Chef Ferdinand Metz: Interviewing a Culinary Legend
Introducing Ferdinand Metz
If you happen to Google “Chef Ferdinand Metz,” you’re bound to discover the vast accomplishments and profound contributions he’s made throughout his career in the culinary industry.
From his 21-year reign as President of the renowned Culinary Institute of America, his leadership as President of the American Culinary Federation and World Association of Chefs’ Societies, and to the countless honors he’s received for finding ways to push the industry forward, it’s undeniable Chef Ferdinand Metz is a living legend.
It was an honor to spend an hour with him as he shared his stories, lessons in life and business, and gave advice for those striving for success in the industry today.
Our questions for Chef Metz ranged from the obstacles he’s faced, advice for entrepreneurs, philosophies on various business topics, the Master Chef examination, competitions and more.
Today, we share some of his responses, in his words, to the various topics. It will be the first of two articles highlighting our time with the living legend himself.
Ferdinand’s Best Advice
Investing in Your Future
The man who sponsored me to come to America said no matter what I have to work at Le Pavillon. The restaurant was like the French Laundry today. So I followed his advice and went to talk to the chef.
It was a bad time when I went, so they said they’d call me. When they did, I got my stuff ready and went in. After the interview, he told me to “start tomorrow.” As I began to walk out, he said, “wait, we didn’t talk about pay.” I said, “it doesn’t matter, pay me whatever you think I’m worth.”
At that time, I went from $250 weekly with room and board – which was good money at the time no question – to $50 per week at Le Pavillon with having to find my own housing. In looking back, it was the best investment (in my future) I made early on, absolutely the best investment.
I have a basic belief that says, “you cannot manage people effectively unless you have done yourself the job you ask them to do.” I think that’s a fundamental thing for me.
You ultimately manage people to become better, to experience personal growth, and to have an opportunity for upward mobility. That should be why you manage people. Not to just scheduling and stuff like that.
To some people, management is more of a micro than macro activity. When you manage people for their future success they will stay with you longer, they will become more productive, and they will become much better employees. And it’s because they will understand, intuitively or otherwise, that what you’re doing is really helping them for the future.
The other thing is leading by example. You don’t tell people to come in at a particular time, and then you show up hours later. People look, and take clues from, how you act. If you’re late to work, they’re late to work. They think it’s okay, and they’re not wrong in their thinking. You have to lead by example. You can’t say one thing and do something else.
“You cannot manage people effectively unless you have done yourself the job you ask them to do. I think that’s a fundamental thing for me.”Ferdinand Metz
Facing & Overcoming Adversity
While working at Le Pavillon, there were things I had to overcome. During that time, the war was still fresh in some people’s minds. Some of the cooks would turn their backs to do something so I wouldn’t see. Or they would ask me to get something so I couldn’t watch what they were doing.
There was a high degree of insecurity, and being the only non-French in the whole place, I had to take some stuff that I didn’t like. But I focused on where I wanted to go, not on the petty little things. You have to focus on where you want to be at times.
Standing for Your Beliefs
I got to know Jacob Rosenthal, a former president of the Culinary Institute of America, very well. He was a very good man, and I had a lot of respect for him.
One day, he called and said I should apply to the President position at the Institute. I told him I had no interest. At the time, I was doing very well at Heinz. Jacob wouldn’t let it go, though. He continually told me I needed to apply, needed to apply. Finally, he asked me again, and I said, “if you want me to apply, then you apply for me.” And he did!
So I went and talked to the faculty. During the process, they said as the President of the American Culinary Federation, since it’s a conflict to keep the position, they were sure I would resign from the ACF if I were hired at the Institute. When they said this, I replied, “if that’s the case, this interview is over.” I had zero intentions to resign, and I didn’t believe there was a conflict at all. In fact, I believed there was an enhancement. Of course, as you know, I became President of the Institute, and I didn’t resign, so it worked out.
An Entrepreneurs “Recipe for Success”
You must have an idea that you truly believe brings a benefit to the table or an advantage that nobody else has done before, or at least that you’re not aware. Just doing the “same old” is not going to cut it. And to follow up, you must execute.
The second thing is to have working capital because you’re going to run out of money very soon. Make sure you have enough savings to sustain whatever the size of the operation is, whether a one-man operation or five. I would say make sure you can sustain for a year.
See, if you don’t have that (capital) in a start-up venture, things can go wrong very quickly. Your success is from building up new customers or clients, and so often everything depends on a lot of things going right, but they don’t always do.
You better be prepared to have at least six months, but I say a year, of working capital to sustain things. It will help you focus on building the business, rather than having to compromise from the very beginning.
First, I would never advise getting into competitions for the sake of competing. I know some people look at themselves as competition chefs, and that’s wrong, that’s so fundamentally wrong.
Competitions, if taken in the right way, are very good. You have to carry the right perspective into them. If your idea of a competition is to win a gold medal, forget it. If your idea is to get better and to measure where you stand in this whole arena, then it’s good.
The greater goal of any competition, including the master chef examination, is to come out a better chef. Having learned something, having gained from the invaluable experience, and being a better person and better chef.
Master Chef Examination
My advice would be to cook simple and well. At the examination, and I’ve proctored many, people make the most basic mistakes because of the pressure. The pressure is also an element that we test people on – how well you handle yourself.
Also, people try to innovate when they should do something they did a thousand times before. Instead of innovating, at the time, they should do what they’ve done before at their very best. People try to be creative beyond a reasonable aspect. They try to do something new, and that’s the wrong time.
It’s the time to show how well you can cook, show your passion, be yourself, and be confident. Cook in a very simple but great way. Develop the right way to get to the flavors you need, and don’t innovate or create it at that time.
“The greater goal of any competition, including the master chef examination, is to come out a better chef.”Ferdinand Metz
There are opportunities before you and you better latch onto them, because if you are of them mindset that says, “I can do it tomorrow,” or “I’ll think about it,” that doesn’t work. You really have to jump on them and make sacrifices – do what you have to do.
When I look back while I was at Heinz, some of my days were unbelievable. I would go to work at 6 am, work a full day, run to the University of Pittsburg for my course, leave to teach gourmet cooking, and then attend a chef’s meeting. That wasn’t every day, but that was 2 to 3 times per week. My days were full, but that created opportunities.
So as far as opportunities, you almost don’t have to look for them. They are in front of you. All you have to do is recognize and commit to them.
Staying Relevant in the Industry
I’d say don’t worry about staying relevant just for the sake of it, stay relevant by feeling the pulse of the industry. And then come up with solutions or initiatives to solve problems.
If the goal is just to stay relevant, it’s probably not a good goal. If the goal is to come up with things the industry needs, improvements or new initiatives, then that’s the right frame of mind to move forward.
The Future of the Industry
I’m looking at things like the minimum-wage increase right now. If that goes up, you’ll have a lot of restaurants closing. Even though it does provide an opportunity for others, there will be consequences.
Some places may get too expensive. Maybe to the point where the common man or average family will no longer be able to afford eating out 50% of the week, or month, or year. If that goes through, it may become unaffordable for people.
I think all those regulatory changes make it very difficult for independent restaurants to survive.
Though with every change comes new types of opportunities. Things like food delivery services, in-home cooking services, or grocery delivery services. If you look at it this way, then what I mentioned about the increase, you’ll probably say it’s a good time to teach men and women to cook at home. They may have to do it more. So that could be a potential opportunity for the future.
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