I’ve received some requests recently to describe my time at the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health & Culinary Arts in more detail. I’m happy to oblige – I know it’s really tough to find an up-close, candid look at the student experience online. I think for prospective students, it’s important to have this information before you sign your first tuition check. As for everyone else, I’m hoping you’re at least slightly curious as to what goes on in cooking school!
I’m going to do a two-part series on the Chef’s Training Program at the Natural Gourmet. The first post (this one!) will answer some frequently asked questions about my personal experience, and the second will be a Q&A with staff from the Chef’s Training Program (read part two here). It’s my hope that the two posts will be a great resource for anyone thinking about enrolling at NGI.
(If you’re interested in reading about my decision to resign from my corporate career and enroll in culinary school, you can read about my journey here: Following Your Passion)
So, let’s get to it!
What was a typical day like?
The first few days of school were, not surprisingly, a bit more administrative than the rest of the program. We sat through a detailed orientation and received a tour of the school, filled out paperwork, received a syllabus, and picked up our chef’s uniform. We got our knife kits on the second or third day – at that point, we started chopping and cooking for the first time in the classroom.
Once we got into the kitchen, a typical day went like this: I’d arrive at school by 9:00 AM and head straight to the locker room to change into my uniform. The locker room is co-ed, which may come as a surprise to new students. Wearing your full uniform every day is mandatory, and uniforms can’t be worn outside on the street (for sanitation reasons), so getting changed at school is sort of unavoidable. If you’re a bit squeamish about disrobing in front of your classmates, take comfort in knowing that most students wear some clothing underneath their uniforms, so very few get completely undressed. And there’s always the bathroom if you require a completely private dressing space.
After putting on my chef’s whites, I report to the kitchen classroom in time for class at 9:15 AM. My classmates and I receive a packet with the day’s learning objectives and relevant recipes, and usually start each morning with a lecture or demonstration given by the chef instructor. Afterward, we divide up the recipes and get cooking for several hours! Once the recipes are complete, we plate, taste and discuss each individual dish, receiving comments and pointers from our chef instructor along the way. Once discussion is complete, it’s time to clean up and take a lunch break (we receive anywhere from a 30-60 minute break most days). The afternoon class is either a repeat of the morning schedule (usually with new subject matter) or a straight up classroom lecture. The day ends at 4:15 PM, with the exception of Friday, when class wraps up at 1:15 PM.
Did you have homework/tests?
Because the Natural Gourmet Institute’s Chef Training Program is an accredited program, tests, quizzes and homework assignments are mandatory in order to graduate. Personally, I found the workload to be very fair and manageable. Most homework assignments were on the easy side. The written quizzes and tests did require some study, but if you are actively engaged in class, take detailed notes, and spend a few days reviewing the subject matter, you will be fine. Throughout the program, you will also take several “practical” exams. These exams primarily test your adherence to culinary technique and principles taught in the program, as well as your natural cooking ability. You are not allowed to use recipes or notes during practical exams.
What is Friday Night Dinner?
Friday Night Dinner is the “final” project in the Chef’s Training Program, and a major component of your graduating GPA. You can read about NGI’s Friday Night Dinners on their website, but the reader’s digest version is that every Friday, the school opens its doors to the public for a prix-fixe BYOB dining experience prepared by student chefs (you!). It is your final project to fully conceptualize and execute a Friday Night Dinner, including pricing and ordering ingredients, menu planning, recipe development, decor, and, finally, cooking and serving a multi-course gourmet meal to paying customers. The whole process requires several months of careful planning and collaboration with your fellow classmates, but provides a great sense of accomplishment when all is said and done. It’s well worth the hard work, and my Friday Night Dinner remains a highlight of my experience at NGI.
What was the faculty like?
Can’t say enough positive things. Honestly. I still miss many of my teachers – they are warm, passionate, dedicated, funny, born educators, and gifted chefs. You will learn so much from each and every one of them!
What else can you tell me about the program that I won’t find in the admissions brochure?
First, aside from the aforementioned homework/exams and Friday Night Dinner project requirements, you are obligated to complete several additional hours of “student service” outside the classroom. This is fairly easily accomplished – you can volunteer to help prep for a recreational public class offered at NGI. You can lend your time by assisting at one of the Open Houses for prospective students. There is a bulletin board at school that posts lots of opportunities for students to get in their service hours (the board also posts special events, internship and job opportunities that may be of interest to students, as well). The front desk is also a great resource for finding ways to get in your service hours – there is no shortage of opportunities to complete this requirement!
You’ll also be required to volunteer your time at other graduating classes’ Friday Night Dinners a few times throughout the program by prepping food on Thursday night, prepping and cooking on Fridays, and serving guests during dinner service. For full-time students, this can make for a very long day. If you arrive at school by 9:15 AM, you might be there until 10 o’clock at night or later (with very few breaks) during the Thursdays and Fridays spent completing your Friday Night Dinner volunteer requirements. It might sound pretty brutal, but in truth, it’s an incomparable experience that can be really fun, and also a great way to meet and mingle with other students that you might not otherwise interact with. It’s also good preparation for real-life restaurant work, which almost always involves very long hours and late nights on your feet in a hot kitchen.
Since we’re on the topic of some of the not-so-glamorous realities of being a culinary student, now’s a good time to inform you that you’ll be expected to wash lots and LOTS of dirty dishes during your time at Natural Gourmet (and, from what I’ve heard, every other culinary school in America). You’ll also need to sweep, mop, take out trash, dump out bins of compost, wipe down dirty kitchen surfaces, and carry and unload heavy boxes of food from the walk-in refrigerators. Thankfully, each student is assigned individual duties each week so that no one person gets stuck with all the work. You cook as a team, and you clean up as a team. Look at it as bonding experience, and remember that you signed up for this! It’s just part of the territory.
A wise man once said, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” The same holds true for your time at NGI. For all the long days and physical labor, there are plenty of opportunities to relax and have some fun. From student planned happy hours, to weekend field trips to Long Island’s wine country, to instructor organized dinners at some of NYC’s best restaurants, you’ll have lots of good times outside of the kitchen with your classmates.
Did you work while attending school? Would you recommend going to school full-time or part-time?
I attended school full-time, so no, I did not work while I was a culinary student. It required some advance planning and some sacrifices, but it was the right choice for me. Deciding between the full-time and part-time programs is a personal decision that needs to be based on a number of factors, so what’s right for me may be all wrong for you. I can’t speak to the benefits of attending part-time, but the full-time program allowed me to finish the program and my internship in five and a half months, as opposed to the part time program, which takes closer to ten or eleven months to complete. I also felt really strongly about being completely immersed in the culinary school experience – I wanted to live and breathe my education all day, every day! For some, this can be overwhelming, exhausting or physically impossible, due to career or family demands. At the end of the day, you are getting the exact same education and receiving identical degrees, so post-graduation success shouldn’t be determined by whether you attended class on a full-time or part-time basis.
If I attend full-time, how will I be able to finance my education?
Figuring out how to pay tuition is, again, a really personal decision that depends on a large number of circumstances. The admissions office at NGI can go over the various tuition payment options available to prospective students.
How did you choose your internship location, and what was it like?
I completed my required internship at Annisa. I chose Annisa because I wanted to work in a Michelin starred New York City restaurant where I could learn from chefs that are the best in the business. I “interviewed” for my internship by completing a trail – this is standard industry practice for landing a kitchen job or internship. You essentially work a shift for free – you show up to the restaurant, assist with prep and dinner service, clean up, and go home. If you do a good enough job, you’ll receive an offer to come back and intern.
I had a great experience at Annisa. It was hard, physical work with long hours but a total adrenaline rush. I learned a lot during the time I spent in that kitchen, and was honored to be working alongside chef/owner Anita Lo. I mostly worked the garde manger station, but occasionally got to help out with plating for the grill and saute stations. Annisa is a fast paced, intense kitchen, so it’s best suited for those who like a whirlwind of activity and a bit of a challenge.
Was it easy to find a job after graduation?
The Natural Gourmet Institute has undoubtedly opened up a lot of doors for me. I got a job through the alumni career board as a private chef within a few weeks of completing my internship. One of the great things about attending a health-supportive culinary school (vs. a more traditional program) is that you have an automatic advantage over “traditional” culinary school grads for certain types of jobs. Specialized diets (such as vegan, gluten free, and the like) are surging in popularity so the need for those types of chefs is growing at a rapid pace. Natural Gourmet’s reputation as the nation’s premier school for healthy, whole foods cuisine certainly serves its alumni well in the job market.
What did you like most about the program?
Where to begin? I love that Natural Gourmet promotes a whole foods, plant based diet and uses seasonal, organic ingredients in every class. I loved the intimate, family-like atmosphere at the school and the smaller class sizes. I loved being in a classroom with like minded individuals who also put their lives on hold to follow their passion. I loved the broad range of topics covered throughout the program, and I loved how delicious all the food was!
What did you like least about the program?
There was a lack of communication from the school from the time I was accepted until my first day of class. I was expecting more logistical information to come in the form of an email, or welcome packet, but I never heard from anyone. I remember wondering if I had the correct information in regards to my start date/time and I had to reach out to admissions to double check those details. It left an impression on me that the school was not organized – thankfully, that impression did not carry through to the rest of the program!
I also wish that the school had an online student portal – essentially, a place where students can check school email, submit homework assignments, download handouts and recipes, and communicate with each other in online forums. When I was a student, everything was paper based, which felt a bit dated and not so eco-friendly.
What was it like to be a vegetarian in culinary school?
Natural Gourmet is the culinary school to attend if you are a strict vegetarian/vegan. Although the school does use animal protein in some classes, there is absolutely no pressure to prepare or taste it. I have heard horror stories from vegetarian friends in more traditional programs who were told to “check their morals at the door”. They were subsequently chided for expecting to be successful in the culinary world without tasting flesh.
Not only I was I never belittled for my food choices at NGI, I was respected and supported. Vegetarians and vegans were given the option to sit out on the classes that focused on animal proteins, and were excused from having to answer any future exam questions related to that subject matter. I chose to participate in the animal protein classes but did not taste anything we made. I never felt that this put me at a disadvantage compared to my meat-eating classmates.
Do you have any advice for future NGI students?
During your time as a student, find the time to volunteer with the James Beard Foundation – it’s a great way to network and build experience in the kitchen with some of the best chefs in America.
I realize how cliche this sounds, but the program goes by lightning fast, so enjoy and savor your time in school! Take advantage of all that New York City has to offer, especially if you’re not from this neck of the woods. There’s no city on earth like it!