lot about how to develop flavors without the meat protein, without the drippings of the meat roast that usually results in that great flavor. I learned that you needed to really understand cooking a little bit more because now you have to understand where to get the flavors from. Is it the lemon zest? Is it a certain spice? I think in that process, cooking techniques become so much more important.

Back in the ‘60s, if you wanted a vegetable plate, if you were one of those rare people who wanted a vegetarian plate, chefs would simply take a broiled tomato that was with the meat dish. Put a broiled tomato. We have some string beans out of the steam table. You put that on. We have a little broccoli, and that was it.

Kirk Bachmann: Out it went.

Ferdinand Metz: That was a vegetarian plate. I was very intrigued because I think it challenged me to understand better, understand more what cooking can be and should be all about. Now you have to look for flavor developments through essences, through reductions, through special seasonings. They can’t be in the presence of meat. You don’t always have to do that because meat carries the centerpiece of the dish in many ways.

Kirk Bachmann: I’m so happy to hear that. My family does much on the plant-based diet. Did you feel better, a little bit? Noticeably?

Ferdinand Metz: I think so. We are discretionary vegans because we never want to say, “Oh, I cannot have a piece of meat if I want to. Yes, I can!”

Kirk Bachmann: Sure.

Ferdinand Metz: Chicken or whatever. We are very discretionary in how we select our menus and we don’t deny ourselves anything. Why should we? But I always have to say we are paying so much more attention to not only cooking but buying the right kind of ingredients. Cooks need to understand that you’re not going to make a great dish with ingredients that are inferior. It’s just not going to do it. Why don’t you do yourself a favor and give attention to the purchasing, to buying the best quality?

When it comes to delivery of ingredients, as an example, the word will get around which chef really has somebody there to control, to reject certain items because they were not up to standards. That goes around. The chef who doesn’t gets whatever is left.

Ferdinand Metz’s Ultimate Dish – and a Note on Book Writing

Kirk Bachmann: That goes around, too.

It’s a perfect segue, Chef. The name of our little chat is The Ultimate Dish. Given what we just talked about, in your mind, what is the ultimate dish?

Ferdinand Metz: That’s an easy question to answer because we just did that the other day. We had some friends over, seven or nine people. I made the dish that I like probably the most, and that’s braised oxtails.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh wow! Yeah.

Ferdinand Metz: The flavor that you can develop in the sauce itself, the tenderness of the meat interspersed with a little bit of fat. It’s very tender, very juicy. Sure, it takes a long time to cook. It takes understanding how you do that, but the dish itself is just incredible.

Kirk Bachmann: Paired with what wine?

Ferdinand Metz: In our case, last time we had a combination of sweet and regular mashed potatoes combined, Brussels sprouts but not charred. Very simply. The flavors just are incredible.

Kirk Bachmann: Perfect ultimate dish. And a beautiful Cabernet to go along with it?

Ferdinand Metz: Beef.

Kirk Bachmann: Beer! Okay! Perfect!

Ferdinand Metz: In that case, we had some beer. Let me make a quick comment. When you look at the book, what’s very strange: there are no testimonials on the back page. For some reason, that didn’t get in there, and I don’t want to get into that. But we had over twenty testimonials, and they will be in the new reprinted book. From Thomas Keller, Jasper White, Sara Moulton from Drew Nieporent, restaurant owners, chefs. It just was incredible that they didn’t make the first edition of the book. That will be corrected and hopefully that will work out much better.

Kirk Bachmann: And I will await my copy of the updated. I appreciate that.

Ferdinand Metz: Hopefully it will get done real soon.

Things are good. If anyone wants some advice about writing a book, be prepared. It’s not a cookbook; it’s a book about cooking, but not a cookbook.

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. Absolutely.

Ferdinand Metz: Be prepared for the fact that writing is easy. Getting it done from that point on is the hard part.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s another story. Yeah.

Ferdinand Metz: Totally another story. Totally other because you’re venturing into areas that are not familiar to you: publishing, etc.

Kirk Bachmann: Sure. How long did the process take from beginning to end?

Ferdinand Metz: Writing about two years. Of course, then the pandemic came in between. All the publishing houses in New York were shut down for that time period, which was not all bad because, contrary to some advice I got which says, “Once you write it, don’t go back to it.” I did go back.

Kirk Bachmann: You went back.

Ferdinand Metz: Because you have another idea. You say, “I need to clarify this point. I want to add another segment to it.” Like how to develop your own food philosophy, and the hospitality aspect, as well as some interesting stories about the chefs that we interact throughout our careers. I think it made the book better, but it took a longer time.

Kirk Bachmann: This has been such a pleasure and an honor for me to spend some time with you. Congratulations on all the success, Chef. Let’s stay in touch!

Ferdinand Metz: Sounds good. Thank you for having me. Are you going to be at the convention?

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. This year. That reminds me, too. When you press that first harvest of olives, I want to know all about it.

Ferdinand Metz: We are hopeful. We have some olives for oil, and others will be salted. It’s good. You’ll learn a lot. Learning is a process that doesn’t end. I think that holds true for any kind of certification, Master Chef. I always tell people that’s not the end, for God’s sake; this is a beginning.

Kirk Bachmann: You’re just getting started.

Ferdinand Metz: More of an opportunity to learn more.

Kirk Bachmann: Thank you so much.

And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. And if you can, please leave us a rating on Apple or Spotify, and subscribe to support our show. This helps us to reach more aspiring individuals ready to take the next step toward their dream careers. Thanks for listening.

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