The Natural Gourmet Institute Experience (Part 2)

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Happy Friday!

As promised, here is part 2 of The Natural Gourmet Institute Experience (you can read Part 1 here).  I chatted with several Natural Gourmet Institute staff members about questions you may have before starting culinary school.  It’s my hope that getting some faculty perspective will help to answer any remaining questions about the Chef’s Training Program.  Thanks to Merle Brown (Vice President/Director of Admissions), Rosemary Serviss (Director of Career Services), Chef Barbara Rich (Internship Director/Chef Instructor), and Chef Elliott Prag (Chef Instructor) for taking the time out of their busy schedules to answer my questions.

Q:  What level of cooking skill is necessary to enroll in the Chef’s Training Program?  Do many students come from a culinary background? 

Merle Brown, Vice President/Director of Admissions: No previous professional culinary experience or training is required, although most applicants have some experience cooking for family and friends.  We start our students with basic skills and move up from there.  Our applicants have a passion for cooking and, most importantly, an understanding of “health supportive” cuisine and how food and diet can affect one’s health and well-being.

Q:  How do you recommend preparing for the Chef’s Training Program?  

MB: While there is no “best” way to prepare for the Chef’s Training Program, we do recommend that applicants learn as much as they can before entry by reviewing our curriculum, attending an open house, making arrangements to audit a Chef’s Training class in session and, if possible, arranging for a visit to the school.  An interview with someone from our admissions team (either by phone or in-person) is also required for acceptance.

Q: What does a typical class look like?

MB: A typical class consists of no more than 16 people.  A large number (75-80%) of students are female, and international students make up 10-15% of the total student body.  Many of our students are career-changers with ages ranging from their mid-20’s to over 50.  On average, one third to one-half of students are vegan.

Q: What sort of careers do Natural Gourmet Institute graduates typically land upon graduation?

Rosemary Serviss, Director of Career Services: Quite a few become personal chefs shortly after graduation.  Others prefer to gain restaurant experience first and start out in garde manger positions or as prep cooks, line cooks or pastry cooks.  Grads with excellent skills and/or prior experience may step right into sous chef positions.  Some grads are lucky enough to get their first job offers from their internship providers.  Teaching is another area of interest for our students.  In addition, our program seems to attract entrepreneurial individuals who go on to start all kinds of businesses, from restaurants, bakeries and other food establishments to developing products that they bring to market.  For a list of businesses owned by NGI alumni, visit our Related Sites page:

Q: Any tips for landing your “dream job” when you are just starting out?

RS: If you have a clear vision of what you want to do, begin your job search by targeting employers who are in that field or doing something similar.  Your first job will probably not be your dream job, but it should be a stepping stone to your ultimate goal and help you gain the experience you need to reach it.  Network with other NGI grads and stay in touch with the school.  Let it be known what your dream job is – you never know who may be able to open a door for you!  Join the NGI Students and Grads Group on Facebook, where all kinds of culinary and career information is shared.

Q: Are Natural Gourmet Institute graduates perceived differently in the job market than students graduating from traditional culinary programs?

RS: You will be competitive with grads from traditional culinary programs in regard to knife skills and basic culinary techniques.  You will also have the advantage of having learned about the nutritional value of food and how to use it as a tool to promote health and healing.  For those seeking employment within health-oriented establishments or as personal chefs, this will be perceived as a big plus.

Q: Do you have any tips for students in the process of selecting an internship?

Chef Barbara Rich, Internship Director/Chef Instructor: The internship program is designed to hopefully be an extension and expansion of the school experience.  I often tell students that school is like learning to swim in a bathtub and the internship is being thrown into the pool.  I ask students to consider a few points while thinking about their internship site, such as parameters of the food they prefer to work with (vegan, local, etc.), their desired location (NYC or elsewhere), and the style and size of the internship site (every place has a different vibe).

I prefer that the students not think too hard about their “expected” career path – it can be too limiting when choosing an internship.  Most of our connections are with restaurants, which I feel are the best internship sites for most – although not all – students.  Restaurant experience can translate into so many aspects of the industry.  I just had a student who interned with a personal chef because she preferred to not work in a restaurant – however, the chef’s comments on her final evaluation were, “Restaurant experience would be a good idea so that the student has a more rounded education/experience in the field.”

Q: What should students expect for their internship “interview”, AKA “trail”?

BR: Everyone is nervous about the trail, just as they were on the first day of school.  Being prepared (asking what to bring, arriving a bit early) will start things off on the right foot.  The trail can come as a shock for most students – the continuous standing, the knife work, the lack of breaks – but it pulls back the curtain and gives them confidence that they can work in a professional kitchen.

Q: What makes a student stand out to his/her instructors during the Chef’s Training Program? 

Chef Elliott Prag, Chef Instructor: It’s all about integrity.  Assuming the student has a clear passion, I would say instructors value strong task focus and the ability to work efficiently and cooperatively within a group. More specifically, instructors like to see a student who is punctual, watches and listens carefully, is organized and clean, and who can create dishes that demonstrate not only competent technique, but also a love of food.

Q: What sort of culinary training/background does the Chef’s Training Program faculty have? 

EP: Our instructors have diverse and extensive backgrounds – we are graduates of a wide variety of culinary programs – some traditional, some health-supportive.  Our teachers’ credentials represent years of experience in areas such as high-level restaurant work, catering, culinary healing, food writing, and/or nutrition.

Q: How will the student experience at Natural Gourmet be different – both before and after graduation – than a more traditional program?  Will you learn the same skills and techniques in the Chef’s Training Program as you would in a traditional culinary program?

EP: The basic cooking techniques taught are the same, but the focus is different.  Natural Gourmet is primarily a plant-based program, though we do work with high-quality poultry, fish, and dairy. There is also considerable technique in our program centered on vegan and gluten-free alternatives.

The Natural Gourmet student experience is also distinct for its commitment to food that is whole, organic, unprocessed, traditional, non-GMO and non-irradiated. We’re talking about real, unadulterated food.

Our focus on healthy balance is the third aspect that sets us apart from other schools. We have a multi-disciplinary approach to balancing food for health that informs everything our graduates do. When a Natural Gourmet student or grad looks at a dish or a meal, they are able to evaluate balance according to color, texture, flavor, balance of acid-alkaline, balance of expansive and contractive foods, macro- and micro-nutrients, to new just some of our criteria.

And, of course, we are the school that explores the connection between food and healing, a comprehensive approach developed by our founder, Annemarie Colbin.

Q: One last thing – any personal recommendations for food-related things to see and do in NYC?

EP: Rather than upscale, elitist restaurants (not that there’s anything wrong with them), I recommend taking time to dive into the great food scenes in the outer boroughs – go get some amazing Middle Eastern in Bay Ridge, Indian, Dominican or Thai in Jackson Heights, Korean on 31st street, Russian in Coney Island.

Thanks again to Merle, Rosemary, Chef Barbara and Chef Elliott!  Have a great weekend, everyone.

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5 Responses to The Natural Gourmet Institute Experience (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: The Natural Gourmet Institute Experience (Part 1)

  2. Mr.B says:

    As a former student of the NGI, I would add on to Mr. Prag’s assertion that the NGI teaches the same techniques as a traditional culinary school, because this isn’t completely the case, in my opinion. First of all, it’s nearly impossible to to expect the same level of training and in-depth practice at a 5 month (or 10 part-time) culinary program that you would get at a 4-year or 2-year program. You have 1 or 2 classes on a lot of topics that would receive weeks of attention in a “traditional” culinary school. There would be more focus on meats and seafood, there would be wine classes, you would cook ALL the recipes, not just 1 or maybe 2 out of the 12+ recipes that go with each class. You would explore more regional cuisines, you would be graded harder, there would be more homework/reading, you would learn a greater number of sauces, charcuterie, aspics, etc.

    But, this isn’t a traditional school in most ways, as we all know, and that’s why a lot of students choose to come here, myself included. First, you’re paying a lot less. Second, you’re working with foods that are of the highest quality and caliber. You’re learning about food not just from an aesthetic and taste point of view, but a health and healing point of view. You’re learning to work with dietary restrictions that many chefs don’t learn much about in traditional schools. The competition among students is lower and you get a lot of 1-on-1 with the instructors. You learn about sustainability practices.

    So while it is true that you will learn all the basics about working in a kitchen, you will have much more to learn when you come out of school, depending on your career path. I’ve been in the industry for a while now and while I think about how a traditional school might have helped jump start my career a bit quicker, I wouldn’t have gotten all of the other positive things.

    The best thing is to be informed in making your decisions so that you aren’t disappointed down the road and $25k in the hole. Explore what you want out of a culinary program and weigh your options and you’ll get the best experience for you.

    • Lauren says:

      I think that Elliott Prag’s comments were very accurate, atleast in my experience. I think Natural Gourmet prepared me very well for “real life” culinary work – that includes working in a Michelin starred kitchen and in the private homes of high profile individuals. Of course programs like the Culinary Institute of America are longer and cover more material, but I wouldn’t necessarily assume that they make you a better chef. Some of the best chefs in the world have no formal culinary education at all – they learned everything in the kitchen! Thanks for your thoughts, I always appreciate a lively debate :)

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  4. Pingback: First Day at Natural Gourmet Institute

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