Culinary Showcase Behind the Scenes – Planning

We are in the midst of preparing for our culinary showcase on Friday. The showcase represents a kind of last hurrah for our class, even though we have two more weeks of class following it. We’ve invited 150 industry guests and friends to come taste our food and learn about what plant-based cuisine can be when well executed. We’re going to host two separate sessions of 90 minutes each, with a 30 minute reset period in between.

The planning and execution is a learning experience itself – this event is part of learning to be a well-rounded chef. Chef Marko Ellinger from Balcones Springs Resort and Chef Alex, two of our instructors, are mentoring us through this process.

I’ve been working on the front-of-house team, mainly devoting my attention to invitations. However, I also developed a watermelon-basil-lime appetizer recipe and have been working to support the printed menu and materials. It’s been fun so far and a lot of work.

Below: During one of our early planning sessions, the smaller group of students selected for event leadership brainstormed this event logo and invitation vision. The final result was pretty true to this original concept.


Below: Another early planning project was a brainstorming session on menu items. However, I must add that Continue reading

Vegan Potluck in Austin

Want to eat healthier, but not sure how? Looking for some vegan buddies? Looking for a party to crash? Monthly vegan potluck (MVP?) is here to save the day!

Friday June 15 from 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm there is going to be a vegan potluck at The Natural Epicurean. Bring the family! Bring a dish! Bring a life-size cutout of Mike Tyson! (He’s vegan, after all.)

The Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts is at 1700 S. Lamar, right here in Austin, TX.

More info:

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Mike Tyson and Mike Tyson look alikes are welcome at the potluck. 

Taste of Health Chef Showdown in Austin

I had the opportunity to assist Chef Marko Ellinger with a public event in Austin recently. He was doing a cooking demonstration for the Natural Epicurean and I helped him do advance prep the night before, as well as with the event itself. Some people dropped by and inquired about the culinary program. A lot of other people watched and enjoyed the demonstration.

Chef Marko is a creative guy and he has a good presentation for cooking demonstrations. One of his angles is that he sings these funny, slightly corny, songs that gets everyone smiling and thinking about food in a fun way. He has backing musical tracks that he creates himself with piano and everything. It definitely gets attention. His food is really good, too, and he is creative on the fly.

Below: Chef Marko demonstrates one of his outstanding recipes.


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Gluten Free Baking Lab

Fresh, gluten-free bread. Warm, moist, springy, textured bread. Without gluten.

Baker Jean Brooks, who took us through two days of traditional bread baking, came back for a third day to show the Natural Epicurean students her gluten-free techniques. Jean has spent four years perfecting her bread and making it into something that people with gluten sensitivities can truly enjoy.

It’s Not Just Business, It’s Personal

Jean shared with us that she recently tested positive for gluten sensitivity (we went to the same nutritionist – Dr. Glen Luepnitz – and took the same Enterolab test). Not only that, but she is devoting her career from this time forward to gluten-free bread. It sounds like she may be giving up working with traditional bread because she had to have her bakery deep cleaned so she could convert it 100% to gluten-free. Given the demand of GF products, I think she is making a great business move. (Check her out on Facebook.) Jean has several close family members who are gluten-free, as well.

Below: Jean Brooks shaping her base gluten free dough into a baguette shape.


Below: Working hard on shaping the dough into a bread mold. 😛


Below: Gluten free batter tends to be a bit on the sticky side, requiring spatulas to do the shaping.


A Word on Nutrition

Gluten free bread is pretty processed stuff, I’m just gonna say it outright. Finely milled grains. Lots of corn and tapioca starch. But Chef Jean wants ideas on bolstering the nutritive properties, so she had us send her our thoughts on how we could boost the nutritive elements. The way I look at it is that GF bread is a nice treat that reminds me of the “old days” when I ate regular bread and that kind of thing will always be in demand. Warm moist bread will always be in demand and it’s a sensory experience that is hard to get with any other food.

Below: Eating some quinoa-laced gluten-free bread Jean made. It was the best gluten free bread I’ve had, and it was warm and fresh. Ahh.


Below: Jean used Better Batter ( to make these fluffy biscuits. And Chef Rachel Zierzow used sesame oil and GF flour to make the gravy. Yum! 20120414-204026.jpg

Below: Jean recommends Pamela’s bread mix for gluten-free bread.


Below: My Good Seed burger on a rosemary-garlic roll.


Below: I really liked the Good Seed burgers. They don’t have all the crazy ingredients normal veggie burgers have  – no gluten, no soy isolates, etc. – and they taste great. And they’re made by Oliver Ponce, a former Natural Epicurean student.


Below: Our delicious work on display.


Below: Jean and her freshly made biscuits.



Omelets and Eggs II

Eggs are really common in the culinary world – baking, breakfast, brunch, desserts, soups, etc, so it’s not strange that we’d spend a good bit of time working with them. So, we made frittatas and omelets on Wednesday to continue perfecting our technique.

Green Cookware

The school purchased some new non-stick cookware for our omelets class. The Cuisinart hard anodized “green” pans were super slick and apparently can tolerate high heat without emitting dangerous fumes, unlike typical non-stick cookware which must be used at low to moderate heat levels. They were really nice to work with.


Below: Chef Rosa did an omelet demonstration before she let us loose making our own.


Below: A frittata with some succulent melon balls.



Below: A really nice herby omelet with a spinach salad.


Eggs Demonstration

In the afternoon, Chef Alex demonstrated several recipes for us Wednesday and gave us some hands-on work, as well. I got to try my hand at using a blow torch to finish off some crema Catalana, which is similar to creme brulee.

Below: Chef Alex demonstrated plating a poached egg with some toast dusted with za’atar, a middle Eastern blend of dried sumac and sesame seeds.


Iron Chef – Locavore Edition

On Tuesday, Chef Rachel challenged us with preparing a unified set of dishes from produce from a Johnson’s Backyard Garden CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) box, which was a fun challenge since we had no recipes to cook from. A CSA box is a box of produce from a farm or collection of farms and it’s a way of supporting locally produced food. My team decided on an Italian theme and we made a white pizza with beet “pepperonis,” a red leaf salad with mint and citrus, and a carrot cake. Of course, we knocked it out of the park. 🙂

Below: The goodies from Johnson’s Backyard Garden.


A photographer from Johnson’s Backyard Garden showed up to shoot our use of their CSA boxes. Chard, Brussels sprouts greens, beets, mint, carrots, and more were included in this week’s box. The Natural Epicurean has been a heavy user of Johnson’s produce – we cook with it every day – and it’s nice to know that the school buys locally, so the produce is fresh, in season, and has minimal ecological impact from transportation.

Below: Photographer from Johnson’s Backyard Garden and a woman taking notes on our handiwork while Chef Rachel (center) looks on.


Below: Some quinoa-stuffed tomatoes.


Below: My team’s beet-pepperoni pizza (left), carrot cake (center), and citrus salad (above the cake).


Below: An artfully assembled de-constructed beet-chard salad.


Below: Me with two classmates after a successful morning of cooking. Fun! (Photo from Rachel Zierzow’s Facebook page.)

Career Planning Lecture – March 30

The school invited a few local food professionals to come talk to us last Friday and I just love these talks because they give me a chance to hear about what like is like in the “real world” (a world I will quickly become part of). For someone like me, who is looking to change careers totally, this information is really vital. The school leaders chose a good group of people – Sylvia Heisey, owner of Austin raw food restaurant Beets, Kara Kroeger, a nutritionist/personal chef, and Rebecca Saltsman, volunteer director for the Sustainable Food Center in Austin.

Sylvia Heisey

Sylvia, the owner of Beets Cafe, gave us a realistic picture of what it’s like to open a restaurant – draining your savings, cost overruns, time crunches, waiting three years to achieve a monthly break even cash flow, not paying yourself, etc. It truly sounds like it is a labor love for Sylvia, who has a passion for raw food. She also wants to do food HER way, so she’s had to stay focused and committed to her vision. Sylvia take the business side of restaurant operations very seriously, which is probably why she is still in business and will likely achieve whatever goals she establishes. (See my blog post on Beets from December 2011.)

Kara Kroeger

Kara Kroeger, a certified nutritionist and a personal chef, was a real inspiration. At each step in her career journey, she really followed her heart and pursued her goals. And each step seemed to carry her closer to where she is today, which is a busy professional who seems to be truly helping improve the lives of others, which pretty much describes the goals of at least half of the class at The Natural Epicurean. I found myself feeling kind of jealous of Kara, who is my age but who has really followed her own heart her entire life and who is a really self-directed person with boatloads of confidence and knowledge.

Below: Kara Kroeger

Kara, who like me decided not to pursue a degree in dietetics because of her feelings about the inadequacy of Western medicine, shared a number of helpful suggestions for us that she learned during her journey:

  • Trust that you are in the right place at the right time
  • Listen to your intuition
  • Try as many things as possible
  • People are disenchanted with the healthcare system (I’m not the only one!)
  • If you want to learn something, teach it
  • Collaborate with others in your professional work
  • Connect with as many people as you can
  • Show an interest in people

Rebecca Saltsman

Rebecca Saltsman shared information with us about the mission and programs of the Sustainable Food Center, an Austin non-profit built to (1) develop more local agriculture (2) bring that agriculture to people and (3) show people how to use local, nutritious foods in their cooking. The Sustainable Food Center runs four farmer’s markets in Austin.

Cooking Par-Tay: Yuzu Kosho!

Okay, so if two guys in culinary school get together to smash some limes and garlic, that doesn’t quite qualify as a “par-tay,” but it was a lot of fun and the result was very, very pleasing – yuzu kosho.

Yuzo Kosho?

What is yuzu kosho? It’s an aromatic paste, similar to Thai curry paste, which is made from citrus zest, peppers, salt, and garlic. It’s somewhat labor intensive, but incredibly flavorful. We found that the flavors were not only bold and pleasing, but sustaining – they really had staying power on the tongue. We got the idea from a trip to Austin’s noted restaurant Uchiko, which is the home restaurant of Top Chef winner Paul Qui. They use quite a bit of Yuzu.

Yuzu kosho is a traditional ingredient from Japan, and is typically made from yuzu, a hard-to-find citrus. Yuzu is like a combination between a tangerine and an orange. Without Yuzu, you can use a ratio of several limes for each lemon. I have tried fresh Yuzu, and it’s not so special that NOT having it is a major problem.

Below: Lime zest, ready for processing.


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