The FCSI interview: Josef Meringer

Josef Meringer FFCSI has travelled the world, taking lessons learnt in his small Tyrolean village to restaurants across the globe. He speaks to Jim Banks about a career spanning four decades in the foodservice industry, his inspiration and his desire to bring out the best in people

When I speak with Josef Meringer, shortly after he received his prestigious FCSI Fellowship award from the Society at the FCSI EAME 2017 Conference, he is at Der Zauberberg (The Magic Mountain), a ski area in the town of Semmering in the state of Lower Austria. After many years travelling the world he is back in his home country. No matter where he goes, however, he carries with him an infectious positivity that always brings a smile to one’s face.

A chef, manager, evangelist for new cooking technologies, author, leader and a mentor, Meringer has spent more than 45 years in the hospitality business. From his time on the front line working in hotel kitchens through his time as vice president of marketing for combi steamer innovator Rational in the US, to his consultancy work in areas such as guest satisfaction and kitchen management, his career has been defined by his desire to learn and explore new ideas.

He has come a long way from the rural idyll of his childhood and his dreams of flying. Even as a young boy from a small mountain community in Austria with a head full of dreams he had the spark of a desire to travel further afield as well as the ability to rise above adversity and appreciate all that is good in life.

“I began life as a Tyrolean mountain farm boy,” he recalls. “I grew up above 1,500 metres in the mountains in a part of Austria known for its alpine ski resorts and as a child I had a clear vision of flying through the world like the eagles in the mountains. When I was young we did not have enough money even to travel to Innsbruck.

“But in 1959, everything changed. I damaged my left hand in an accident while working in a wool factory. At first, it looked as if it would have to be amputated, but the doctors managed to save it. However, I couldn’t even hold a fork so I couldn’t think about handcrafting or manual work. I was a passionate altar boy, so I thought about a career in the church preaching to the farmers but, as often happens with boys at a certain age, I discovered girls and realised the church was not for me. My mother was disappointed, but I had more ideas about what I wanted to be. I was a good student, so I thought about being a doctor, partly because I’d had so many surgeries on my hand.”

Leading the team

It was Meringer’s love of food – partly inspired by his grandmother who was an excellent cook – that finally decided his career path. He entered one of the apprenticeships that were available in Austria at the time. After three years of vocational school he graduated with a certificate of excellence and went to work as a cook in a hotel kitchen.

Meringer quickly decided he wanted to become the head of a kitchen and through his skill and hard work, at the age of 25 he became one of the youngest sous-chefs to work in a five-star hotel. At the Hotel Bristol in Salzburg he realised his desire to lead the kitchen team.

“We had a summer festival in Salzburg and I cooked for musical heroes such as Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan and American composer Leonard Bernstein. I was in seventh heaven. I had worked my way through the hierarchy of the kitchen, which you have to do if you want to be a good leader, and I learnt to have respect for my team. I also learnt that the secret to success is to make your guests happy,” he says.

In the early 1970s, Meringer discovered his passion for cooking technology, and so began the next phase of a career driven by a hunger for knowledge. “I was always curious as a boy. I was always asking questions. That is the cheapest way to learn. I went to Italy and visited companies, such as Zanussi, to learn about convection ovens rather than traditional stoves. I learnt to respect the engineers who were working in the laboratories.

I saw National, before it became known as Panasonic, bring the first microwave technology to Europe and an engineer asked me to test it in a hotel. Between 1974 and 1976 I learnt a lot more about that technology and others, then at the 1976 Culinary Olympics in Frankfurt I saw Rational show the combi steamer and I really liked the idea of combining steam and dry heat,” he says.

“At the time, no chef could explain how it would work with different dishes, so it was difficult to evaluate the benefit of the equipment. I did discuss it with a chef from a home for the elderly, but he was not from a five-star hotel.

At the 1980 Culinary Olympics I learnt more from the company about the technology and the following year they asked me to work for them as a full-time chef. I was unsure at first, but the owner and engineer convinced me that the technology could revolutionise the hospitality business.”

It proved to be a good decision. Rational, which was founded in 1973 and introduced its ground-breaking technology three years later, had a turnover of DM1.4m and employed 23 people when Meringer joined. Its latest financial results show that it has grown to have sales revenue of more than €600m.

“It is a pioneer in this business. Working for the company taught me about diversification and the international element of this industry. In 1993, the company flew me to Chicago to become vice president of marketing for the US. I made one of my dreams come true when I went to Denver, drove through the Arapaho National Forest and went skiing in the Rocky Mountains,” he remarks.

“It is sad that my father never saw what I achieved in the US, but I was proud of myself. I became the person to talk to about cooking technology. Eventually I was presented with an award in Carnegie Hall in New York for sharing my knowledge and teaching courses.”
Although he has always been passionate about new technologies, Meringer has never forgotten that the equipment in a kitchen is just a set of tools, and it is secondary to the people using the tools and the guests enjoying the fruits of their labours. Though the hospitality industry is a ‘people business’ he has always made sure that the people around him do much more than simply pay lip service to this idea.

“I often see people not being honest about how things are, especially if they are in a bad situation. But I always encourage people to be honest so I can really be of help. Positive thinking is a lifestyle for me. It begins with accepting your situation, taking things as they are and dealing with them. You have to see the good in things and never take anything for granted.”

The people business

Looking back at the highlights of his career Meringer often returns to those moments when he worked hard to bring joy to other people. He talks, for instance, about the 1975 Salzburg Festival when his team prepared an eight-course meal for the lead performers – among them mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade – after the last show. The meal did not begin until midnight and the last dessert was served at 3.30am.

“They asked to see me afterwards and gave me a standing ovation,” Meringer recalls. “Frederica von Stade hugged me and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I had a tear in my eye but I was overjoyed. No amount of money is equal to that kind of feeling. Sure, you can make money in this business but it is all about the people, otherwise why aren’t you doing something else?”

Another fond memory is of a time advising the University of Colorado Boulder, where families of the students were working in the kitchen to produce 9,000 meals a day. He came across a lady called Susan, who had no idea how equipment such as a combi oven worked. “I asked her how she did things at home and whether her family liked cooking. When she said ‘yes’ I told her to do the same things she would do at home,” he says. “When the fourteen turkeys were cooked they looked beautiful. Susan hugged me and ran through the kitchen, so proud of what she had done. Those moments mean as much as the big awards I have received.”

Much of Meringer’s approach to others and to the hospitality industry stems from his childhood in the mountains of Tyrol – both the country and the people.

“In the Alps, you are focused on the seasons. You are very close to nature and the cycle of the harvest. I helped my family in the fields and worked with horses in the forest. I grew into a man who kept his promises and was respected for that. I always did a good job and I expected fair payment for it,” he says. “I was very close to my grandparents because my parents were working so hard. My grandmother was always very polite, very wise and a good listener. My grandfather especially was a strong influence. There was also
a young priest from down the valley who showed me the importance of friendship and respect for older people. My father always liked that I would never say bad things about people. Life is about human beings and that lesson has been important in my career.

“I was raised well by my grandfather and he was a great teacher. He always told me to tell the truth and I have taken that advice with me all over the world. Now, when I meet people through FCSI whom I have known for 20 years, they tell me I am honest and trustworthy. That includes being honest about what you don’t know. I believe this industry is a people business, and it is all about the heart, the hand, humour, intelligence and support for others. And to a certain extent love – I mean unconditional love – just to be there and to do.”

Jim Banks