“Maybe That’s The Answer To All The Conflicts Going On Right Now. To Just Get Everybody At The Dinner Table.”
An Interview with Karl Guggenmos, Senior Culinary Advisor at Healthy Meals Supreme
Global Master Chef Karl Guggenmos is Dean Emeritus at Johnson & Wales University (JWU), where he recently retired as the university dean of the culinary development after a 30 -year tenure at the university where he also served as the dean of culinary education, the dean of the College of Culinary Arts as well as an instructor. During his 50-year career, he has consulted on many initiatives including the culinary medical program established at the Goldring Center of Culinary Medicine at Tulane University Medical School. This program was adopted by more than 35 medical schools across the United States. Earlier in his career he served as the executive chef at restaurants worldwide until 1988, when he joined JWU. Global Master Chef Guggenmos is the recipient of a long list of prestigious awards including the Silver Star Medal Chaine des Rotisseurs (2016), Education Ambassador of Rhode Island (2015) and Presidential Medallion, American Culinary Federation (2010). Global Master Chef Guggenmos is a member of a variety of organizations including the Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, theRetail Bakers of America and the Greater Charleston National Association of Catering Executives. He is regularly invited to judge prestigious culinary competitions worldwide and was named a Global Master Chef by the World Association of Chefs Societies in 2008. Global Master Chef Guggenmos also holds an MBA from JWU.
What inspired you to work in the cooking and food industry?
Well, what inspired me was the fact that I watched my mom cook and bake, like so many other chefs who probably have the same story. However becoming a chef was really not what I wanted or what I aspired to in the beginning. When I was very young, I wanted to become a jockey because I love horses. But by sixth grade that was all over. I was already too tall. So I had to change my mind. I had to decide at age 14, in part because in the 50s, and even today, in Germany, the education system requires you to make a choice in fourth grade. You can either follow an academic track if your grades are high enough and you can later study at the university OR you go the trade route. Also parents had a great influence at the time over the life of children. My parents strongly influenced my aspirations towards an apprenticeship, so I did the trade route, meaning that you have to become an apprentice. In the seventh grade I had to take an aptitude test. I showed promise in various areas, baking and cooking were two of them. Initially, I decided to become a baker and I had an apprenticeship all lined up. However, that apprenticeship never materialized, because the bake shop closed before I was to begin, so I had to scramble. Then my mentor stepped in to help. This was the first time I had a mentor, a real mentor. My eighth grade teacher did something really extraordinary and which has really stuck with me all my life. He taught me that as a teacher, you not only have to impart knowledge, but you also have to take an interest in your students and their success. He found me an apprenticeship program at the top Hotel in Augsburg, in the southern part of Germany, my home town. It was a five year apprenticeship, in the back (kitchen) and in the front (dining area) of the house. And that’s how I became a chef. Inspiration came over the years and the passion along with it.
What has your journey been like since first stepping foot in a kitchen?
It has been a journey of great passion and great fulfillment but also with some challenges and failures along the way. As a chef or a cook, you provide for and touch all the senses of people in their pleasure center. Whatever food you put in front of people affects them in one way or another. It’s been a great journey from apprenticeship to master chef certification to General Manager, to executive chef to educator and Dean of more than 6,000 culinary students at the foremost Culinary University, where I had to start all over again and become an academic. When I was a kid I really didn’t want to be an academic, but here I was getting an MBA because it was required to be a dean. And now I have a third career where I am dedicating my talents and skills to helping people to eat healthy and empowering them to make better choices to live a better life, a healthier life which we have a great responsibility for as food service professionals.
Do you have a specialty? If so, what drew you to that type of food?
I appreciate a broad range and diversity of foods and meals. Obviously, I love my own cooking from Bavaria.
I really love, what we call in the food service industry, ‘hot food’. I love cooking soups, making great roasts or savory items. And as a hobby, I go back to what I wanted to become as an apprentice — baking. I bake bread and make cakes and it’s really very fulfilling. Someone once said that there is something spiritual about making bread. I know this to be true. I don’t really know what it is, but it’s true. There’s something about making bread early in the morning that is really something very special.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef?
Oh, there are many, many of those. Here’s one. I was working in Germany. We were assigned to make an ice cream sundae dessert for 250 people. I asked this one apprentice to make the desert by putting three scoops of ice cream in the appropriate dessert dish, then put whipped cream on top of that and then garnish it. Very simple, right? Or so you would think. Well, when it came time to serve dessert, I nearly had a heart attack. The sundae was garnished with a slice of tomato, a slice of cucumber and parsley. First I froze in horror of what I saw, then, I immediately had the rest of my staff correct the situation and the customers never knew what happened.
The issue with this apprentice was that he had worked in another part of the kitchen for six months, where it was standard practice that there are five savory garnishes, tomato, etc. So he put the tomato on, because that’s what he knew to be a definition of a garnish, even though he was now working in the dessert department. He didn’t think that maybe it should have been something different. Now, looking back, I realize that this really was our failure as managers. It was a good lesson for me to learn that things had to change in how we do things in the kitchen and to teach the right way so that our students will think more critically. For savory items, you put savory things on and for sweets, you have to use something else.
What is your definition of success?
For a chef, it’s very simple — the smile on people’s faces when they taste and eat your food. It means that you have successfully touched all five senses — hearing, seeing, smelling, touching, and tasting. It is the best success to have created this pleasure. Many people say, we’ll be successful as a chef once we receive all the accolades and start making money. Yes, that may be part of it. But if you create that smile on the face of someone, the rest will follow.
What failures have you had along the way? How have they led you to success?
I think my biggest failure was in one of my business partnerships. I was mostly concerned with me as a chef, rather than the business. I was a typical European, egotistical, tyrannical chef and that just didn’t work. I had to make major life changes in order to become successful. I had to completely change my attitude toward my workers. In the past, it was all about me, how well I could cook, instead of how well everybody on the team was doing, which ultimately is what leads to a successful operation.
My whole mindset, attitude and philosophy, with the whole team, even the dishwashers evolved. A story: my line chefs would always fight with the dishwashers. I finally made them all sit down, much to their dismay and talk. The result of the discussion was a plan that made a big difference in work flow and work efficiency and employee morale. The work flow and morale was near-perfect after that.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?
Yes, I working on my third career, if you will, and that is to bring my 52 years of professional experience in this world full circle by providing healthy food for people with chronic diseases or wanting to prevent illnesses. I want to do my part in helping them to make good choices in their life. This is why I am consulting with Healthy Meals Supreme (HMS) and helping their founder Joe Martinez, to build several lines of culinary medicine inspired, freshly prepared, ready-to-eat, home delivered meal programs. HMS is dedicated to doing everything possible to make sure that they will be successful in helping people eat better and that we can help as many people as possible to make good food choices. Joe is and has been a registered pharmacist and a diabetes educator for more than 30 years. He’s also a patient with a chronic disease — diabetes. He knows first-hand the importance of healthy eating and how culinary medicine can make a positive difference. His own story is his inspiration. He founded HMS to help others experience the same success he has had in finding a way to eat healthy, delicious food without any effort. This is a key factor for people with busy schedules or who need to feed others, like aging parents, by remote control.
Starting in mid-December 2018, Healthy Meals Supreme will begin delivering in the Northeast region of the United States. Initial areas of service will include: Connecticut, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York (Eastern Region), Pennsylvania (Eastern Region), Rhode Island and Vermont. Following, the company will begin delivering to the West Coast and Midwest and thereafter to the rest of the country.
Meals and meal plans include: Culinary Medicine (diabetes, heart, neurology, and kidney disease), Simply Healthy, Diet/Weight Loss and Fitness.
Their website: www.healthymealssupreme.comand their twitter handle is @HMSChefs.
I’m also involved with pulmonary medicine and training programs for young aspiring chefs.
What advice do you have for aspiring chefs?
The first thing you have to do is take an honest assessment of your own skills. Don’t deceive yourself into things and think that you are somebody that you’re not, because in this profession, it will come out very quickly if you can cook or you cannot cook.
I see now that, as I am judging competitions, so many times the basics are missing. Stick with the basics and be true to yourself. If you love a certain part of the food service industry, go after that and don’t get sidetracked. Be open minded and willing to learn. Make sure that you’re not on this journey alone. You will need to have some guidance as well as the support of all your friends and your mentors. When I speak to young, aspiring culinary professionals, I always share the four anchors that they will need:
Number One: The anchor of confidence, where you learn and master the basics. This is VERY important.
Number Two: The anchor of endurance. This may be the challenge of your lifetime. And that’s where you repeatedly come back to the basics.
Number Three: The anchor of renewal. You have to learn new things all the time. Don’t ever become stagnant and think you have learned everything. There is always something for a chef or restaurant owner to learn, and it may not have anything to do with the cooking itself. When I became a general manager, I had to learn about payroll. Remember, these were the old days, before computers, when checks were written by hand and recorded in handwriting in physical ledgers. Of the first 75 paychecks I wrote, more than half of them were wrong. I had forgotten to calculate and deduct taxes. It was an honest mistake. This is something that I’d never done before and there had been no one there to guide me or show me how payroll was done. What was funny was that all the people who I overpaid remained silent and all the ones I had underpaid were on my doorstep at six o’clock the next morning. It took me a week, but I finally resolved all of the issues with the pay checks. Since then, everyone in my employ has been paid accurately.
Number Four: the anchor, for lack of a better term, of grace. To me this is the most important one of all — to master the human heart and give back, that which was given to you — both knowledge and skills. This was the driving force during my tenure as an educator and I will follow this calling for the rest of my career. I feel so much has been given to me, all the great experiences, the travels to all corners of the world and also the accolades and accomplishments over the years. They all compel me to be grateful and give back to the next generation.
What is the key to creating the perfect dish?
Simplicity. Simple ingredients and simple cooking methods. Don’t try to over create. Just, very simply cover all the senses in terms of flavors, colors, taste and textures.
It is said that food is a common ground that brings people together. As someone who makes food for a living, what does this saying mean to you?
It is said that food provides a common ground that brings people together. This is a very important concept in a world full of confusion, war, fighting and hatred.
So, my simple answer to this question is: if you sit with somebody and break bread and have a meal, you’re not going to hurt this person. You’re not going to hate this person. You start to come together as a result of the very nice environment where you are enjoying a great meal. Maybe that’s the answer to all the conflicts going on right now. To just get everybody at the dinner table. I’ll be glad to do the cooking.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became a Chef” and why?
Years ago, I ventured into a partnership for a Restaurant/Catering /Bakery business. Though it was certainly successful in the end, I wish I had known a few things that so many chefs simply don’t know or don’t care about.
There are the most obvious ones that most know including the fact that you work long hours, evenings, weekends and holidays; that it’s hot in the kitchen and you’re exhausted and in pain from standing on a hard floor for 12 to 14 hours. You have to have enough startup capital with little borrowed money. Yes, most chefs know this but there are some more important things that we often overlook and then wonder why the restaurant fails.
Here are 5 that I feel are the ones that have the most impact on success, but that most chefs either don’t know or ignore.
1: In a restaurant, it’s not only important how well you as the chef can cook but how well all the team members can cook. The chef has to be able to create a solid team that seamlessly delivers the whole experience.
2: Customers evaluate their experience with all their senses not just their taste buds. They see, hear, smell and touch before they taste the food. If there is no positive flow in this, they pass judgment before they ever taste the food. That means everything and everyone has to be in sync, like a great orchestra, from the moment the customer sets foot on the property until they leave.
3: As a Chef you are the most temporary artist of all. You are constantly on stage, your art is instant and temporary, meaning you create it, send it out and it’s gone. Every plate that goes out has a piece of YOU on it. Nobody cares what great things you did yesterday or what you could do tomorrow. It’s the NOW that counts and failure is met with unforgiving criticism and you have to be able to take it professionally not personally.
4: The storeroom is the most important room of the operation. Whatever goes in and goes out in relationship to revenues has the most profound impact on the financial success of the operation. Waste, pilferage, wrong portions and pricing can break a restaurant in the shortest time.
5: One of the most important people in the kitchen are the dishwashers/stewards. They are the most underpaid and under-appreciated people but without them the kitchens dynamics will be completely set upside down. Along this line obviously there has to be an alignment and team work between servers, bus boys, cooks and the entire team so that there is a seamless flow in the whole operation. One time I asked a very successful restaurateur in New York what he looks for first when visiting his operations and without hesitation he said if the dishwashers and servers are smiling and happy then I know all is well.
I wish everyone all the success in going into this business. It can be most rewarding because we aim to provide pleasure and with the right approach it can be very fulfilling.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
Finding a way to manufacture food that provides the pleasure that people expect, but does minimal harm to their health and even enhances their health. For example: teaching people about the simplicity of cooking food as well as associated life skills in the kitchen — like which cutting board or which knife to use with what food. I feel that food professionals have, for way too long, neglected their responsibility in regards to nutritional health and the nutritionally impacted illnesses of their customers. We can’t continue with business as usual, things have to change.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to cook for and why?
I cooked for Johnny Cash and June Carter, Film Producer John McTiernan as well as other celebrities both in the US and Germany. I would love to have cooked for Johnny Cash again and Billy Graham.
Living in the present, I’d love to cook for:
Tom Hanks, because I very much respect his work and have heard he’s a very nice person. I also know he lives with diabetes and I’d like to help him eat healthy and delicious food.
I am also a big fan of Liv Tyler. I loved her work as Arwen in Lord of the Rings.
Arnold Schwarzenegger just for who he is. Arnold has inspired a legion of people to get healthy and exercise. Besides, he is the Terminator, isn’t he?
Angela Merkel for her political presence and accomplishments during the last decade.
Michelle Obama for her work with the school lunch program and out of respect to the nutrition award that she won in 2017. By the way, Healthy Meals Supreme’s scientific advisory board chairman Dr. Irl Hirsch received the same award this year.
Graham Kerr. I actually worked with him. He is my best friend and mentor.
Alton Brown because of how he brings food and cooking knowledge to the TV audiences watching him.