Wait, I think now it’s called the Natural Gourmet Institute or something. Whatevs. I like the old-fashioned “Cookery School,” and that’s what it was called when I went there.
Every couple of months I get an email from a sweet person looking for advice on whether or not they should go to the NG. Instead of rewriting the same email over and over, I thought I’d just post it here.
(I am going to illustrate this post with crappy phone photos of me putting cool vintage wrapping paper [with an embroidery pattern that ties it to the kitchen!] behind the shelves in my bathroom medicine cabinet. [What, you wanted food photos? You know where to go for those.] Also: do not do this. It’s been two days, and the damn paper is already buckling due to humidity. Now I guess I have to take it all down and cover it with contact paper or some crap. Damn.)
My Highly Subjective Thoughts on Whether or Not You Should Go To The Natural Gourmet
I went to the Natural Gourmet’s Chef’s Training Program in 2000-2001, immediately after graduating from college. I did the part-time 10-month program while I worked full-time as a secretary in a midtown office (where my cooking school practice dishes were highly enjoyed by my work friends). After I graduated, I worked part-time at the school for a year or so as a steward (Mark Mace, the head steward, was and will forever be the best boss I’ve ever had—and I’m including my current boss, myself, in that list) and Friday Night Dinner hostess.
I enjoyed my time there, and I think it’s a good school.
I do think, however, that it’s best for the student who is highly motivated, as the success of the program is greatly dependent on what the student puts into it. It fit my way of learning because I am pretty motivated and don’t like a very rigorous and structured environment, but it might not be for everyone. Also, I did the program as a vegan, and although they do make accommodations for veganism, it is clear that most of the instructors are not extremely receptive to it (some are Weston A. Price freakers who are downright hostile to it.). However, I do think they are the best school in the country in terms of teaching the principles of good healthy cooking.
That said: the school seems to have changed a lot in the decade since I went there. I have a feeling it’s a lot more rigorous than it used to be. This can be good or bad. I loved, for example, the non-fascist nature of the program—that people wore all kinds of interesting headscarves and coverings instead of the boring little caps that seem to be required these days. It was a more loosey-goosey school when I went there, and that worked for me at the time. I knew nothing about cooking and was terrified of commercial kitchens. It was a gentle school, which was what I needed. These days it seems to be pretending to be more of a hardcore French-style hierarchical (I’ll say it again: fascist) type of program, and while I do think standards were a bit laughably lax when I was there, I loved the quirkiness of the program, loved that it wasn’t like every other Frenchy French cooking school out there.
Again, take all this with a grain of salt–I haven’t even been back for a visit in years. Your experience could be nothing like what I remember or experienced.
That said: cost-wise, I think it’s ridiculous. The costs have skyrocketed since I attended, and I am not convinced that the money is worth the program. Since I went there I have come to believe more in the value of self-guided education that is not so top-down—almost everything you learn there (except for the nutritional theories and approaches) you could learn by spending a few years in a good commercial kitchen. Most of the students at the NGI will never work in commercial kitchens, so the school works for them. On the other hand, some great restaurant chefs have come out of the program. Again, it really just depends on what you want to do, how motivated you are, how much money you have (hopefully oodles), etc. If you decide not to do the program, a combination of working in a really good restaurant and taking the often-excellent public classes at the school can get you really far, as well.
Bottom line: I really loved my time there and learned a lot, and met great friends I adore. Will you? I have no idea. Best of luck though!
Oh, one tip, if you do go: don’t buy the knife kit. It’s wildly overpriced and the knives are crap. Just buy your own knives. Find a few knives that fit your hand and make you happy, and you’ll love them forever.