Faces of NGI: Q&A with Chef Instructor Jay Weinstein | Natural Gourmet Institute

Faces of NGI: Q&A with Chef Instructor Jay Weinstein

Posted April 5, 2018

The NGI community is made up of faculty, staff, and students from diverse backgrounds. In this series, we’re featuring a staff member or chef instructor to give you a taste of who we are and how we each contribute to creating a quality, health-supportive culinary education.

Jay Weinstein has been a Chef Instructor at Natural Gourmet Institute for the past ten years. His cooking experience started at a young age when he learned to navigate his way around a restaurant kitchen, and developed into a passion for a sustainable food system once he started writing and teaching about food. Read on to learn about his culinary background and how teaching the next generation of culinarians inspires him.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

At 17 I took a job washing dishes at the fanciest continental restaurant in my hometown of Farmingdale, New York. I had no idea what direction I was going to go in my life, and the job was just for pocket money. But I was enthralled by the fine dining cuisine the chef made – it was so different from the home cooking I was used to. He made a bargain with me: If I helped with prep tasks – peeling potatoes and trimming green beans – he would teach me to make dishes from the menu.

Do you remember how hard it was to please your parents when you were 17? They didn’t like my habits, some of my friends, the way I dressed… But once I started making sophisticated European dishes for family dinners, the positive feedback was palpable. I was hooked.

Here was an activity that brought joy into people’s lives, seemed utterly benign, and I had a knack for it. Win-win-win. It became my hobby during liberal arts college and I made it my first job (at a glorified steakhouse) after graduation. Once I saw that I had the chops to cook commercially, I applied to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), one of the only respectable cooking schools in the country at the time, and still one of the best. I fantasized about opening a snooty French restaurant of my own.

What was it like working in the restaurant industry after culinary school?

Recruiters were after CIA graduates in the mid-eighties, and one of them offered me a trip to Boston, where they had positions to fill. I used the free ride to interview with all the French chefs in town. When one of them cancelled on me, I rang up Jasper White, owner of Restaurant Jasper, who was making waves as the New England voice of the nascent New American cuisine movement, which was rapidly sweeping the Francophile culinary world of previous generations into the back seat of the US cuisine scene.

Jasper and I hit it off right away, and over the next three years working under his tutelage, he honed my skills and broadened my horizons. He took a genuine interest in elevating the possibilities for his cooks and I was a great beneficiary of his generosity of time and lessons.

What drove you to get your BA in Journalism?

After Jasper’s I moved on to the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston, working in banquets for a couple of years to rev up my speed for the move to New York City (a much rougher place at that time, with a reputation for chewing up cooks and spitting them out). Then I accepted a job at Le Bernardin, the country’s top fish restaurant. From there I became sous chef at Orso in the Theater district, and a couple of years later sous at a private club in the financial district. I had a bit of a crisis of confidence at that time, because I realized that I no longer wanted to open my own restaurant. I loved cooking, but ownership – and the lifestyle that came with it – were not for me.

I decided to broaden my options by studying journalism at NYU. I’d written pieces for publication on and off over my life, from a stint on the high school paper to the CIA’s rag, The Papillotte. I figured combining competency in culinary arts with writing prowess would be a potent combination, and I wasn’t wrong. By the time I graduated, I was already published in the food section of The New York Times, and had assignments in other papers all over town. Over the next few years, I wrote regularly for Newsday, The Star-Ledger, Travel & Leisure, National Geographic Traveler, numerous trade publications and travel magazines, and even a number of higher education journals. It was a great ride.

You have written for many publications and have a few cookbooks under your belt. Can you elaborate on your passion for food writing?

My first cookbook, The Everything Vegetarian Cookbook, sort of fell into my lap. A friend at the gym asked me if I’d ever thought of writing a cookbook. I thought he was naïve since I imagined selling a cookbook idea would be a thousand times harder than selling a freelance magazine story. I told him so. He asked me if I’d like to be introduced to an acquisitions editor he knew. By the following week, I had a contract. You can’t make this stuff up. I had no idea how I got so lucky. They loved the book and quickly assigned me another, A Cup of Comfort Cookbook. The money wasn’t great, but I loved being able to express myself and use my recipe repertoire that way.

For my third book I got an agent who helped me sell my idea about sustainable, humane sources of fine food to Random House. That book, The Ethical Gourmet, brought together my own concerns about our broken food system with my mentor Jasper’s philosophy about cooks’ responsibility be good stewards of the Earth. The entire pressing of that book sold out. It’s now available as an e-book.

You’ve been teaching classes at NGI since 2008. What has your experience been like in the past 10 years?

When I was promoting The Ethical Gourmet, I met Peter Berley, who taught at NGI. I was with him at an event up north of the city and when I needed a ride home, he steered me to some colleagues who could give me a ride back to NYC. One of these people turned out to be the program director of the Public Classes, and the coordinator of the Chef’s Training Program (CTP). They asked me if I had any interest in teaching, and the rest is history. Natural Gourmet is the perfect fit for my values and culinary background. The school shares the ethic of stewardship of the Earth and the vision to play a part in fixing the broken food system. It takes a certain amount of idealism to maintain that sense that we can do it in the face of all of the challenges and naysayers out there. That’s probably what I love most about this place – its commitment to bettering the world.

What has been the most rewarding aspect of teaching?

Meeting the next generation of culinarians and seeing their optimism and can-do spirit inspires me. I’m a news junkie and it’s easy to be disheartened when you see the misguided policies and actions of our leaders and industry players. But knowing that so many people share my desire to rectify the mistakes we’ve made as a country and as a species – to build a sustainable food system – lifts my spirits and encourages me to continue my work.

Your writing and teaching often includes your learning experiences from traveling globally. What has been your favorite travel destination?

If I had to live someplace in the world other than New York, it would probably be Rome. That said, I’ve always loved the culture, peoples, and cuisines of Asia. Singapore has the most diverse food scene I’ve experienced, a result of all the crossing cultures there. But I’ve been privileged to spend a lot of time in Taiwan, where thousands of years of history meet a vibrant ultra-modern generation of food enthusiasts to bring extreme quality to an enormous cannon of dishes. It’s hard to compare the subtleties, complexities, and magnificent flavors of Parisian or Roman cooking with dynamic emerging world cuisines. I guess there’s so much wonderful sensory experience out there that it’s hard to pick just one.

How has traveling enhanced your own learning experience about food?

Travel opens your mind. America offers the best of so many things and I feel incredibly lucky to be an American. But we don’t have the best of everything. Fresh fruit is far better in many other places around the globe than here in the US. I never would have discovered the unearthly joy of tropical fruits if I hadn’t experienced the best of them in Thailand, Mexico, Taiwan, Japan, Singapore, and other places. Even the wild strawberries in southern Italy are burned forever into my memory.