One of the important rites of passage in Chef’s Training is each group’s buffet class. In one day (part-time) or two days (full-time), students with their instructor prepare a lavish and healthy buffet for friends, family, and staff.

CTP 214 with their instructor Jay Weinstein

The spread usually includes whole poached wild salmon, tempeh kebabs, and curried or garlic chicken at its center surrounded by a colorful, copious and seasonal array of salads, vegetables, grains, beans, and desserts – all made from scratch right down to the bread. There are always a generous amount of vegetarian and vegan options. Frequently, there are also improvised dishes made from seasonal, organic vegetables we have in-house.

Buffet Class is a great opportunity for Chef’s Training students to show off what they do, and for guests to experience – for a mere $10 – a delicious, balanced, health-supportive meal Natural-Gourmet-style.

Here we have pictures of the sumptuous buffet prepared by the small but mighty Chef’s Training Group 214. While the group has only six members, they’ve learned to do the same work in the same time as groups with the customary 16 students. You go, 214.

The future home (tall building in background) of vegan restaurant Marcus in Asbury Park, NJ

Recently, I had a chat with our grad Mark Hinchcliffe about some exciting news: the firm he works for will be opening a vegan restaurant named Marcus in Asbury Park, New Jersey, early in 2013. There’s a vibrant dining scene developing over the past few years in Asbury Park, and Mark’s firm has a lot to do with it. Here he gives us some details of what’s to come:

Tell us something about the firm or collective behind this project and what you have to do with it.

I work for a firm called Knockout as a copywriter and overall strategist. We all wear many hats at Knockout, so we don’t have official titles. We’re basically a collective of creators, movers, and thinkers intent on razing old conversations and raising new ones. Our home is Asbury Park. Our work is everywhere. We believe that great design cannot happen without integrity, great ideas do not necessarily require time, and greatness isn’t always so great.

It’s very familial. We share office space with Watt Architects, an architectural firm led by Jim Watt. His brother, Jason, is a partner in Knockout, along with founders Meg Brunette and Kyle LePree. Together we are known simply as Smith. Smith is behind all of the big visions we are currently creating.

What other notable projects is your firm the creative force behind?

In terms of projects that we’ve birthed, funded and designed on our own, there are several. Brickwall was our first project of this kind. It was the first bar to open up in the slowly-getting-back-on-its-feet Asbury. That was in 2006. We just celebrated our 6th anniversary. It’s that place where everyone knows your name; where you can find the best beers on tap anywhere around here – rare stuff that no one else is pouring. And the food is comfort food. Quality fare at really reasonable prices.

Then there’s Porta, our authentic Neapolitan pizza restaurant. The story behind Porta would take up your entire blog, but I’ll make it short.

We decided we wanted to build this amazing pizza place. Fredrica Vilardi (our creative director at Knockout), decided she would learn how to make pizza. Like I said, we wear many hats. So she went and got trained by Roberto Caporuscio, who you may know as the man behind NYC’s Kesté and most recently, Don Antonio. Then we ordered two wood-fired ovens from Italy. They took months to build and ship over here.

We opened at the end of July last year. Somehow between then and now, Porta has become a food and dance hall mecca. We’ve got lines around the block to eat our pizza and party. Come check it out!

What is the property in question? I know it’s the tallest building in Asbury Park. Does it have any other significance?

It’s the tallest in the downtown, and one of the oldest, built in 1927. A beautiful, 11-story Art Deco building with sweeping views of the Atlantic and downtown Asbury.

What or who was the genesis of this idea to open a vegan restaurant?

I can’t say it was any one person. Everything is collaboration here. We don’t take personal credit for creation.

Is Asbury Park ripe for a vegan restaurant? How did you determine that?

We believe it is ripe for a vegan restaurant. But it’s not like we’re doing focus groups. Everything for us starts with a vision. We look at what we want to create, and then we create it. Our projects come from something very passionate and personal within all of us.

But you’ve got to design on a high level. Communication is everything. Because it’s one thing to have a great idea. It’s quite another to say, “This will be so by this time.” We put something at stake. We get our skin in the game. That’s how we go about making things happen. It’s about getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. Getting outside of our comfort zones to create things that we didn’t know we could create.

Is Asbury Park ripe for a vegan restaurant? Yes. Because we say it is.

How big will the restaurant be? How many seats?

We’re still in the design phase of all of this, so I can’t tell you for sure. But it’s not a hole in the wall. Probably around 25 seats. We want this to be a very immersive experience for the diner.

What elements do you think this concept will need to make it, as you say, the “most well-known vegan restaurant on the East Coast and to take away some vegan bragging rights from our West Coast counterparts?”

It’s all about approaching things differently.

 What do you think, if anything, is missing from the East Coast vegan scene?

I’m not sure anything is missing from the East Coast vegan scene. It is its own thing, humming along. We’re more interested in creating a new context, rather than shuffling around the pieces or bringing that “missing” piece into the current context.

As much as I am a vegan, I don’t believe in the word. It’s just another way to create separation, to say to someone else, “I’m not like you.” When you start calling yourself “vegan” or “meat-eater” or whatever, you’re just judging others. You’re removing yourself from their circle. It’s all very righteous and a load of bullshit. The sooner we can all give up our stories about who’s right and who’s wrong about their eating habits, the sooner we can solve our problems of obesity and diabetes and environmental destruction.

I know you’re searching for a chef. Have you found one yet?

Not yet. We’re still in the creation stage of the project. We have an executive chef team that will be overseeing all of our restaurants, but we’ll be looking for a Chef de Cuisine and all other positions. Both BOH and FOH.

If you haven’t found a chef yet, what skill set do you envision this person having?

Someone who’s an experimenter. Someone who might not come from the vegan world. We’re looking to do something different, which means that we’re not necessarily looking for someone from the vegan scene. Maybe they have a background in charcuterie or molecular gastronomy. It’s about someone approaching this food from a very humble place, a place where they know nothing. We’re daring to be naive.

Does the restaurant have a name? Can you share it yet?

Marcus. It’s going to be a dark, cave-like place. Very sexy. Very carnal. To juxtapose the non-meat dishes. Early-60s inspired – a time of decadence in all things.

When are you planning to open?

February 2013.

Will this be a place where Natural Gourmet students can intern?

Sure. Let’s see what they’ve got.

the solar dome with its unassuming herb garden

Greetings from the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, specifically a tiny hamlet called Albany. I’m here vacationing for 2 1/2 weeks while Natural Gourmet is closed for summer renovations.

I’m staying at a place known as the “Albany Solar Dome,” a completely isolated, solar-powered house in the hills. As if that weren’t Vermont-y enough, there’s recycling and composting here. But I wanted to commune with nature, albeit in an enhanced environment with WiFi, flat screen TV, a washer and dryer, and a dishwasher.

I arrived yesterday in a panic and bluster typical of any New Yorker. I won’t bore you with the details. So at 4 pm, I suddenly realized I needed to get food in the house before the sun went down. The roads leading up to this place are crazy challenging.

I went first to the “market” in Albany, which turned out to be a convenience store. The healthiest thing I could find was Magic Hat beer (which I promptly purchased). I then drove to the next town, Irasberg, where there was a typical country supermarket. You know the kind: only trucked-in, conventional produce in a state drowning (ironically) in small, local farms. I let purism go; I had to eat, and I was grateful for what I could get.

I woke up this morning, and the day was so beautiful. I was inspired to get some “real” food. I had to go to St. Johnsbury on an errand, so I was hoping to find local produce there. Somehow, on arrival, I got enticed into a store called “Cost Cutters.” Damn. They had a mountain of organic fruits and vegetables. I know I should have eschewed them for a farmers market, but instant gratification got the better of me and I bought everything in sight.

I did do a little better in Hardwick, a little town with a great co-op called the Buffalo Mountain Food Co-op and Cafe. They had beautiful local produce, and I did some more damage.

I came back to the Solar Dome, proudly, with the kind of swag that in Brooklyn would have cost me a fortune. I was pretty chuffed with myself, as I put everything in the fridge.

To celebrate, I went on the deck to watch the sunset while I ate my organic arugula salad with fresh corn, heirloom tomatoes, olive oil and lemon juice. It was then I noticed for the first time the elaborate garden just below me that somehow failed to captivate my attention on my arrival.

In all my city slicker haste (and yes, ignorance), I had only registered that there was some kind of garden with flowers and stuff growing. You would think a natural foods culinary instructor would be more sentient when it comes to food growing before his eyes.

I jumped down from the deck to discover that many of the herbs I purchased were growing right there – in great profusion no less – along with blackberries and raspberries (which I had also purchased). Hell, for all I know, there’s arugula and corn growing out there too. Then the guy renting me the house called and told me to stop at his greenhouse down the hill for all the heirloom tomatoes I could eat.

This experience was humbling, to say the least. I prepare fresh food all the time, I teach its preparation, but I didn’t even see it growing before my eyes.  Check out what I missed:

Thyme is growing EVERYWHERE like gangbusters, but I have to use up the 1 ounce package I bought first.


at least I didn’t buy sage


rosemary (bought it)

oregano, anyone?

I can make tea out of thistle, right?


I’ve eaten my pint of berries from the market. These are on tomorrow’s agenda.


I’m not gonna eat him, even though he was in the garden.


A bowl of magic on Converting day: miso soup with vegetables, seaweed, tofu, and shitakes

A few days ago, at the request of students, I posted on Facebook a recipe for miso soup I always make during a baking class.

The class, Converting Practicum (about which I’ve written before), is an all-day laboratory for our Chef’s Training students. Working in pairs, students take a conventional baking recipe (with white sugar, refined flour, and processed ingredients) and convert it step-by-step to a more whole, vegan alternative. It’s a brilliant exercise in how minimally refined sweeteners, whole grain flours, and natural additives work.

Each student group makes 6-8 batches of their cookie, cake, or muffin recipe in the course of a day. By a rough, conservative estimate, we make 700 portions of dessert. Heaven knows the students try their best to taste judiciously, but all that sugar and flour (even the “healthier” choices) eventually gets to them. Imagine the challenge of remaining intellectually focused with starches and sugars as your mind’s only fuel.

The Converting day process

That’s where the miso soup comes in. Making a big pot of this Asian elixir is – and has always been – an integral part of the Converting class. It’s our chosen antidote to expansive, acid-forming sugar and flour. A bowl of alkalizing miso soup, chock-full of vegetables, live with digestive enzymes and rich in minerals from seaweed, is the perfect balance for a sugar high. When the students eat it, I actually see them “come down” almost immediately and re-focus on the task at hand. And they consume the soup greedily throughout the day.

So when a student asked for the recipe last week I decided to post it on Facebook for other students who asked too. I was more than a little surprised when 62 people quickly “liked” it and 26 people enthusiastically commented on it. There was a lot of waxing sentimental over some simple miso soup among those comments.

Now I didn’t invent miso soup – and I didn’t even re-invent it. Students remember my recipe fondly, yes. And yes, I’ve gladly accepted the unstinting praise it garnered. But I rather think what students really remember is how the soup worked its magic to soothe sugar-induced nausea and confusion.

This reminded me of a simple, profound truth that is the foundation of our work at NGI: whole foods have a power to restore balance, to heal – if we know how to use them. Ask any Chef’s Training student how to cure an upset stomach, nausea, bloating, a headache, a hangover, insomnia, a sugar binge, and they can give you an effective food remedy. Food and healing – it’s our thing.

Elliott’s Miso Soup Serves 6-8

2 tablespoons sesame oil (NOT toasted)

1 onion, saute slice

1 carrot, matchstick

2 ribs (pieces) celery, diagonal slice

8-10 shitake mushrooms, sliced

6 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 piece of kombu

1 teaspoon salt

¼ cup wakame, soaked 15 minutes and drained

¼ cup arame, soaked 15 minutes and drained

½ lb. tofu, diced

2 quarts (8 cups) water

ginger juice to taste

lemon juice, to taste (not traditional) (a student of mine suggested rice vinegar – awesome too)

1 cup (or more) miso of choice scallions, sliced, for garnish

1. Heat oil in a 3-quart pot. Add onions, carrots, celery, shitakes, garlic, kombu, and salt. Sweat for approximately 15 minutes on low heat, covered.

2. Add wakame, arame, and tofu. Continue to sweat for another 10 minutes.

3. Add water, bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer for another 15 minutes. Turn off heat. Let broth stand for 5-10 minutes. Add ginger and lemon juice.

4. Temper miso mixing with 2 cups of the broth. Add tempered miso back into the soup. Serve, garnished with scallions.

Our grad, Colin Zhu (left) with another meditator dude

Colin Zhu recently graduated our Chef’s Training Program. If you’re talking about an integrative approach to health, he’s one of those people who walks the walk. Along with his Natural Gourmet credentials, Colin is a Doctor of Osteopathy (now in his residency), a certified health coach, and a competitive runner. Colin’s latest foray took him into the realm of meditation. He recently spent 10 days at the Vipassana Meditation Center where meditation, nature, and healthy food provided the ultimate mind-body-spirit experience. Here he shares his experiences with us . . .

Shelbourne, Massachusetts

June 19th, 2012

I had the good fortune to attend a 10-day meditation course at the Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelbourne, Massachusetts this past week. This retreat was located on a beautiful and serene ranch enveloped by thick brush (think of the movie Bambi and you’ll know what I mean). With its aesthetic lodging, echoing meditation halls and a newly constructed pagoda, this luscious locale invites the most dedicated meditators all year round.

Nineteen-hour days are filled with ten and a half hours of pure meditation. Interspersed throughout are two meal breaks and a tea break during the dinner hour. Because not much energy is expended during meditation; there is no necessity to eat in the evening.

In addition to sitting in one place, some light walking is encouraged but that is as much you are allowed to do. “Silence is golden” is finally understood as one finds no communication from the outside world is allowed, nor between each meditator, 24/7, for ten days straight. Mental silence is dependent on this.

The all-vegan meals (with optional dairy) were what I looked forward to. For breakfast, they had oatmeal served with stewed prunes, oranges and cinnamon; Chinese congee (porridge) with marinated tamari, seaweed and Chinese pickles; assorted local and seasonal fruits; sprouted breads; and my favorite . . . millet bread topped with apricot spread.

For lunch, there were tantalizing meals, including hearty miso soup with carrots and spinach; baked marinated tempeh with tamari, ginger and cilantro; red lentil dhal and curried vegetables; and non-dairy mac and cheese with nutritional yeast, to name a few. Each meal always had a raw item; a large bowl of organic mixed romaine and red lettuce serve with chickpeas, shredded carrots and shredded beets; and homemade dressings like lemon-tahini and sunflower-tamari – everything to satisfy even the most anxious meat eater. There were also atypical condiments such as miso, sunflower seeds, cinnamon, tumeric, daikon pickles and ground flax seeds.

The kitchen, where the magic happens

Interviewing the kitchen staff, I discovered the wondrous dedication of these volunteers, who simply gave their time to serve the meditators for each of these 10-day retreats. I was surprised there was no head chef, only volunteers with mixed, sometimes limited culinary backgrounds. According to staff, the original recipes followed Ayruvedic principles, wherein the four elements of earth, air, water and fire and their energies are absorbed in the act of eating, thus nourishing the meditator. Baking, steaming, sautéing were the cooking methods most commonly used; frying was the least used. Labels properly indicated the ingredients of each dish to cater to those with allergies and food sensitivities.

Attending a course like this, and having no previous experience in meditation, was like diving into Niagara Falls without knowing how to swim. However, as challenging as it was mentally, it instilled in me a sense of awareness and understanding of practical wisdom. For those who have not meditated, in its truest meaning it is mental training for the mind, especially living in today’s society. I came out wiser with the understanding of what love and compassion actually mean and the necessity to spread them to others.

Bhavatu Sabtu Mangalam (May all being be happy) – S.N. Goenkaiji

For more information on Vipassana meditation, visit: http://www.dhamma.org

Heads up, vegans (and food expo habitués). Here comes The Seed Experience. On June 16 and 17 at 82Mercer in Soho, there will be a multi-media vegan event that includes speakers, film screenings, food tastings, demos, workshops, and more.

Speakers will include Dr. Joel Fuhrman, Kathy Freston, Nick Cooney, our friend and blogger JL Fields, and many more. Check out film screenings including Vegucated, Forks Over Knives, Lunch Hour, and Fat, Sick, & Nearly Dead. Tastings will be provided by Cinnamon Snail, Pure Food and Wine, Candle Cafe, Blossom, Cafe Terri, among others.

Most importantly, look for demonstrations by NGI’s Olivia Roszkowski and Fran Costigan. Olivia will prepare Spring Shoots with Asparagus, Miso-Spiced Eggplant, Adzuki Beans, Edamame, & Black Sesame Seeds in a Ginger Dressing at 4:00 on the 16th (Stage B). Fran will prepare Irresistible Chocolate Vegan Desserts for Everyone on the 17th at 2:00 (Stage B).

Follow the event on Twitter @theseedexp. Also, rumor has it there’s a 50% off Groupon waiting for you.

NGI President Jenny Matthau, Chef Rich LaMarita, and grad Colin Zhu

Our Chef’s Training grad Colin Zhu was kind enough to report to us on NGI’s recent collaboration to teach a nutrition class with NY Coalition for Health School Food at PS 184 in Chinatown . . . 

On Friday, May 25, the Natural Gourmet Institute had the good fortune to do cooking demonstrations at P.S. 184, Shuang Wen Elementary School in Chinatown. The NGI team consisted of Chef Instructor Rich LaMarita, Chef’s Training Graduate Colin Zhu, Chef’s Training student Steven Stewart and NGI President Jenny Matthau.

NGI collaborated with Healthy School Food in teaching nutrition to two 5th grade classes. As each nutrition class ended, Colin and Steven assisted Chef Rich in the set-up of the food demonstration. As enthusiastic as the students were with each nutritional class, they could not help being totally enticed by what the chefs were preparing.

The NGI team made three dishes for the students: sticky brown rice cooked with coconut milk and star anise; black beans with onions, tomatoes, toasted cumin and oregano; and a hearty guacamole made with red onions, chopped Beefsteak tomatoes, cumin and cilantro served with crisp sticks of jicama.

During the presentation, Chef Rich displayed all the ingredients, talked about the unique origins of each food item, showed how to sauté the toppings for the black beans and how to make guacamole.

The students were eager to try each dish. Having just learned about macronutrients the class before, they were excited to have their senses amused by an actual cooking demo right in their own classrooms. The combination of nutrition class and a fantastic cooking demonstration created the perfect recipe for each student’s culinary curiosity.