Volume 78 - Number 29 / December 17 - 23, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Food & Dining

NATURAL GOURMET INSTITUTE
Friday Night Dinners
48 West 21st St., Second Fl.
Prix Fixe: $40 (tax incl.) BYOB
212-645-5170 ext. 0,naturalgourmetschool.com

Photo by Rachel Neville

Aspiring chefs at the Natural Gourmet Institute.

It tastes too good to be tofu

Natural Gourmet Institute caters to health-conscious cooks and diners

By Nicole Robson

The popularity of organic, locally grown food may seem like a recent phenomenon. The term “locavore” was only inducted to the New Oxford American Dictionary last year, and the urgency to reduce our collective carbon footprint has just begun to sink in. Yet long before local became trendy, and the words “tofu” and “delicious” weren’t often used in the same sentence, one school was churning out chefs committed to bringing fresh, nutritionally balanced whole foods to the table.

The Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts has earned a reputation for its affordable, four-course Friday night dinners on the east side of Chelsea. Cooking schools tend to have a bad rap, with the media highlighting sleep-deprived students laboriously slicing onions, while being heckled by Gordon Ramsay-type instructors.

Instead, the industrial elevator door of the 21st St. building peeled back to reveal what looked like the Whole Foods headquarters. The corridor-sized vestibule has the ceiling, floor and walls lined in wooden siding, which gives way to an open, split-level loft. Even the administrative department has a homey feel. The waiting area doubles as a gift shop, surrounded by shelves of recipe books, organic food products and edible vegan treats. Purchasable readings ranged from physical and mental well-being (“Nutrition Almanac” and “Food and Mood”) to the medicinal (“Nature’s Cancer Fighting Foods.”) Along the white-splashed walls are framed, close-up photographs of bright red and pink berries, green vegetables, and autumn-orange squashes. Not a tear seen nor foul word heard.

Founded in 1977, the Natural Gourmet Institute (NGI) was the brainchild of Annemarie Colbin, whose core belief that food can be a vehicle to heal and change lives has led to more than 30 years of health-conscious cooking. Concentrating on local and sustainable food sources, NGI offers hands-on sessions, demonstrations, lectures as well as an intensive Chef’s Training Program. All classes have a clear emphasis on plant-based cuisine, but optional teaching is also provided for preparation of eggs, fish and organic chicken. Courses cover such essential instruction as knife skills, and include specific dietary concerns like “Gluten Freedom: Reclaiming Our Daily Bread” and “Raw Comfort Foods.” The Chef’s Training Program combines culinary arts and theory with the practical side of the industry. With over 90 core modules, students learn about starting their own catering business, how foods interact with their immune system, and the correlation between food and healing.

On a recent night a graduation ceremony took place in one of the Institute’s three kitchens. Like the adjoining dining room, the workspace had been dressed up with tables, white linens and candles. As students received their diplomas, they were encouraged to say a few words about their experience. Stories of lawyers and corporate employees searching for a creative outlet hit a sympathetic note among the audience. “A large number of our students are ‘career changers,’ ” said Merle Brown, Vice President and Director of Admissions for NGI. “They have full-time jobs, sometimes not even related to culinary arts… but are likeminded in how they view the relationship between food and health.” Catered to working individuals, part-time programs require one week night of classes, followed by a full weekend day, over the course of nine months to a year. Full-time students spend Mondays to Fridays in the kitchens, fulfilling their requirements in approximately four months.

In keeping with NGI’s alumni, these graduates will likely go on to work as private chefs, caterers or even open their own restaurants. Colombe Jacobsen, a 2004 alum from the part-time program, was a contestant on the third season of “The Next Food Network Star.” The blonde 30-year-old now hosts her own “Conscious Cooking” webisodes on the Network’s website, in addition to providing nutritional consultation for large food conglomerates. “I enjoy the challenge of making really delicious vegetarian meals,” said Jacobsen. “It requires more creativity, and without the flavor of meat to hide behind, cooking becomes just as much about taste as it does technique.”

Sharon Buchanan, a Toronto native and prospective student who made the trip down specifically to inquire about full-time training, was one of 12 at a communal dinner table. “I spent a lot of time researching programs, [in the US and Canada]” said the middle-aged graphic designer. “And there’s no other school quite like this one,” referring to NGI’s nutritional and holistic approach to fine cuisine.

The vegetarian, Mexican-inspired meal was prepped, prepared and served by students from the Chef’s Training Program. Completely vegan, other than an optional drizzle of goat cheese cream to the side of the black bean tamale appetizer, the courses followed a strict “farm to table” criterion. No one component overpowered the plate, and the restraint in seasoning allowed the freshness of the ingredients to shine through. Even the most arduous carnivore would have been satisfied with the entrée’s play on carne asada: a stacked seitan and roasted zucchini enchilada, coupled with a mole negro and tomatillo sauce. (Seitan is the gluten part of wheat, which takes on a meat-like texture once all the starch is removed.) Cooks are encouraged to be inventive in terms of transforming staple menu items into dairy-free substitutes. The meal ended with a chocolate truffle hidden inside a rum poached pear, accompanied by coconut milk and agave syrup-based “ice cream.”

Although the NGI has long been on the radar of vegetarian and vegan enthusiasts, it does not exclude meat eaters. “The running joke in school was that you go in a vegetarian and leave appreciating good quality meat from animals that are raised well,” said Jacobsen. “It’s not a doctrinaire place, but more about eating whole foods that suit individuals’ tastes and needs.” Steak or seitan, flax or foul, what supersedes such distinctions at the Natural Gourmet is a culinary culture based on well-balanced, local and seasonal healthy eating.

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