Getting Fruity

Fruits Lab

Lab on Monday required us to cook through several recipes using fruit. Of course, we have cooked with fruit before (during Wet Cooking Methods, for example), and we’ll cook with it again. But when we have a lab session, our goal is to focus on a specific food or technique. Therefore, we will get multiple chances to repeat techniques and to work with certain types of food.

A great example is how we worked with fruit on Monday: we fried plantains, grilled bananas, poached pears, and boiled apples. Several different methods organized under one theme – fruit.

Below: Some lovely ripe Anjou pears (reddish) and Bosc pears (yellowish with a twinge of brown). An apple, some berries, and all types of fruit.



Below: Apple-ginger chutney with bread. 


Below: Poached Anjou pears with vegan yogurt, berries, and crumbled ginger snaps. Pear peel was used to create the ribbon designs around the stems.


Below: Poached Bosc pears. The cinnamon-anise poaching liquid was reduced to a syrup and golden raisins were added. It’s common in lab for more than one team to make the same recipe, as with this dish and the one above. Often, the teams will receive slightly different instructions for demonstration purposes. 


Below: A festival of fruit!


Extracurricular Activities

We are moving so quickly through our curriculum – time is really flying. I’m learning a lot but it’s going by fast. To support my learning, I cook at home, and I’ve started partnering with a fellow student to cook together once a week. Also, I’m trying to take advantage of opportunities to explore new and good food. In the spirit of Jiro Ono (see blog post on Jiro Dreams of Sushi), I’ve also decided that I am done with so-so food.

Until now, I’ve been satisfied with occasionally eating what was handy or convenient, even though it was bland or uninteresting. I’ve committed to all but eliminate those instances in an effort to expose myself to as much good food as possible. It’s all with the goal of becoming the best cook I can be and taking advantage of this time I have in culinary school.

Veg III, Blogging 101, and Week 5 is Complete

Blogging for Cooks

Chef Alex (aka, The Food Diva) gave a presentation this week on blogging. And it wasn’t just about blogging, but how blogging can affect your career and also about just being open to career paths in general. She also talked about food styling and photography. As a person who dabbles in blogging (ha!) I appreciated it a lot. But mostly I liked hearing how we need to follow our passion and be true to ourselves. Chef Alex is pretty inspirational because she has really done a lot in the food world and she is quite savvy about pursuing her goals.

I think my favorite moment was when she said “do your thing, your ship will sail, keep that passion going.” A great reminder! The whole talk made me realize how much I love to communicate with others and share knowledge. Writing, teaching, doing cooking demos, counseling – all of those things align with that. I guess it partly goes back to when I was a kid – I always loved being on stage. Food media is something I need to keep on my radar!

Below: Chef Alex Lopez explaining how we are going to achieve culinary domination on a global scale.


What is food styling? Food styling is where you make the food look really good on the plate and set up a scene that makes your food jump off the screen and into the imagination of the viewer. You’re trying to help paint a picture and a context for the person looking at your photo that will draw them in and inspire them.

Below: Food styling before a photo shoot. Check out The Food Diva’s blog post to see how the photo of the beet salad came out.

Vegetables III Lab

We spiralized and shredded in Veg III this week. I blanched some snap beans, which sounds simple, but there is so much that can happen to a green bean in just a few seconds in simmering water. We’re slowly but surely building on fundamental skills.

Below: Spiralized squash noodles.

Below: Some blanched snap beans with toasted walnuts.


Below: Some summer squash sliced wide on a mandoline. They tasted amazingly similar to pasta.


Veg on the Table

We got down and dirty with fungus and other bulb-y, root-y plants on Tuesday. I have developed a real appreciation for mushrooms in the past several months, so cooking them in school was a good thing for me.

Did You Know?

Mushrooms don’t use photosynthesis? They get their energy by basically eating away at the matter around them. They are considered parasites – but GOOD parasites because they are instrumental at breaking down and decaying matter, thereby contributing to the Circle of Life (cue the Lion King music 🙂 ).

You get to participate in the circle of life by cooking them down until tender with some olive oil, adding some stock perhaps, and eating them, herbivore style.

Below: Beech mushrooms. So cute! They actually have little faces that smile at you and sing songs. Not really. Just being silly.


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Get Yer Veg On

Week Five started with a lecture and discussion on converting traditional recipes to healthier and/or vegetarian versions. We discussed definitions of health and how food intersects with health and healing. We talked about the trends in healthier eating and then planned a week-long menu of vegetarian lunches for a hypothetical children’s camp. Making a vegetarian menu for a school would be much harder because of nutritional requirements and it would have taken all day just to do the nutritional analysis. 🙂  It was fun planning a menu and seeing how the other people on my team think – working in a group can definitely produce better results than working alone.


Lab – Vegetables I

We’ve been through Grains, Beans, Stocks, and Sauces. Time to love our vegetables!

Below: My cutting board (left) has the orange zest, which I am learning to always capture in case its needed for garnish, and garlic. Chioggia beets are red and striated; you can see them on the cutting board to the right.



Below: Grating himalayan pink sea salt into an orange ginger dressing for our chioggia beets.


Below: A really good vegetable ceviche created by a classmate. This was another example of a dish that was created outside of our assigned recipes.


Below: My team’s orange-ginger beet salad.


Below: A carrot salad with parsley and mint.


Below: A warm carrot chipotle saute with apricots and pistachios. Yum!


Below: Braised butternut squash.


Below: A beet salad with parsley, mint, and cilantro. I really liked this salad. Beets are really good – spread the word!


A Bit About Beets

Beets are crazy good for you! And fresh beets cooked well taste really good. You can dress them with a sweet or herby dressing and make them even better.

Beets are loaded with fiber and vitamin C. Dr. Oz calls beets a super food because they are loaded with inflammation-stopping antioxidants, which are common in deeply-colored foods like orange potatoes and red beets. Like many root vegetables such as carrots, beets have natural sugars with are enhanced with cooking. It’s not like eating candy, but as Chef Alex told us, root vegetables are often called “dirt candy” because they do have that subtle sweet flavor, which can round out your meal. Once you get off soda, fake sweeteners, and processed sugars, you will be in a better position to enjoy their health-promoting sweetness!


Seeds, Seitan and Nuts

Thursday we got to work with seitan, sunflower seeds, and walnuts, making vegan versions of several non-vegan dishes (1) fettuccine (2) mayonnaise (3) pesto and a handful of others.


Seitan is a dense, chewy brown colored mass of wheat protein – otherwise known as gluten. Gluten has become a very well-known word in America, although people still don’t understand what it is. At The Natural Epicurean, we are going to be making our own seitan in a future session, but I can tell you it is made from wheat that is ground into a flour and then rinsed and wrought until the starches are washed away and the gluten only remains. What you’re left with is seitan – it’s thick, and it closely resembles meat because of it’s density and chewiness. However, since I am gluten sensitive, seitan was a no-no for me. I did cook with it, but I just didn’t eat any.

Below: Seitan fettuccine. 


Below: Sun cheese, made from soaked sunflower seeds. Sun cheese tastes pretty dang good! And nice presentation! Lemon juice adds some of the tangy flavor that you usually get with cheese. A Vita Mix helps it get nice and creamy. All four teams made sun cheese so we got to compare final products and discuss.  


Below: Cilantro/parsley pesto with pumpkin seeds instead of pinenuts. I plated this dish and I love the red clay bowl against the green pesto. The yellow lemon zest was a lovely addition, also.



Below: Wild rice stir fry with walnuts.


Below: Sun cheese and pesto.


Below: Seitan saute. The sauce was delicious.


Tour of The Natural Epicurean Kitchen

Howdy, folks!

It’s been 4 weeks since I began culinary school at The Natural Epicurean and I figured that I would show my family, friends, and blog readers what it looks like in the kitchen where I am spending my time!

A couple of other notes to address questions that have come in:

There are four stove tops in the kitchen. I have never had to wait to use a stove since there are plenty of burners. Occasionally, just as in a restaurant kitchen, we have to work with our colleagues to move a saucepan to another burner to make space for a new pan, but that is part of the cooking process – working with our colleagues to get the job done.

There are four stations in the kitchen for students, and two instructor stations. Each station is stocked with a food processor and all of the cookware and utensils you need to prepare a given dish. There are two Vita Mixes in the kitchen and I haven’t seen us need more than that.

Food dehydrators, as seen in the video, are “cooking” devices which operate at very low (100-118 degrees or so) temperatures and for long periods of time (up to several hours or more). The dehydrating process has minimal impact on the enzymatic composition of the food and its nutrient profile, while altering the texture slightly. Dehydrated eggplant slices, for example, are very crispy and make a nice sandwich filling. The dehydrators are Excalibur models and I don’t know much about them, but I look forward to finding out more very soon!

There are about 12 students in the lab kitchen at any given time – three in each sub group. The sub-groups (or teams) rotate each week. When in the lab kitchen, I work with two other students on preparing 2 to 4 recipes. At the end of the lab, we all taste the food and share comments on it. When the lab session is over, we move to the demo kitchen. The students who were in the demo kitchen switch to the lab kitchen.

I’ll be making more videos to explore the kitchen in more detail in the future, so stay tuned!

Good News and Good Stuff

Great news! I have agreed to cater a weekend retreat for about 20 people in June. I am very excited thinking about menu options. I love the people involved and I love this idea – it’s the type of work I really want to do.

Another fun tidbit – I am volunteering at Casa de Luz this Friday and I’ll get a free meal at lunch. I’m very excited to get into their kitchen. I love their food and this local macrobiotic restaurant was instrumental in inspiring my career change and attendance at The Natural Epicurean.

I picked up a couple of goodies at my local food co-op, Wheatsville, since they have 10% off during owner appreciation days. I love being an owner of my local food co-op – it makes me feel more a part of the community and I love the idea of community ownership of business. Bonus points if you can identify the device in the photo below, which I was very excited to acquire.


I also decided to try a new calcium supplement. I wanted one with magnesium since Radhia, our nutrition teacher, told us that you should include magnesium in your calcium supplements at a 1:1 ratio. The Rainbow Light brand fit the bill nicely.


Grains Class and More

Tuesday’s class involved a presentation on nutrition followed by a session where we used the rice cooked on Monday to create more complete dishes.

Demo Kitchen – Nutrition Lecture

A major focus of the program at The Natural Epicurean is healthful eating that complements and enhances wellness. So, a lot of our time in the demonstration kitchen will involve learning the nutrition principles of various schools of thought. Radhia Gleis, an Austin-based Certified Clinical Nutritionist, will be leading us through exploration of much of the nutrition theory. One thing I love about Radhia is that she does not subscribe to the “party line” of Western nutrition, yet she has a firm grasp on the science and physiology of nutrition. Like me, she has a healthy distrust of the nutrition establishment and a penchant for treating each person as an individual rather than a sample case from a corporate-funded research study.

Below: Radhia Gleis.

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Day 4 of Class

Yesterday involved more knife skills – new shapes and practicing things from yesterday. Also, we were oriented to the kitchen tools and machines stocked in the kitchen.

We were shown how to sharpen our knives by Brian Henderson, who is a staff member at The Natural Epicurean and who also did an internship at Uchi, what I would consider the most highly regarded restaurant in Austin. That’s where he learned the technique of sharpening that he showed us. It was very similar to a method described not long ago in Edible Austin by local chef Todd Duplechan, but I never was sure if I was doing it right. Brian’s explanation was really helpful because I got to see it in action, and he made it seem a lot more straightforward than I thought it was. I performed the technique on my home chef’s knife and it worked very well in restoring the blade. So proud to know this new skill!

We did a brunoise of green pepper – tiny 1/8 inch cubes used for garnish. We also did losenge cuts, paysanne cuts, and rondelles. We also cuts supremes of citrus and chiffonade of spinach. Much of it was used for a salad that we ate for lunch. Yum!

It’s challenging making consistent cuts to specified dimensions, such as 1/2 inch cubes. Often, one side is a bit too long, or my cuts are a shade too large and my prep mates’ cuts are a shade too small and the result is inconsistent. Just imagine doing carpentry without a measuring tape, pencil, or T-square and you may get the idea.

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Natural Epicurean Orientation

Yesterday was my orientation at The Natural Epicurean, and it was an excellent morning.

The purpose of the orientation was to learn some of the basics that we would need to become students and to take care of some housekeeping things.

Below: Imagine the green sign says “The Natural Epicurean” because it does, despite what my iPhone camera wants you to think. Yes, I am wearing a backpack like a good student. 🙂


Staff Introductions

We got to hear from Maya Farnsworth, Ken Rubin, and David McIntyre. We got introductions to Chef Rosa and Chef Alex, the lead instructors. We heard from curriculum director Ellen Stansell, procurement manager Brian Henderson, and others. I was impressed by the quality of the team helping to make things go well. Everyone is eminently qualified for their role.

Below: Chef Maya doing staff introductions.


I was especially inspired when Ken talked about the mission of the school and each of our personal missions. He talked about letting your passion for healthful eating drive you and to share it with others. That it becomes so much a part of you that you love to tell others about it.

Student Introductions

It is truly amazing what a diverse and excited group of students I’ll be working with. We have students from Miami, Santa Fe, San Francisco, San Diego, Tuscon, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and many other places. I do believe I am in the minority being from Austin. We have vegetarians, vegans, and omnivores. Some of us have food allergies and sensitivities, like I do. The group includes artists, at least one trained pastry chef, and former business professionals. Like me, not everyone is certain where this journey will take them. It was very exciting to see so many people from many walks of life come together for this common purpose. I made some good initial connections with a few students.

Knives and Uniform

Each student was given a Mercer knife kit, which will help ensure we are all using quality equipment. I feel very “professional” now. 🙂 Each student got two chef coats (pictures coming later) with The Natural Epicurean logo.



Curriculum director Ellen Stansell gave us an orientation to the Canvas Learning Management System (LMS). This is where we can download course materials and view announcements related to the program. It’s the starting point for our course experience. I love Ellen’s approach because before she started her tutorial, she had everyone stand up, take deep breaths, and raise our arms up over our heads. It was delightful to have someone attending to our physical comfort and the mind-body interaction. That is very unusual, unfortunately, but most welcome. I spoke to Ellen briefly while picking up my chef hats and she seems like a terrific person, as does everyone I’ve come into contact.


I paid my tuition during orientation, also. It was largest check I’ve ever written in my life (the down payment on my houses were cashier’s checks, so they don’t count). I had no hesitation about the cost of the program whatsoever. I viewed it as a check I was writing to myself – investing in my future, my happiness, and my own well-being. It will be repaid to me many times over in learning, in career satisfaction, in financial gain, and in my own personal health.

Behind the Scenes

I took a few photos of what lies behind the curtain, since it was my time going beyond the front rooms of the school.

Below: The dish washing area. A critical part of the cooking process. 🙂 You may think I am strange, but I’ve always appreciated the zen of washing dishes by hand.


Below: Some fun ingredients waiting for my expert attention.


Below: The main teacher’s cook station.


Below: Various beans, some quinoa, and dal.


Final Impressions

This day took one year to plan and make happen, but it has been 34 years of preparation. It was a wonderful gift to myself to be able to be in the presence of so many who share my same desires and goals. There is a lot of energy in the air and I am very much looking forward to this journey.