Kitchen Conversations with Norman Van Aken: Ferdinand Metz
Norman Van Aken, a member of The Daily Meal Council, is a Florida-based chef–restaurateur (Norman's at the Ritz-Carlton in Orlando), cooking teacher, and author. His most recent book is a memoir, No Experience Necessary: The Culinary Odyssey of Chef Norman Van Aken. This is the one in a regular series of Kitchen Conversations — informal but revealing interchanges with key culinary figures — that Van Aken will be contributing to The Daily Meal. He also writes a regular series of Kitchen Meditations for us. You can find all of Norman’s contributions on his Daily Meal page.
Ferdinand Metz has had — and continues to have — an illustrious career in the culinary world. For starters, he earned the 1999 Lifetime Achievement Award for the James Beard Foundation. Moreover, he is one of only 67 Certified Master Chefs. He has enjoyed 21 years as the President of the renowned Culinary Institute of America. In addition, chef Metz has been the President of the American Culinary Federation, President of the World Association of Chefs’ Societies, and President of the World Association of Chefs, a global organization of over eight million culinarians representing 82 countries.
As member, captain, and manager of the U.S. Culinary Olympic teams 1968 — 1988, chef Metz won over thirty gold medals in international competitions. As if all this wasn’t impressive enough, he is one of only three recipients in the United States to be awarded the Medal of the French Republic and Maître D’ Honneur by the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs.
Amongst his many exceptional talents, he also has experience in competition judging, food industry consulting, and leadership.
Norman Van Aken: What is the very first thing you remember eating and enjoying? Where were you?
Chef Ferdinand Metz: I was about 12 years old when we went skiing in the alps, which are only 45 minutes from our home, and following that we had a simple snack of fried egg on a slice of farmer’s rye bread. Perhaps it was the fact that I was hungry, but more likely it was because the freshly baked bread with its caraway scented flavor, the chewy center, and the flavorful crust. That combined with the variation of textures of the simply butter-fried egg, slightly brown at the edges, its softer whites, and finally the liquid gold of the yolk. This simple combination, its comfort food feeling, and the surrounding circumstances made this truly a meal, whose taste memories I cherish and remember to this day. Perhaps this is another proof that “less is more.”
Are you the first ‘chef’ in your Family?
No, not at all. My father was a master charcutier and a master chef and my brother is a master chef and pastry chef, as I am. My other brother is a pastry chef and my sister is a hotel/restaurant manager — so you can see — it is all in the family.
When did you start cooking?
Basically at the age of 11. Since my family owned a small hotel, butcher shop, and restaurant, we were always around food. At a very young age I would “work” in the butcher shop and got to know the ins and outs, from start to the finish. I would accompany my grandfather and drive with him to the farmers to pick out a cattle or pigs. After he made his selection and reached a bargain with the farmer, we would load the animal(s) onto the trailer, drove it to our local slaughter house, killed the animal, and brought the sides to our shop for fabrication, which included the making of sausages, smoked meats, prime, and secondary cuts, specialty items, like tripe, etc. Later on I would learn how to cook the various cuts in our restaurant kitchen.
When did you realize that it was ‘serious’ to you?
Cooking was always serious to me, because in the prevailing culture we had a lot of respect for food and absolutely nothing was wasted. My carrier choice was actually made by my parents, (it was tradition then and quite acceptable), who proclaimed on my 15th birthday that they were fortunate to land an apprentice ship for me as a beginning pastry cook in one of Munich’s foremost cafés and pastry shop, where my brother Reinhold already started the third year of his apprenticeship. Since my father did not receive special training in baking and pastry, he made sure that my brother and I would get it, followed by another apprenticeship in cooking. This way he covered all the bases.
Where were you cooking when that moment took place?
This news was broken to me at our restaurant on my 15th birthday and came along with a gift of several knives. Initially is was a shock to me, but soon thereafter I realized that my parents knew better than I — a decision I have not regretted to this day.
What was the first dish you made you felt proud of?
I exhibited, along with my father and brother, in a food show in Nuernberg, and at the age of 16 I exhibited several pastry items. It was there that I earned a gold medal for my work. As far as cooking was concerned, it was my final examination for graduating from the cooks apprenticeship program where I had to prepare a stuffed halibut with all the required garnishes. I finished the practical and theoretical portions with perfect scores at the trade school in Munich, which was then culminated by also receiving the distinction as the best apprentice in the State of Bavaria.