The Next Chapter – Austin Healthy Chef

Greetings!

It’s been one year since I embarked on the journey to culinary school, and six months since I graduated and created my new identity – Austin Healthy Chef.

I’ve been working as a personal chef, making healthful and whole foods meals. I’ve also taught some classes privately in homes, for groups privately, and even some classes at my alma mater, The Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts. I’ve worked with some terrific chefs in various temporary arrangements, competed in a couple of cooking competitions, and learned a lot of lessons during all of it. It has been one of the most rewarding years of my life. 

Despite making the riskiest financial decision of my life, I’ve managed to get off on a very solid foot. And though the past year has been a financial risk, it was a slam dunk no-brainer for my spirit. I’m far happier, more motivated, and more inspired than ever.

2013 will be another year of growth for me as I take my business from seat-of-the-pants success to engineered prosperity. Marketing will be a key activity for me this year. 

Toward that end, I have created AustinHealthyChef.com, and a Facebook page to match. As part of my effort to promote myself in a focused way, the energy I’ve put into this blog will mostly be directed elsewhere. I will be posting updates about myself, food, and nutrition at these places. Please “like” my Facebook page and subscribe to the WordPress blog at AustinHealthyChef.com

Thanks for your ongoing support!

Advertisements

Healthy Cooking Class

I conducted a cooking class for some friends last week – my first class ever. I was very excited and had a great time. We cooked a quinoa salad and Thai spring rolls with a peanut sauce and I showed them some steel cut oats, as well. I also brought some raw almond-flax muffins with a lemon-blackberry icing.

This is something I would never have done had I not started culinary school, so it was kind of a milestone in my career journey. I really had a lot of fun and felt fairly comfortable. I wish I could have had my ingredients a bit more prepared, but otherwise it went very well and everyone seemed to learn and enjoy the presentation.

Below: Making spring rolls with lots of greens, herbs, and vegetables. Here I am dipping a rice paper wrapper in hot water to soften it for the rolling process.

20120515-094113.jpg

Continue reading

Dishing with… Craig Vanis, Head Chef at Veggytopia

I am on a career change process, so I am fascinated by people who have had success changing careers into the culinary world or by people who have just always lived it and love it. So in this post I am going to start a project whereby I’ll be talking to people who help me indulge in that fascination. Let’s call it “Dishing With…” My first “target” is Craig Vanis.

Just about anyone who meets Craig Vanis is bound to come to the conclusion that he is someone you want to get to know. I first met him at an open house for The Natural Epicurean where he talked about his career in food, his experience at the school, and generally gave the attendees the impression that they could achieve their food goals, no matter how lofty. Wanting to dig deeper, I decided to meet up with Craig for coffee and get to know him better.

As background, Craig is currently the head chef at Veggytopia, a vegan meal delivery service here in Austin. He has worked at Beets Cafe, as well as done work with raw and vegetarian food in Houston. He’s a graduate of The Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts and an all-around nice guy. I visited him at the Veggytopia kitchen and he seemed to do a great job directing traffic and keeping his team moving on task.

Here’s what we talked about:

Mike Lyons: What were you doing before you came to culinary school at The Natural Epicurean?

Craig: I went to school and had a short career as an engineer. The schooling was fine but I didn’t really enjoy the jobs at all. Towards the end of my school, I started learning more about food, why we eat what we eat, how it comes to be, and how food affects us. And the more I learned the more I knew that’s where my passion was. And the more I felt I had to do something. I wasn’t doing enough. I felt this urge to be doing more. In February 2009 my entire department got laid off and took that as the greatest day of my life. I said I’m just going to do jobs I want to do from now on. In April 2009, I walked into a cafe that was opening, right off the street. I got into sweeping and painting right away. By July I was managing the kitchen, had my own menus out, and was running the show.

ML: Had you been doing a lot of home cooking before that?

CV: Absolutely. I had cooked and was passionate, but that was my first restaurant job.

20120410-172724.jpg

Continue reading

Poaching, Scrambling, and Frying Eggs

A Bit of Perspective

Monday started week seven at The Natural Epicurean. Week seven falls about one third of the way through the 22-week classroom portion of the program. It’s amazing that time has passed so quickly. In 15 weeks, I will be starting an externship and my new life as a food professional. Yikes!

I have been thinking about what my life will look like when I finish. How will I earn money? Will I enjoy my work? Will I make enough money? How can I have control over my work? How should I start networking? What kind of services should I provide as a cook?

I am only starting to figure out some answers to these questions, but I need to think more about it. I am planning to develop a personal business plan and even a branding plan complete with website and logo, but there is a lot of meat left to put on the bones of my post-school life. It’s very exciting!

Below: My week got off to a dubious start…my name was on the list of forgotten homework assignments. Ooops!

20120403-183401.jpg

Continue reading

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!

What Do I Want? Absolutely Everything

I’ve decided that when someone asks what I plan to do when I finish cooking school my answer will be “everything.” I want to do it all. Catering, restaurants, cafes, personal chef, wellness coach – I want to do all of it. With so many cool people around me, it all feels possible.

Friday Lecture

Friday we heard from three instructors who scratched the surfaces of Macrobiotic, Raw, and Ayurvedic cooking and philosophies. Chef Rachel Zierzow, Chef Alicia Ojeda, and Ellen Stansell gave us just a taste of these food and health modalities and I found each talk equally stimulating.

Macrobiotics

Macrobiotics is amazing because, as I first wrote about in one of my earliest blog posts, it takes a broad view of life beyond food. As Chef Rachel put it, one goal of macrobiotics is to “make your dreams come true.” How about that? And one of the chief ways you accomplish this is through good food choices, because macrobiotics believes that your food really does influence your life and your way of thinking.

20120309-151055.jpg

Raw Food

Chef Alicia Ojeda, one of the key people behind the development of the menu at Beets Cafe and former head chef there, is a true leader in raw food and her energy in speaking was a great sales pitch for raw foodism. Raw food is food that’s never brought above 118 degrees, which means that it is living food. Food that sits on the shelf with an expiration date two years in the future is inert and dead. Raw food – fruits, vegetables, nuts, etc. – is alive and it provides clean nourishment to the body. And to make things even more interesting, Chef Alicia looks at least 10 years younger than her actual age. Hmmm.

20120309-151103.jpg

Ayurveda

Lastly, we heard from The Natural Epicurean’s curriculum director Ellen Stansell. Ellen has a PhD in Indian philosophy from UT Austin and she gave us a primer on Ayurvedic wellness theory. This theory is the one that was most unfamiliar to me upon entering the program. To sum up, Ayurveda calls upon each person to keep their body in balance by being mindful of the environment and food one eats. Your personal characteristics and environment will help dictate what food will lead to optimal health at any given moment.

My favorite part of Ellen’s talk was where she compared the Western worldview to the Ayurvedic worldview. In the West, matter is merely physical and life is simply a collection of molecules that behaves in a “lifelike” way. The Ayurvedic view is that the physical world, living and non-living objects, and food are all imbued with spirit; they are joyous and blessed. An especially cool moment was when it began to rain very heavily and many students stopped their assigned activity and went to the back to watch the downpour. Ellen actually encouraged us to watch, noting that it is inherently human to be fascinated by such weather (especially in typically arid Austin, TX). How cool is that?

 

Day Three of Culinary School

It was Day Three and it feels like Week Three because of how much is going through my mind. It’s a good thing – life is filled with possibility.

Knife to Meet You!

Ah, knife skills day one! This most basic of chef talents was something I didn’t expect so soon, but I welcomed it with enthusiasm. Chef Rosa is a terrific instructor and so positive! She strikes a great balance by upholding standards but also showing lots of flexibility and encouragement. One thing that struck me was that she said it took her three years to feel fully comfortable with knife skills in a professional culinary setting, which is to say that we all have a lot to learn. Everyone took their time striving for the ideal battonet and large dice cuts – it’s much harder than you’d think because each cut requires fairly specific dimensions (e.g., a proper julienne is .125 in x .125 in x 2.0 in.).

Below: Vegetables for the choppin’! These were prepared by one of the kitchen assistants – a recent graduate who is working on her assisting hours for the school.

20120222-162055.jpg

Continue reading

Career Change: How Did I Get Here?

Today is February 16th, 2012, and tomorow I will begin a natural/vegetarian/healing foods culinary program at The Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts, here in Austin, TX. I find myself on the doorstep of leaving my 10-year career in human resources, reflecting on how I arrived at this amazing turning point in my life…

Early Signs

As a child, I loved to watch cooking shows on public TV. The sounds, the physicality, and the vitality were very attractive. Chefs were always very excited about their work and the pleasure it could bring them and their guests.

My mom got me my first cookbook when I was fairly young. It had a plastic set of measuring spoons which I still use today. I had some cooking successes, and many failures.

Below: These spoons have been used in my kitchens for the past 20 years or so.

20120214-213828.jpg

Continue reading

Open House, Open Heart, Open Mind

I went to The Natural Epicurean for an open house event on January 7th. This was my second such event as an incoming student (I blogged about the last open house). Even though I already know what I’m getting into, I’m the type of person who learns from being present, from interacting, and from doing. So any chance I get to visit the school and meet new people, the better. It’s all part of opening my mind to this new experience and planning to get the most from it.

Waste Not, Want Not

The open house started with a brief talk by two of the program’s students on the topic of preserving food that would otherwise have been wasted.

Below: A recent Natural Epicurean graduate talks about the food preservation process. She’s backed by (L to R) David McIntyre and Maya Farnsworth, the Managing Directors of the Austin and Portland locations, and Ken Rubin, the new Vice President of the school.

20120108-130329.jpg

As it turns out, there is a significant amount of food waste in our food supply Farms waste food by not harvesting all of it or not selling produce that is not ripe enough or that isn’t visually appealing enough. The same happens in grocery stores — a significant amount of food is thrown out because it doesn’t sell or the grocer decides that it isn’t sellable. Restaurants discard food that isn’t eaten and restaurant patrons toss out uneaten “doggie bags.” And finally, as consumers we waste food when we overbuy food that spoils before we can eat it all.

The students shared their experience working with Green Gate Farms in preserving what’s called the “gleaning,” or the excess or undesirable food from harvest. It sounded like a great way to make the produce useful instead of throwing it out.

Insight into Career Change

Being open to the possibilities of a new career was my big takeaway from this open house. I met Ken Rubin, the new Vice President of the school, who is a long-time culinary educator and is helping to expand the school into a national operation. He talked to me about learning by trying new things, and going after the information that I want. He also said you can never know where your life will end up in the future – you just have to stay true to yourself and keep seeking.

Below: Jeanine Jacobs, an admissions rep for the school, talks about the program courses and requirements.

20120108-130334.jpg

Next, I spoke to Craig Vanis, the head chef at Veggytopia, an Austin vegan meal prep service. He talked about his career path and the opportunities that exist for natural foods chefs who merely seek them out. He talked about pursuing work opportunities that I’m passionate about, letting my intrinsic desire motivate me, and being pushy when I need to be.

The Universe Provides – If You Help It

It is clear, quitting my job and sitting passively during culinary school classes is not enough. I have to actively seek information from my instructors and seek out culinary experiences. And then it becomes a lifelong learning process.

It struck a chord with me that the universe will give me what I need, if I just ask and open my mind. It seems to me that a lot of success is knowing yourself and letting your natural passions show without shame. I’ve struggled a lot with showing my true self and going after what I want in all situations – breaking through that in a genuine way is going to be instrumental in my success.

Below: Me with Craig Vanis, head chef of Veggytopia, a new vegan food preparation service in Austin.

20120108-130341.jpg

Below: I bought a book from Christy Morgan, a school graduate.

20120108-130350.jpg

A (Local) Local Food Documentary

Just watched “Local”, a short documentary film made in Austin, TX, about local food. I really enjoyed the discussion of the topics of local vs. organic food, the degradation of the food industry, and the importance of connecting with the source of your food. The film profiles a handful of restaurants/chefs who use local ingredients, as well. It featured local farms like Springdale Farms and Richardson Farms, which I wrote about in a previous post.

The documentary is about 30 minutes long and recommended!

LOCAL – A Short Documentary from Christian Remde on Vimeo.