Dan Metz studied to be an environmental engineer, but pivoted in his 30s to attend culinary school. The Cleveland, Ohio native then worked at the Wine Market, Fork and Wrench and The Willows Inn in Washington State. Currently, he is executive chef at Aggio, the restaurant owned by Chef Bryan Voltaggio.
Is this your first time running a kitchen?
I was always a sous, so this is my first executive chef job. It was kind of a big jump. Starting with a whole new kitchen is a challenge. But we haven’t been that busy, so I wasn’t pushed into this crazy, busy schedule. Hopefully business will pick up. We’ve been doing happy hour events, trying to get some of the people in the neighborhood, people who work downtown to come in after work. I don’t feel like the food is the problem. We get a lot of positive feedback on the food.
Is the problem the neighborhood?
It is a difficult location. When I got the job I was telling all my friends about it, but none of them knew where it was.
Is Chef Voltaggio on site or are you pretty much on your own?
I talk to him at least once a week — we have a conference call. He’s given me free rein to do what I want. There are a few things on the menu that are his, a Caesar salad, meatballs, and Tonnarelli Nero, squid ink pasta with crabmeat. I try to do classic things, focusing on pasta. I have a corzetti on the menu. They’re little round discs of fresh pasta and you stamp each one. It’s kind of an old school thing you don’t see all that often.
What kind of food did you grow up with?
My mom cooked dinner every day, Midwestern kind of stuff mostly. A lot of casseroles. A lot of things involving Campbell’s soup, green beans and gravy. She was a good cook. We didn’t go out to eat much, there wasn’t a lot of fine dining.
What made you decide to become an engineer?
I had an environmental science degree from Ohio State and I was working in a lot of labs. I got a job in HIV clinical trials at Case Western Reserve University, which has a very good engineering school. As long as I was working there I could take classes for free, so I decided to get my engineering degree. I got a master’s and moved to Baltimore to take a job with an engineering firm.
Then what happened?
I’d sit at my desk staring at the little clock on the corner of my computer and wait until 5 o’clock and I was miserable. I was mostly writing reports. I was working on sites formerly used by the Defense Department. We were going to sites where they’d done World War II practice bombing. They’d dropped little shells so they could see if they hit the target or not. In the winter we were walking through swamps, taking a step and sinking to our shoulders in mucky water.
How long did you last in engineering?
About four years. There are two licensing exams you have to take. The first is fundamentals of engineering, covering all aspects of engineering. But my undergrad was environmental science, so I didn’t have the engineering background. I studied and studied and studied. I knew I wouldn’t pass it and realized that maybe this was a good time to do something else. At the time, I was spending most of my time reading cookbooks and food magazines, cooking at home and going to restaurants.
So you just up and left?
I had been interested in food for in a while, I had been making fresh pasta, risotto, lots of Italian things. I figured I was spending most of my time with food, so maybe I should go to cooking school.
Yeah, it was a big jump, but I knew I didn’t want to do what I was doing. My wife was very supportive. I went to Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg. My first internship was at Meli and Tapas Adela in Fells. Then I went to the Wine Market. We had a lot of turnover, and within a year or so, I was the sous chef.
Did you stage for Chef Voltaggio?
It was hard with his schedule to do a tasting. He just asked me to send him a menu. I sent him a sample menu and he liked it. That was it.
What’s your favorite dish to cook?
It’s still the pasta. With the corzetti, we make a spicy fennel sausage with mild green olives and finish it with burrata cheese. On the menu we usually have two fresh pastas, and three extruded.
We have a machine that makes shapes like macaroni, fusilli, campanelle. You have different shaped dies that go on and you feed the dough through the die. Then you dry it overnight in the fridge. There’s definitely a big difference between a box of dried pasta and fresh extruded pasta.