Back to the Cutting Board

By April Cumming – October 1, 2014
Photography by Stacy Berg

he kitchen is a flurry of white aprons, outstretched hands, and stainless steel mixing bowls; a cacophony of sharp knives clashing onto cutting boards, oven doors opening and slamming shut, and chefs clamoring over each other’s creations. A bowl falls to the checkered linoleum floor, and everyone stops to listen.

Welcome to the Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts, a plant-based cooking school in South Austin. Here, budding chefs are instructed in five modalities, or methods, of cooking: raw, vegan, vegetarian, Ayurvedic, and macrobiotic.

Owner Rich Goldstein, who has been practicing yoga for 25 years, said he was inspired to start the school after reaping personal benefits from adopting a healthy, plant-based diet.

"Eating in an Ayurvedic—or plant-based and meatless—way enhances your immune system, increases your longevity, and reduces multiple other health risk factors," he said. Many agree with Goldstein’s claim; a 2008 study conducted by Vegetarian Times found that 10 percent of the American population, or 22.8 million people, say they follow a largely vegetarian-inclined diet.

Stepping through the kitchen doors of the academy and into the classroom is like stepping onto the set of a reality TV cooking show. An intangible sense of hurried focus and creative genius fills the room as instructors—professional chefs themselves—circulate from student to student, asking them why they chose to use certain ingredients. Unlike a reality TV cooking show, however, that questioning is meant to be constructive, not critical.

"We don’t teach in a dogmatic way," Goldstein said. "We want students to learn how to cook for their own bodies, for their own needs, and in a skillful way. And the more you cook, the better you get—as long as you’re instructed well."

Students’ goals are as varied as their home states and countries. Many dream of opening restaurants and food trucks, some of starting their own catering companies and health coaching services. A few want to be personal chefs. All of them agree on one thing: They want to inspire people to eat healthier.

"We’re very unique in that we’re one of the few schools in the world who have this kind of curriculum and who teach this kind of cooking," Goldstein said. "Students who come here are looking for a very different experience. Not everyone can come to Austin though."

On a recent Saturday morning, students were testing recipes for their graduation ceremony—the final cooking event where their own personalized plant-based, raw, and vegan creations are showcased and then judged by professional chefs.

At one table, a student is making smoked jackfruit and mushroom tacos drizzled with an avocado sauce. Another is carefully constructing tempeh bulgogi sliders–a Korean-inspired creation–as though he were playing a game of Jenga. A rack is pulled out of the oven and the sweet smell of vegan, salted caramel chocolate chip cookies wafts through the room.

The dishes being created here are a far cry from those sitting on the average American’s dinner table. And that’s exactly what Goldstein wants to see coming out of the kitchen.

"Eating the standard American diet degrades your taste buds," he said. "By eating a clean, healthy diet–and easing away from the chemicals found in other foods–you start to recover and reboot your taste buds. It’s a virtuous process, a cycle. What you put into your body affects how you feel and how you feel affects what you eat."

The school works with local farms and businesses, including Johnson’s Backyard Garden and Wheatsville Co-Op, to source their foods. From tracking down seasonal fruits or specific flours to securing proper egg substitutions and exotic spices, their needs are expansive and change daily. "We want to teach them how to cook with foods that are local. That’s the nature of what we’re doing here," Goldstein says.

The school’s South Lamar location (situated next to Yoga Yoga and gluten-free food trailer Picnik) is going through its third expansion since Goldstein took over in 2009. In addition to their weekly, open-to-the-public cooking classes, Goldstein is excited about what’s in store for the culinary academy’s future. He’s particularly enthused about the school’s new online distance learning program, which he sees as a form of public outreach designed to "address the need in America to teach people to cook again."

Budding chefs go through a nine-month, 900-hour professional training course where they are taught science and nutrition theory, current trends in food, and business acumen in addition to professional cooking skills.

"We focus a lot more on ingredients and the health side of cooking here," said Inge Bothma, a LeCordon Bleu-certified chef and Natural Epicurean instructor. "In LeCordon Bleu, we cooked more for flavor. If we needed to add another stick of butter, we’d add it."

Bothma calls students her little pioneers, "because they go out into the world and show people how to eat healthy." For the last three months of the program, students participate in externships at local restaurants and businesses such as Uchi, Trace, Skinny Limits, Juiceland, and Whole Foods.

Goldstein dismisses the idea that this way of cooking is just a fad. "Trends take time to develop and grow," he said. "And I think that as more people out there start to understand that food is core to our health, this sector and style of plant-based cooking will keep booming."

With plans to open affiliate campuses in San Antonio, New Orleans, and Los Angeles in the near future, Goldstein hopes to eventually make a nationwide name for the school. For now though, he’s proud to be in Austin. But more than that, he’s proud of those who have entered the school as students and left as chefs.

"I want them to use their education to make an impact on people’s health," Goldstein said. "I want them to become superstars." afm


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