When the staff of the Natural Gourmet Institute, a Flatiron district cooking school that emphasizes healthful eating, learned that Michelle Obama was planting a vegetable garden at the White House, they were as pleased as punch. Organic punch, of course.
“I think Mrs. Obama is a very smart woman,” said Annemarie Colbin, Chief Executive Officer of the Institute. “She wants to make sure that people eat healthy and nutritious food.”
As the first lady’s initiative suggests, this is now a time when public interest in cooking is not focused only on celebrity chefs, but also on finding solutions to the problems of heart disease, cancer and the ballooning rates of obesity.
That’s precisely what the Natural Gourmet Institute addresses.
Based on the principle that what people eat has a significant effect on their physical, mental and spiritual welfare, the Institute was founded in 1977 by Dr. Colbin, an internationally recognized health educator, author, consultant and speaker. Eight years later, it moved from the Upper West Side to its current home at 48 West 21st Street, where it occupies 4,800 square feet on two floors, a space that includes two teaching kitchens, one professional kitchen and two lecture rooms. All kitchens are outfitted with restaurant-quality appliances. The teaching kitchens include high-tech video systems that provide students with a close-up of whatever technique is being demonstrated.
The formal name of the organization is the Natural Gourmet Institute for Health and Culinary Arts, and its focus is on what Merle A. Brown, Vice President and Director of Admissions, calls “health-supportive” cuisine. It is a plant-based curriculum with an emphasis on fresh, natural, unprocessed food, organic and local when possible. The program includes fish and organic chicken, but no red meat. It is geared, of course, to demonstrate that healthful food does not have to be bland or boring, but can be mouth-watering and beautifully presented.
A corps of 15 to 20 full-time and part-time faculty members teach at the professional and recreational divisions that make up the school. The professional division, or Chef’s Training Program, each year turns out from 160 to 180 men and women who fill all sorts of roles in the food and health industry, becoming chefs, teachers, cookbook writers, caterers, restaurateurs, health spa operators and entrepreneurs. The Chef’s Training Program offers full-time and part-time schedules that can last from five months to a year. There are a maximum of 16 students in each class.
At the Institute’s recreational division, which is aimed at the general public and the home cook, classes cover subjects that range from Basic Knife Skills and Vegan Chocolate Decadence to Unique Vegetarian Pancakes and The Tantalizing Tomato. The recreational division also offers lectures on health-related topics such as hormone balance, dieting, genetics and the treatment and prevention of cancer and diabetes, as well as talks on more commercial subjects: how to become a successful food writer, for example, or how to write a business plan for a food-related company.
On Friday nights, the school becomes one of the Flatiron district’s more unusual dining destinations, when it transforms its kitchens and classrooms into candlelit dining rooms and serves a four-course vegetarian dinner planned and prepared by faculty and students in the Chef’s Training Program. The price is $40 and it’s BYOB.