For almost forty years, the Natural Gourmet Institute has been the leading culinary education program for professional, health-focused culinary arts, and the first of its kind to be accredited nationally. Jonathan Cetnarski is the President and CEO. With a background in the corporate sector, as well as youth and community–focused food education programs, he’s working to redefine NGI’s culinary school experience for the 21st century. One Friday this fall, we toured the warm and welcoming campus in downtown Manhattan, which was thrumming with passion and purpose. Students were nestled over books in the cookbook library, and in the kitchen preparations were underway for one of NGI’s famed “Friday Night Dinners.” (More information below, but these are open to the public, and function for Chefs in Training as something of an opportunity to put their skills to the test.) NGI felt to us like a sanctuary, which prompted us immediately to wonder if it has been home to more than just culinary outsiders, but to the LGBT community as well.
Do you find there to be any overlap or synergy between the health-supportive cooking world and the LGBT community?
Natural Gourmet Institute has a long and wonderful history of being a safe, engaging and inclusive place for people to learn about the intersection of food and health. Students, and food enthusiasts alike, often remark that NGI is a place where they “fit in”– it is very gratifying for us. In addition to seeking a professional culinary education, I do think that most of our students are looking for their tribe – a community of fellow food-lovers who recognize there is a connection between what one eats and how one feels; they may be vegan, vegetarian, gluten-free, paleo or simply responsible eaters who care about good health and the world around them. This sense of community is very synergistic with the LGBTQ community at large.
In the late seventies and early eighties when the school was brand new, our community was considered very avant garde and perhaps even viewed as a bit counter cultural. Today, the times have caught up to “the Natty G” and our philosophies are more or less de rigueur, but we still consider ourselves very progressive thinkers!
What drew you to your role at Natural Gourmet Institute?
I was drawn to the school’s values, history and desire to be the definitive educator of well trained, health-supportive chefs. I also wanted to become one of NGI’s inspiring group of change agents (staff, alumni and friends) who are making positive impacts on improving the food system, globally.
What sets the NGI's culinary program apart from a traditional one? What are most students looking for when they enroll?
Natural Gourmet Institute is definitely not a traditional culinary school and that is very appealing for our students who want a more progressive culinary education that focuses on the intersection of food and health. Some of the key differentiators which sets NGI apart include our style of cooking which we call “health-supportive,” our nationally accredited curriculum which is over 80% plant-based focused, our commitment to being sustainable and humane with our practices and our Seven Criteria for Food Selection. Established by our late founder, Dr. Annemarie Colbin, these criteria govern everything we do at the school and state that food should be: Seasonal, Local, Whole, Traditional, Balanced, Fresh & Organic, and Delicious. (Dr. Colbin explained it best—check it out!)
Tell us about NGI's Friday Night Dinners. Are they open to the public?
Friday Night Dinners are a special event here at NGI. For most Fridays during the year, the school transforms two of our teaching kitchens into an intimate restaurant where our Chefs in Training design, prepare and serve a three course, vegan meal for their friends, family and the general public. Under the watchful eye of our rock star chef instructors, the students always surprise and delight their guests with elevated and imaginative menus which represent our health-supportive philosophies. The dinner is their final project for the Chef’s Training Program and is a wonderful celebration of their journey to becoming a professional chef.
Since its inception, Friday Night Dinner has been a unique gathering place for vegans and conscious eaters and is often the first experience people have with the school, so it’s a really special part of our experience. The dinner is BYOB, a great value and a fun experience for a Friday Night Dinner crowd looking for something new. Information on the dinners can be found on our website.
What changes have you and your colleagues seen in the time since NGI was founded? What's on the horizon?
We often remark that Annemarie would be just thrilled to see what is happening with the better food movement. From our earliest days of operating in her Upper West Side apartment to the present, NGI has believed that our Seven Criteria for Food Selection is the right approach for people to nourish themselves, honor traditions, maintain community and respect the planet. NGI has always eschewed processed foods and refined ingredients. Today we are seeing that this belief system is becoming a global imperative and we are delighted to be an active participant in shaping the Future of Food conversation.
For more information about the Natural Gourmet Institute and their Friday Night Dinners, visit naturalgourmetinstitute.com.
Special thanks to the Natural Gourmet Institute for partnering with us on Issue 3 and helping us see it to print!
Photos by Quyn Duong.