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Master Chef, Mushroom Farmer, Hollywood Attraction

Dirk Hermann | Los Angeles, California

I am finally in Eustis, Florida, and excited to meet with Dirk Hermann via Zoom finally. He has been a hard person to reach. According to Food and Wine, “there are only 66 current Certified Master Chefs in the USA. Those who take the exam train for months if not years, working not only to hone their culinary skills but also to ensure they are in peak physical condition; it’s that taxing.” This man is one of them! I was in LA hoping to interview him at a farmers’ market, but he was swamped. So, I am lucky to catch him today!

Danielle: Before we jump into your current endeavors, would you please let us know how your upbringing influenced your current success? 

Dirk: My parents had three to four hotels when I grew up. So from the early age of nine to 12, I was already in the restaurant business. So in the early mornings, ages 12 to 14 during the summer, spring, or winter break, I was already a student in Michelin star restaurants, peeling onions, peeling onions, preparing the trout, washing the salad. And then, from 14 to 17, I was an apprentice and then left alone to be a chef. So at the age of 18, I had my first restaurant. And then, I worked in Bangkok, Hong Kong, Switzerland, and France, where I truly learned how to be a chef. 

By the age of 26, I went to a school to learn to be a master chef. There were less than 100 master chefs in the United States at that time. You need at least ten years of experience written and showing that you got paid for it. Everybody can write you a letter of recommendation. But you have to show that you got your internship also paid. So many times when you learn in a high-end restaurant, you get paid only a minimum. Right? So I did this for ten to 12 years. And then, when I was at the school, I graduated in America in theory and practice. So the school hired me as a teacher for teaching master chefs cooking. 

Did you enjoy that? 

Yeah, it was my life! I did it for over 30 years. It was my life for 30 years. I was very disappointed that there was not much high culinary education when I came to the United States. People would just go for three months or six months to cordon bleu or to another cooking school, and then they call themself a chef. I think you need a little bit more experience than three or six months or a year. I think it needs five to 10 years before you can call yourself a chef. You should need a Masters in order to be called a chef. 

It takes a lot of time. It would be best if you experienced different cultures, explored different cooking styles, and met different executive chefs so that overall, you have a good round of experience. You have to be humble enough always to be willing to start from scratch. Even though I was the sous chef in Germany, I came back here to the states, and I had to chop parsley. And I would cry on my way home because my English was not good at that time. Today I can laugh about it. 

When did you start farming mushrooms yourself? 

First, I was foraging. In 1996 I was a chef. The person I worked for, the owner, was very, very well wealthy. He was a billionaire, and I was his private chef. But he treated me like his own son. So after six months, I could hire high-end chefs to cook for us. And I was the estate manager for this gentleman. I did not have to cook anymore. I could employ Wolfgang Puck or high-end restaurants because he saw that I have more ability than cooking. 
Unfortunately, this household had a family drama, so I went to work for somebody else. He was also a billionaire, and he also treated me as his own son. I became his estate manager. So the guy just retired. I worked for three years for him. And he was so good for me, so good to me. And he just retired at the age of 65,67. And then and then he got progressive Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and PSP. So he got sick, and he let me go after three years. 
So, I wanted to do something that nobody else was doing with all the money in the world. I started foraging mushrooms, chanterelles, porcine… I didn’t see this at the farmers’ market – no foraged mushrooms. I was disappointed when I brought mushrooms that I forged to the farmers market, and the customers didn’t know what these mushrooms were. I was surprised. 

I had anywhere from 20 to 30 different kinds, but nobody knew how to enjoy them! I went to four different farms and picked up white buttons, creminis, portobellos, and then from other farms shiitake, from another farm oyster. When I had these five different kinds, I sold more of the cultivated ones than the foraged ones. I would sell exactly the opposite if I had 80% foraged and 20% of grocery store mushrooms. I sold 80% in value of cultivated and 20% of foraged. I got so frustrated. My passion was with the foraged mushrooms because the taste is so much better. So instead of doing a lot of advertising, I gave them away for people to try, and I gave a lot. This I justified as advertising for the customer, hopefully coming back.

It took between five to seven years to see an increase in sales for the forage ones. After ten years, I think I have seen a decrease in the cultivated ones. Then after 12 years, the Department of Agriculture in California changed the rules for all farmers’ markets. It was very costly! But I didn’t want to give up the business. So I started applying to Paul Stamets to learn how to grow mushrooms. After two years, there was an empty spot, and I flew to Washington to introduce myself as the LA fun guy, which brought a big smile to Paul’s face. I learned how to grow mushrooms. It was a fascinating and excellent education for me. 

What year was it when you saw Paul? 

About seven or eight years ago. I am not sure. But anyway, so I rented some warehouses, and I started growing mushrooms. I had my own laboratory; I hired people. And then, after producing for producing for six months, all the mycelium everything in jars, everything ready for the fall to fruit. I got an email saying that we will have power outages this weekend and expect triple digits due to the high volume of power. So they turned off the power, and all my crops died. I lost $250,000. Then the Department of Agriculture came and inspected me, and they said that they didn’t see anything growing, so they banned me for six months as La FungHi from the farmers market. I wanted to file for bankruptcy. It was so brutal. I had a hearing, and there was nothing that I could do to keep it going. 
The story does go on. Stay tuned!