I love to cook. My favorite weekends are spent reading
recipes, prospecting for interesting ingredients at natural foods stores,
chopping, blending, measuring, sauteing and, the best part, tasting and serving
my newest dishes to my grateful husband and friends. But I’ve always felt a
little insecure about my cooking: What do the pros know that I don’t? And what
makes them "pros" and me a mere "home cook?"
So on January 1, 2003, I headed to Santa Fe for a 12-day
vegan culinary arts program at Chef Al Chase’s Institute for Culinary Awakening
(ICA). Chef Al is one of New York’s own - a Red Hook native who grew up working
in his dad’s deli. His path took him to the Culinary Institute, followed by
years of training and working at some very fancy West Coast bistros, country
clubs, bakeries, inns and hotels. In the ’80s and ’90s, Al began moving toward
"My first ‘a-ha,’" says Al, was deleting dairy products from
my diet. My sinus problems, which I had my entire life, simply went away." Chef
Al’s ICA now focuses on education and training.
I expected a boot camp, where we lowly enlistees methodically
and laboriously practiced and perfected our small dice or julienne techniques,
while being critiqued by our white-hatted taskmaster from the Culinary
Institute. Instead, Chef Al and his partner, Donna Benjamin, invited us into
their home kitchen, starting each day with sage tea and smoothies, soft Native
American music, and the warmest, most nurturing and personal educational
experience I’ve ever had. Instead of a big white chef’s hat, Al wears colorful
Lakota-style headbands - and instead of stereotypical chef arrogance, he
displays modesty, grace, humor, heart and soul. And tact - which I discovered
when I mistakenly doubled the mint in one recipe, turning our carrot soup into
Chef Al’s cuisine is a fusion of French, Southwestern and
bistro, with splashes of raw – and incredible sweets. He is a treasure in the
The students became a little community for 12 days: Carolyn,
a beautiful movie makeup artist; Kerry, a courageous farmed animal rescuer; and
Anne, a health/nutrition educator and devout Seventh Day Adventist. Donna made
sure we knew where to go and what to do with our free afternoons and evenings in
Santa Fe, a magical and very veggie-friendly place to visit.
Classes were structured by theme: soups, salads, appetizers,
entrees - and my favorite - baking. Woven throughout were lessons in plate
presentation, rolling sushi, working with phyllo pastry, and how to measure,
chop, mix, saute, bake and flavor for best results. Field trips included visits
to a 300-year-old organic farm and a culinary supply store, where we learned how
to select good knives, gadgets and equipment. I also took several field trips on
my own to a wonderful local chocolatier, who sold such creative treats as vegan
cranberry-pistachio bark and chocolate-covered chile peppers and ginger.
The best part of the training was, of course, sitting down
together each day and devouring our creations, all developed by Chef Al.
Favorite dishes included Jamaican Bean Soup, Coconut Tempeh Strips, Chapati
Chips with Black Bean Avocado Dip, BBQ Tempeh Napoleon, Falafel with Lemon-Mint
Tahini Sauce, Anasazi Cornbread, Tempeh Sloppy Joes, Chocolate-Avocado Mousse,
Chocolate Banana Nut Phyllo Rolls with Coconut Whipped Cream, Pecan-Cranberry
Pancakes and Chocolate Raspberry Torte with Lavender-Almond Sauce.
It was a transformative, heady experience - was it the
altitude or the endorphins from all that chocolate? I recommend the training to
anyone who wants to be a more conscious cook and incorporate more local, organic
and healthy ingredients into a plant-based diet.
Here’s a taste of what I learned from Chef Al:
1. Mise en place - French for ‘everything in its place.’ The
easiest way to reduce stress in the kitchen is to measure everything out BEFORE
you start to cook. Also, read the recipe and really understand it. Have your
head in the right place, too. Cook with mindfulness, love, patience and
gratitude - the food will taste better.
2. Use coconut and flax oils - Unrefined, organic,
non-hydrogenated coconut butter by Omega Nutrition
preferred by Chef Al for high-heat sauteing and for baking. Flax oil is perfect
for condiments. Omega Nutrition makes wonderful flavored flax oils, including
garlic-chili and butterscotch. Quality olive oil is always a good choice, too.
3. Switch to Celtic Sea Salt and cayenne pepper - For $15,
you can join the Grain & Salt Society www.celtic-seasalt.com
discounts on the most natural, tasty sea salt available. And, instead of black
pepper, which is an intestinal irritant, switch to cayenne pepper.
4. Organic Rapadura by Rapunzel Foods, Grade B Maple Syrup by
Shady Maple Farms, and organic Medjool dates are among the best sweeteners
available for vegan desserts. Use organic, fair trade cocoa and chocolate, too.
5. You probably knew this, Part 1: Label and date all food
and ingredients. Keep masking tape and a pen in the kitchen for an easy way to
eliminate ‘mystery leftovers’ and stale spices.
6. You probably knew this, Part 2: Use a spoon to peel
7. Create ‘layers of flavors’ - For best results, follow this
procedure: Brush coconut butter in your sauté pan. First, sauté onions, then
other veggies, then garlic. Next, add dry herbs and spices, then stock (or
sauce), and finish with fresh herbs. Serve with condiments.
8. Don't be afraid to prepare dishes with avocado, nuts and
coconut. These vegan foods are luscious, rich and
absolutely pleasure - able to eat.
9. Think before you eat - Grow your own, go to farmers'
markets and support local providers of organic,
sustainable food. Connect with the plants, land and
farmers. The food will be fresher and healthier for you and the planet.
10. Eating is an event - Say grace, thank Mother Earth, the
cook, the farmers, the insects and life itself.
Chef Al will be conducting classes in our area this fall.
information about ICA and its programs, call (505) 466-4597 or e-mail
Coconut Whipped Cream by Chef Al Chase
(Quite possibly the best thing I have ever put in my mouth ? use
as topping for your favorite vegan desserts)
1 can of coconut milk
1/4 cup raw cashews
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1 tsp. vanilla bean or 1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1. Place the can of coconut milk in the refrigerator for at
least 4 hours, and then remove the thick, fatty part
at top and save the rest.
2. In a blender, mix the cashews and coconut until smooth.
3. Add the powdered sugar, then blend just until the mixture is
smooth and fluffy.
4. Transfer to a small bowl, add vanilla and stir.