Many of you know that I've recently completed the Natural Gourmet Institute's 30th annual Summer Intensive class. As someone in the food business I believe in being an eternal student. My class in natural foods was one of the most eye opening and inspiring experiences of my life! I chose to do an intensive class there because the healing properties of food have always fascinated me, and I had a strong personal desire to see how the methods I've learned in Nonna's kitchen seem to stack up in the real culinary world. What I discovered didn't quite shock me.
The school's focus on seasonal, local ingredients as well as their multidisciplinary approach to eating them is incredibly close to the attitude Italians have about food in Italy. Foods are most prized in their natural state and season, which in comparison to America's have anything anytime way of life can somewhat cheapen the experience of eating all together. Strawberries my friends are beautiful and succulent when they are in season in the spring. Their in season flavor, color and mouth feel can simply not compare to a strawberry that has spent days artificially ripening on a shipping container in the middle of December so people won’t have to go without bland, mediocre, insipid tasting strawberries to fill their winter fruit salads. Seriously?
In Italy foods have been eaten in season since the Roman Empire. When was the last time Americans could even recognize what seasonal produce was? The Johnson Administration?
Over two weeks I was introduced to a myriad of cooking techniques. Some vegan/vegetarian techniques were completely new to me. Sorry, but Nonna had never made me Seitan with Sunday sauce and Tempeh meatballs before. But I couldn't have been more excited to learn! I wanted to explore these foods more and more because I've been getting requests to include Vegan/Vegetarian/Gluten free options on Cooking With Nonna. I want there to be something for everyone, so I was really excited to be able to learn from some of the leading instructors in natural food cuisine. Some things, like cleaning and scoring whole fish, I've already been well versed in. I'm from a fishing village DUH!!!
Although the class swung me in many different directions, one thing remained constant. Every day, no matter what, all the ingredients were 100% organic, hormone free, and all natural. Even the butter came from grass fed cows! The commitment to quality was higher than almost any food facility I've ever been in. I'm not going to lie, I don't eat organic very often and I firmly believe that a good cheeseburger can be an emotional experience. But Natural Gourmet didn't shove any of their beliefs down anybody's throat. Instead the principals of balance were encouraged. A good meal is about many things: color, texture, mouth feel, fat! Yes fat, they don't think fat is evil :) But it's important to learn the difference between them. Refined coconut oil (Coconut oil that has been heated to a high temperature to remove the coconut flavor) was typically used over Olive Oil because of its ability to handle high heat cooking and its content of healthy saturated fat (yes, there is such a thing) that can actually be used by the body. In my opinion, it's a fantastic oil to deep fry in. Even Nonna prefers it to frying in Canola oil now. Go figure!
Their entire staff at Natural Gourmet was pleasant and personable, and frankly, everyone's skin seemed to have an ethereal glow that lead me to believe two possible scenarios: A) They all were sleeping in some sort of cryogenic chamber at the school (I looked for it for two straight weeks with no luck!) or B) Everyone there ate very VERY well. Now that my 55 hour class has come to a close I can assure you it’s the latter.
After the first day of class I could feel an energy about the entire room that reminded me very much of those three years I spend in Nonna's basement kitchen. I was becoming inspired by the passion of my instructors every day who have dedicated nearly half their lives to food and nearly as long to teaching. All the instructors gave me fabulous advice about coping with drama and chaos in the kitchen which I think I can identify with just a little bit ;) As I grow as a cook and come into my own more and more, it is only natural to doubt yourself when you're cooking under pressure. A reality cooking competition for instance? :)
Mistakes are made in the kitchen by the best chefs, and the best advice my Chef-instructor Jill Gusman could have given me was "Take a breath, stop and REGROUP!". Jill made every class fun and engaging. I found myself wanting to write down nearly everything she said as I marveled at the knowledge that poured from her as she kept four, pots going at once on the demo stove as if she were a giant cooking octopus.
What really moved me about Jill is that there was nothing manic or chaotic about her, even when chaos would erupt from several directions she would always maintain her composure and sense of self. In fact, watching the demo's every day made me feel calm and inspired to go home and create more concoctions of my own.
Thank You Natural Gourmet! Arrivederci!!!