Two Grads on the Unexpected Uses of their Culinary Degrees
New York City’s Natural Gourmet Institute has a policy of openness, and their forward-thinking food values attract a diverse range of students, fostering a community that, as CEO Jonathan Cetnarski puts it, “is very synergistic with the LGBTQ community at large.” Below, we spoke with two alums about their careers, and how a “health-supportive” culinary education has enhanced the work that they do.
“We were learning [in medical school] about chronic disease and the top killers in our country, and how they’re mostly due to food, lifestyle, diet. But you receive very, very, very little nutritional exposure
Dr. Colin Zhu is what’s called a locum tenens doctor—a physician who travels the country and works based on where doctors are needed. He’d always loved cooking, and with his mom being a doctor of Chinese medicine, he had an early appreciation for food and its medicinal uses. But as a medical student in the US, he got very little practical education about food for health.
“We were learning about chronic disease and the top killers in our country, and how they’re mostly due to food, lifestyle, diet,” he said, “but you receive very, very, very little nutritional exposure or education. For me, it was ten credit hours within the four years of medical training, and honestly that was just biochemistry.”
In the year between finishing medical school and starting his residency, he decided to apply to a culinary program. He stumbled on New York City’s Natural Gourmet Institute, the 40-year-old institution that incorporates health and nutrition into a professional culinary degree. “I loved how they taught that food was so essential to health and wellness. I had to get on board.”
The knowledge base it provided him—seasonality, health, nutrition, technique—became a valuable tool as a doctor. To address the food-and-health information gap that saw among his colleagues, he became a resource for other primary care physicians, helping them incorporate cooking, food, and nutrition into their work with their patients.
“Primary care physicians are the people in the trenches, and they’re frustrated that they don’t know enough about nutrition,” he says. He oversees culinary medicine workshops and speaks to fellow doctors and med students, and advocates an approach to food that’s not based in nutritional biochemistry: focusing, rather, on making natural, whole, healthy foods taste good.
“I feel that we need to concentrate on food as it’s meant to be—strive to eat real food, as plant-based as possible. I don’t tell my clients to subscribe to one diet or another.” Furthermore, he believes in the empowerment that comes from having good cooking skills. “You have to learn to cook so that you know what’s going into your food. You can take back your health that way.”
For more information about Colin, visit The Chef Doc.
Photo of Colin by Nino Gjivoje Photography
“I went raw vegan for three years. In that process, I took every
class I could find. I just delved in."
Nina Curtis grew up never wanting to cook professionally. But as an adult, food intersected with her work in two seemingly disparate fields: cosmetology and bodybuilding. As a licensed esthetician and leading wellness expert for nearly 30 years, she was an early advocate for edible skincare—the idea of nurturing one’s skin through one’s diet. Additionally, she spent 10 years as a natural bodybuilder.
“My body became my laboratory,” she said of the years spent removing meat from her diet. “I went raw vegan for three years. In that process, I took every class I could find. I just delved in. I looked at all the top culinary schools, I kept digging, and when I came across NGI, I thought, That’s it.”
She loaded up her schedule, interning at Pure Food and Wine, New York’s famed (now-closed) vegan restaurant, and flying back to LA over the weekends to see her skincare clients. “I went in with such intent,” she says. “I was just in my heaven. I hung on to everything that my instructors said. I can still hear [NGI instructor] Chef Barbara when I’m in the kitchen—Lower your shoulder... What are you doing with that knife?”
After she completed the program in 2014, she returned to Los Angeles and took a position at The Ranch at Live Oak in Malibu, where she worked for three years, ultimately as executive chef. She has plans to become a naturopathic doctor, but currently cooks for a range of private clients and has begun a new Feastly dining series focused on raw, vegan Thai cuisine.
“I love learning, I love doing everything I can to bring the most I can,” she says. Her NGI degree, she says, will always be “a tool that I needed in my toolbox.”
For more information about Nina, follow Botanical Chef on Instagram.
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