Highly subjective thoughts on the Natural Gourmet Cookery School

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.

"for your shower"--get it?

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.

gratuitous boobies shot.

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.

I know: hotel bottles of lotion are full of non-vegan horrible ingredients. I can't stop taking them though, it's awful.

I got this little guy in Japan--the poo hops up and down and it plays a cute tune when you lift the lid, and a flushing sound when you close the lid. Super classy.

12 Responses to “Highly subjective thoughts on the Natural Gourmet Cookery School”

  1. zoe p.

    I never know what to do with all the vintage wrapping paper I collect. Since I hate to give gifts.

    Love the pun, though.

    Reply
    • lagusta

      how can someone hate to give gifts?? You might be more of a misanthrope than me–amazing, I didn’t think it was possible!

      Reply
  2. Dustin Rhodes

    I’ve actually always been curious about your thoughts on Natural Gourmet. I have thought about going there myself on several occasions. But I don’t think I have the patience needed to be a real chef. And while most every one I have ever encountered who went to school there is phenomenal, I do know someone–someone whose food I’ve eaten literally hundreds of times–who is a terrible cook; and secretly I have always wondered whether this was because, or in spite of, Natural Gourmet.

    Reply
    • lagusta

      Yep, I know some truly astoundingly horrid cooks who went there…and some great ones! But I also know a few crap cooks who went to the CIA, so who knows….

      Reply
      • Dustin Rhodes

        I’ve always wondered whether, like many other arts/trades, you have to have the raw talent in order to succeed at something like cooking school? What are your thoughts on this? Maybe all of it simply can’t be taught? Were you already a good chef before going to school?

  3. lagusta

    Hmm. I know I was a terrible cook until I went there–but I suspect was a terrible cook for a while afterward too. I had more knowledge, but not a whole ton more experience cooking, which is what I think, in the end, makes someone a good cook (like most other arts and trades).

    I think *knowledge* can be taught and in that sense it’s good to go to school (no matter how many times you make a dish, you will never know the historical uses of it and food science behind it–all of which can make you a better cook) just to get some basic info, but I don’t think any school can give you talent.

    But I also don’t think cooking takes talent.
    Well…I think it’s a talent that can be developed. I truly believe I had no talent for it growing up, but now when I’m in the kitchen I feel a sort of cook’s intuition you could call talent all around me. It’s just a muscle that you can build up, and like most muscles, it’ll be easier for some people to work on it than others.

    I do think a huge problem a lot of people have with cooking is the inability to trust themselves. I’ve worked with people (cooking school grads!) who just refuse to believe they know anything, and thus they are terrible cooks because even if they follow a recipe exactly, they won’t put anything of themselves into it because they lack the self-confidence to believe they could know anything. And of course, a lot of that confidence just comes naturally with lots of practice.

    Does that make sense?

    Reply
  4. Halimah

    Hi,

    Thanks for your review on NGI. I’m based in Singapore and keen to go to NYC to study there but like you said the cost is terrible and overwhelming. Thanks for the info on the knives. I was under the impression we have to purchase it from them. I’m a vegan too and my husband and I run an online mag called vegvibe in Singapore. You can check us out at http://www.vegvibe.com if you can.

    What are you doing now? Are you in the culinary field?

    Reply
  5. nintaiichiban@yahoo.com

    Thank you so much for your detailed review. I really enjoy your website. I’ve taken many cooking classes around Asia during my travels and finally decided I want professional training. I think Bauman college maybe more for me simply because of location and I don’t see much difference in the programs. Thanks again. Cheers, Allen

    Reply
  6. elizabeth bennett

    this is completely off topic, but after looking at all your medicine cabinet items, what do you use on your face. Is that kirk’s castile soap stacked up? I’ve got some of the same essential oils as well as using some lush products. You have such clear skin. I’m vegan three months now and prepare my own meals as well as for my non-convertible husband and children.

    Reply
  7. Chris Campbell

    I just dropped my wife and daughter (high school senior) at the airport. They are traveling to NYC to visit NGI,matt end dinner tonight, locate and secure housing, sit for an interview and tour the facilities. She has been a lifelong vegan and, since junior high, always wanted to do vegan bakery/pastry. She has done her due diligence on the programs and school. I broadly agree with your “life experience” take. We are hoping she works this spring and summer in a local, funky vegan restaurant to get some kitchen experience. Any other information you can provide from your experience ours be helpful.
    Thanks,
    Chris Campbell

    Reply

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