Thursday’s Dish: The Natural Epicurean

I try to cook healthy foods for my family, I really do. I try to use less meat and less oil, add in more whole grains, and use seasonal, organic vegetables and fruits whenever I can. However, on a busy week, I’m liable to throw some chicken breasts in a pan, roast some potatoes and make a token vegetable on the side. This is how I learned to cook: meals that revolve around meat. It’s my default, but experts like Dr. Dean Ornish and Dr. Joel Fuhrman have proven that it’s not the path to health. In fact, they’ve found that a diet with little or no meat but lots of nutritionally dense foods can not only keep healthy people on the path, but also can reverse some diseases like diabetes and heart disease.

Another facet of this kind of eating is that it’s easier on the environment. It takes over 5,000 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, not to mention the grain for feed, the methane produced by that cow, the electricity used by the farm, etc. Plus there are the ethical questions about eating meat in general. However, many of us are unwilling to make big changes because life is hectic, and it’s easy to reset to your default when pressed for time and energy.

Enter The Natural Epicurean Culinary Arts Academy, a cooking school teaching healthy, plant-based cooking to individuals and food professionals alike. The school is the first in the U.S. to offer a plant-based professional chef training program and is committed to offering a variety of classes to the community as well, all based on the principles of five food “philosophies”: macrobiotic, classical vegetarian, vegan, ayurvedic and raw foods.

According to the website, “We embrace a holistic view of health, which includes the physical, energetic, mental, emotional, societal and environmental, and believe that diet, when consciously and masterfully designed, can support health on all these levels. We are committed to non-dogmatism, to the belief that there is no one diet that suits ever person’s health needs. … We emphasize the preparation of locally available, seasonal, natural foods to please the senses and promote health.” Sounds pretty good, right?

I had the chance to visit with Dimitra Kriticos, operations manager and main instructor for The Natural Epicurean at its new space, beside the original Yoga Yoga studio on South Lamar. (Although The Natural Epicurean has existed for several years, most recently at Casa de Luz, it was purchased last year by the owners of Yoga Yoga, re-imagined, and moved to its new location.) Dimitra has an obvious passion for what she’s doing, and her eyes shine with enthusiasm when she talks about the school.

Her first class of professional chef trainees began in August, with eight students, 22-55 years old, all females (three are moms!). This is a 900-hour training program, and the majority of the students are working and going to school at the same time, so Dimitra is first and foremost impressed with the commitment of her students. She also loves that they come from all different backgrounds, from an ex-Calvin Klein executive to “kids” just out of college.

Dimitra has a degree in hotel/restaurant management, and has worked as a chef in restaurants and as a personal chef. When she was 13, her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. M.D. Anderson put her mother on a wellness study, essentially a macrobiotic lifestyle. She learned different cooking methods, changing her lifestyle and improving her health. That experience sparked Dimitra’s interest in the transformational possibilities with food and diet, which she’s explored in her career.

“I remember doing vegan catering for an animal rights group,” says Dimitra, “and had several people ask me on the sly, ‘This is vegan?’ I said, ‘Yes, why?’ and they said, ‘Well, it’s good!’” She wants to change that stereotype of a plant-based diet consisting of bland, unsatisfying food. She’s teaching her students the skills of a professional chef, from knife skills to presentation, that will make their food as delicious and attractive as any conventional restaurants’. (See her fall recipe for Roasted Beets with Feta Mousse below.)

A set of key instructors, experts in their fields, will be teaching specific subject areas. Yoga Yoga owner Rich Goldstein (Raghurai) will be teaching the business ethics and life balance portion. The Natural Epicurean not only wants their students to learn how to be a good chef, but how to be a good citizen of the planet, including being good to themselves. Unlike the typical lifestyle of a chef, which is go-go-go until you drop, students learn meditation and yoga, breathing techniques, even how to stand in the kitchen properly.

Reba, who started at the school in August, will be among first graduates. “It’s meeting my expectations and beyond,” she says. Reba was a high school teacher and coach for the last 10 years in San Antonio. She wants to explore health and wellness through not only physical exercise, but through food and balance. She’s starting to think more holistically about health overall rather than compartmentalizing. She says she’d love to open a café/yoga studio combo someday.

Upcoming open house for the Professional Culinary Program: Saturday, December 4, 10 a.m. to noon at The Natural Epicurean, 1700 S. Lamar Blvd., call 476-2276 for more info.

Upcoming community classes at The Natural Epicurean (all classes have a fee): Vegan Holiday Dishes, Friday, November 15, 7-9 p.m.; Happy, Healthy Pregnancy, Saturday, November 20, 2-4:30 p.m.; Kiss My Quiche, Sunday, November 21, 10 a.m.-noon.; Seasonal Ayurveda, Wednesday, December 8, 6:30-8:30 p.m.

Roasted Beets with Feta Mousse

8 red beets
Extra-virgin olive oil, coatingAdvertisementSalt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste

1 cup walnuts, toasted
2 cloves garlic
1 cup Italian parsley
1 cup fresh mint
2 cups crumbled feta
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste

1/2 cup fresh orange juice
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons  Dijon  mustard
2 teaspoons Greek honey or agave nectar
Salt and black pepper, to taste

Blend all the ingredients for the mousse and refrigerate to firm up. Rub the beets with salt and pepper, individually wrap in foil, and bake for at least 45 minutes at 350 degrees until tender. Peel the beets and quarter without cutting through the entire beet. Spoon mousse over the beets. Whisk together the vinaigrette and drizzle over the mousse and beets. Serve with mint garnish and a chilled beverage. Yield: 8 servings.

Chef’s Tip: Make sure to whisk the vinaigrette to make an emulsion. This will coat the beets and add more flavor. To make this recipe vegan, substitute the feta cheese with firm tofu. Will need to cut olive oil back to 1/2 cup for mousse.

Written by: Shannon Oelrich

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