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!

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Cooking at Casa

I had a day off Friday from class, so I volunteered in the morning at Casa de Luz, Austin’s premiere (and possibly only) macrobiotic restaurant. Casa de Luz was how I heard about The Natural Epicurean culinary school, so in a large sense, it was very instrumental in my life! The food was so delicious and nourishing, and the space was so tranquil and enriching, that I had to know how I could learn those skills.

Volunteering at Casa means chopping veggies for three hours and at the end getting a free lunch (or dinner, if you volunteer in the afternoon). I figured it would be a good chance to practice higher volume chopping. I got what I bargained for there! And the meal was fabulous as usual.

Below: A pallet of fresh vegetables delivered to Casa that I noticed as I entered the restaurant.

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Below: Cauliflower that I chopped. I’m not sure where this ended up.

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The meal below is a great example of balance on a plate. To feel truly satisfied after a meal, one needs a balance of tastes and mouthfeel plus nutrients. Popcorn as a meal doesn’t work – it’s a simple flavor (buttery, salty) and one texture (crunchy/starchy) over and over again. Plus, it’s very light on nutritive elements. As a meal, it doesn’t work. Believe me, in desperation, I have tried.

This meal, however has warm and cool, crunchy and smooth, acid and neutral. It even has the slight sweetness of root vegetables and the saltiness to contrast against. In macrobiotics, overly sweet food is generally not suggested, but every plate has some element of sweetness to maintain balance. Japanese sweet potatoes are a great example of this that I’ve seen used at Casa de Luz. As for nutrients, this plate is loaded with carbs, protein, fiber, and an adequate amount of fat. If I had a choice between this plate and almost anything else, I would choose this. I might need a second helping, though.

Below: What a meal, and I helped make it! Blanched greens with a nut/seed sauce on top (just made a similar sauce in class called sun cheese, which is also used at Casa), short-grain brown rice, lentils with cilantro (amazing), pickled radish that I chopped, and steamed veggies.

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Below: I love the natural lighting at Casa de Luz. Maybe that’s where they got the name from!

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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!

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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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. 🙂

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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.

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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.

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LMS

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.

Tuition

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.

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Below: Some fun ingredients waiting for my expert attention.

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Below: The main teacher’s cook station.

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Below: Various beans, some quinoa, and dal.

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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.

Christy Morgan’s Mac and Kale

I got a terrific kale recipe from Christy Morgan’s book, Blissful Bites (buy on Amazon), that I wanted to try. Christy, also known as The Blissful Chef, is a graduate of The Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts (my soon-to-be-culinary school) and I sampled this dish at the Texas Vegetarian Chili Cookoff in 2011. I bought her book at a recent open house for The Natural Epicurean, and was looking forward to trying this recipe in particular.

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True Nature’s Child – Gluten Free Baking

I met Lou today. She is one of the partner’s behind True Nature’s Child, a gluten-free, vegan baking outfit which apparently had it’s first foray into the Austin Farmer’s Market scene today.

I bought, and enjoyed, a tamarind lentil empanada. It had a great crust and a moist, savory filling. I love the idea to combine those ingredients. Yum!

Looks like they’re just establishing their Facebook and web presence, but check them out!

Lou is a current Natural Epicurean student and says I’ll love it. Good luck with your new business, Lou!

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Natural Epicurean Open House

Today was an open house for The Natural Epicurean, the culinary school I’ll be attending starting in February. They had a short talk on using the underutilized – yet delicious – parts of plants and Mason Arnold, the founder of Greenling local produce delivery, presented on sustainable and local food sourcing. They also had some Q&A about the school and some of the students made an array of delicious appetizers! On top of it all, I got to speak with several staff of the school, including owner Rich Goldstein.

Everyone talked about what an exciting time it is in the world of food and health, and I’m feeling very positive about the direction I’m heading! I’m really looking forward to starting the program and meeting new people who are enthusiastic about food and living healthfully.

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Above – In the demo/lecture space, which is a new expansion for the school.

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Above – Me with Maya Farnsworth, Managing Director of The Natural Epicurean.

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Above – Gluten-free empanada with an amazing Chimichurri sauce and a gluten-free brownie bite.

Above – Greenling Founder Mason Arnold talks about distributing local and sustainable food, with Amy Ramm, founder of Nada Moo, a local (soon to be national) vegan ice cream brand. Amy is a graduate of The Natural Epicurean and an instructor.

The program will last about 9 months, with a large amount of classroom time plus two chunks of required internship and externship hours. Followed by that, I expect a lot of hard work and learning on my path. I learned that most of the students come from outside of Austin just to attend the program, and it sounds like the school is planning some big things to grow its presence in the world of healthful food education. This open house was a great chance to meet more people, learn more about what the school is about, and whet my appetite for more! Mission accomplished!