The culinary academy tucked away in an unassuming South Austin strip center is not your typical cooking school. There are Viking ranges and Vita-Mix blenders, yes, and steamer baskets, tagines and mortars and pestles. Absent, though, are the fryers—because nothing is fried. There is no instruction on butchering, no sautéing of meats, no preparing of roulades. In fact, there is no meat at all. Welcome to the Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts, one of the few plant-based, all-natural cooking schools in the U.S.
“We feature food as a healing modality,” explains Chris Phillips-Frishman, an instructor at the school. “It isn’t fringe, but we’re on the edge.” That “edge” refers to the unique curriculum based on raw, vegan, vegetarian, ayurvedic and macrobiotic cuisines, with no single meat-free cuisine being favored over another. Instead, the school seeks to maintain a respectful, culinary non-dogmatism through healthful, holistic cooking. “It’s the only school in the United States that has a curriculum that includes all of these styles of cooking,” says Richard Goldstein, who, along with Michael and Laura Benton, co-owns the academy. Students simply master the fine arts of fermentation and dehydration instead of, say, braising or charcuterie, and focus more on Mother Earth than the mother sauces. “We don’t believe that there’s a particular style that’s right or wrong,” he attests.
The teaching kitchen is likely to make other culinary school students swoon with its glossy black subway-tile backsplashes, butcher-block teaching stations and natural light from expansive windows. The room was conceived by noted local designer Joel Mozersky, the same hand behind Uchi, Antonelli’s Cheese Shop and The Highball.
There are two full-time programs at Natural Epicurean, as well as an evening-and-weekend program that each take about a year to complete. There are six hours of instruction each day that emphasize seasonal, local and nutritious cuisines. At midday, the students break for lunch, which they cook for one another. While the school has been around since the mid-’90s, it was only last year—after being purchased by the owners of sister business Yoga Yoga next door—that it was expanded to a comprehensive plant-based curriculum.
Not surprisingly, many of the school’s graduates have started their own natural-foods companies or catering businesses, and others have gone on to write cookbooks or work as chefs in kitchens across the country. Former student Amy Ramm founded Austin’s NadaMoo!—a successful line of dairy-free coconut-milk ice creams—and several current students are apprenticing, such as Brian Henderson who externs at Uchi.
There are plans to expand the learning to devotees of plant-based cooking through a state-of-the-art podcast program that will offer cyber-instruction on everything from juicing to the best alternatives to rice. “What we can do virtually is huge,” Phillips-Frishman says. And there’s talk of a possible online-only curriculum. “There’re a lot of people we could serve who don’t live in Austin.”
For those closer to home, the school recently secured a lease on an adjoining space that will be crafted into a lecture hall for visiting guest speakers—allowing Natural Epicurean to expand its current roster of public classes and speaking events, and further spread the word about the benefits of local, nutritious plant-based cuisines. —Terrence Henry
Natural Epicurean Academy of Culinary Arts
1700 S. Lamar Blvd.