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Uncomfortably elite: Master chef Fritz Sonnenschmidt dishes on star chefs, culinary schools and fusion

by Steve Coomes

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Chef Fitz Sonnenschmidt

Fritz Sonnenschmidt is a rarity in his trade: one of only 60 Certified Master Chefs in the world.

The vast majority of chefs who attempt the “CMC” exam fail. Not only is the 10-day test grueling, it requires years of preparation before an accredited school will accept a chef’s application to attempt it.

Interestingly, everyone seems impressed by the CMC title except Sonnenschmidt himself. The Munich native called it more a means to further his education than an assumed pass to culinary superstardom.

Oh, he’s had that, too. He’s hosted multiple televised cooking shows, authored numerous books and is a globally recognized culinary ambassador and consultant. In 2002, he capped off 50 of his 60 years (and counting) in restaurants and culinary education by retiring as culinary dean at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Humble, lively and funny, the 78-year-old Sonnenschmidt—who looks nowhere close to that age—was in Louisville last week to speak at Sullivan University’s National Center for Hospitality Studies and enjoy a dinner in his honor. That afternoon I requested 30 minutes of his time and got 45. During that time, I just let the recorder run.

Everybody makes big deal about Certified Master Chef, but for every CMC, there are 100 chefs who are as good but didn’t have the time, money or ego to devote to it. I took it to prove to myself that, as an instructor, I teach the right things the right way.

But when I took it, I realized that pressure is a destroyer, that it makes people not function well. And that changed my teaching philosophy.

I try to take the pressure out of the classroom by saying to students, “You and I are equal.” That’s the first thing. The second thing I tell them is, “Mistakes are nothing to be worried about, mistakes are learning.” I put the students at ease.

I’m 78. Oh, you think I look good? (He strokes his hair.) It’s A-1 Sauce. That’s the secret. No gray!

Chefs were always superstars, not just today. It was just a different time with no media. (When I was coming up), great chefs were at big hotels. And if a chef moved to another hotel, the clientele moved with him. But because the media wasn’t there, it was not publicized.

The star chefs today … a lot become stars but they are not chefs. They have no bloody idea how to cook, and yet people follow them. Now Rachel Ray knows how to cook, and she’s not even a chef. But many other TV stars really make a mockery of the culinary arts, they don’t cook, they just recreate without any meaning.

This guy (Gordon) Ramsey guy, he’s making a mockery out of culinary arts. … Here’s this guy trying to get us back into this philosophy of screamers in the kitchen. We’ve put them on a pedestal and created some monsters. But there are many good ones, too.

In my opinion we do have a problem with some culinary schools. For one, we have 880 of them in this country, and they charge a lot of money for it. And they don’t give a service to the students and there’s no control over the quality of their education. There’s no check up on the culinary side to see what they’re being taught. They siphon off the money and don’t give back to the students, and I feel sorry for these kids. I know of culinary schools where the faculty couldn’t even cook. There are about 15 to 20 top culinary programs in the country, and this one here is one of them.

Apprenticeships are very good, and I’d like to see more of them. But those also cost money, so I’d like to have more grants and scholarships to pay for these. But there are reasons why they’re not always successful (in the U.S.)

Sometimes the apprentice is considered a source of cheap labor. To supervise this and make sure the apprentice is truly learning and not put on (the salad station) for two years is very difficult. In Europe, a three-year apprenticeship is equivalent to going to culinary school. The first year the apprentice is paid minimum wage, the second year a little more, and in the third year, if he’s good, a full cook’s wages. In Europe you move to a different station every three months to make sure you have a broad education.

Apprenticeships are more hands-on experiences, and culinary school is more of a mind experience.

A chef’s career is better today than it used to be. I think that’s because there’s better time management. You don’t work 22 hours a day anymore, and you have vacation times, and at least two days off a week. Also you have benefits—maybe not everyone yet, but there are more of them.

Oh, there always was fusion. What we teach as classical cuisine was already an international fusion, a marriage of Italian and French. The problem is a lot of chefs fuse without thinking. They fuse for the sake of fusion and think it’s clever. But you can really fuse anything if you go through the necessary thought processes. There’s a chef in Chicago who fuses Indian and Mexican and it’s fantastic!

And molecular … some of that can be crazy, and some is so creative. But eventually it’s going to go by the wayside too.

One negative habit we have as chefs is we can take something good and destroy it … by overloading it with too many flavors, ingredients, by adding chemicals to it to make it hold longer. You taste it and ask yourself, “What’s the point of this? What’s he trying to do with 30 ingredients? I don’t understand.”

But I, too, am sometimes I’m guilty of using an extra thing or two and making it worse. For example, I had a recipe recently that asked for 4 grams of an ingredient—just 4 grams!—but I thought, “Maybe 8 grams would be better.” It was not! I was wrong! Less is more.

You look at very old recipes and you’ll see no more than four to five major ingredients in them. And what’s important is you can remember it—it’s here (he taps his head). One failure of chefs is they keep adding and never take out. We need to take out!

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