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Life in NYC as an International Student

Posted April 10, 2017

When you read this article, I will have already left New York City and settled down in Beijing.  Looking back, I consider the six and half months in NYC as the turning point of my life.

Changing Courses

It all started on a chilly December Day in Hong Kong almost two years ago. I was a postgraduate student writing my thesis in anthropology at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. I found myself unable to focus, and out of frustration and boredom, I Googled “vegetarian cooking school,” which led me to Natural Gourmet Institute. After a brief  look, I knew I had to go to NGI: the principles of natural cooking, the delicious-looking recipes, and the friendly faces of instructors all left a deep impression on me.

I had dreamt of going to cooking school since adolescence, but I never dared to discuss my dream with my parents. In China, manual jobs, including a culinary career, carry a stigma: they are suitable only to those who are not intellectually sophisticated. However, towards the end of my master’s degree, I strongly felt that an academic career didn’t suit my fiery personality. As I once said to a friend, “academics can only know the quality of their work after a few years of devotion, but it only takes hours before cooks know how well their cakes turn out!” At the same time, I started a vegetarian blog called Vegenotes 食素小札. Writing my blog gave me enormous satisfaction; and my readers’ feedback convinced me that I could impact people’s lives through food. As I kept blogging, I realized my knowledge was insufficient. I needed formal training to be a better food blogger. So I decided to go to NGI.

Everything went quickly after that. I applied to NGI in late June 2016 and received an acceptance letter a week later. Soon after, I applied for a student visa and found a room to rent. I was ready to begin my journey, which would take me back into the classroom, through restaurants as a diner and as an intern, and to shows and events across New York City.

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Getting Ready to be a Chef

The first time I felt like a chef was when I tried on my chef’s jacket at the uniform shop. Seeing the whole class dressed in chef’s jackets on the second day of school was very exciting!

As the program went on, I got to know what it meant to be a chef. At first, it was exhaustion from standing on our feet for the entire day. In that first week, the locker rooms after class was quiet, as we were too tired to even talk! But we soon  adapted to the pace, and the locker room became louder with each passing week.

Second, being a chef and working in the kitchen meant getting cuts and burns. Three classmates hurt themselves the first day we got our knife kits, before we even began cutting. Pulling knifes out of the knife bag could be hazardous! The bright side is, as we got better and more familiar with knives, fewer students cut themselves, and even when we did, we knew how to deal with the cuts (one trick is to put nori on the wounds as it stops the bleeding).

What to Expect at Natural Gourmet Institute

The Chef’s Training Program includes classroom education and an internship. The classroom education is divided into three parts. The first part is basics, such as cooking techniques, knife skills, and ingredient identification, which serves as the foundation of professional cooking. The second part is food themes, which includes be regional cuisine, a specific ingredient (such as tempeh), a technique (e.g. rolling), or a diet (e.g. macrobiotics). The third part focuses on nutrition and health theory. There is so much to learn!

The classroom education equipped me with the knowledge and skills to work in a professional kitchen, and I completed my internship at Daniel, a Michelin two-star restaurant.

I’m also more confident in food writing. I now write a food column for a Chinese fashion magazine and China’s most popular vegetarian/vegan lifestyle platform, Veg Planet. I wouldn’t have gotten so many great opportunities if I hadn’t enrolled in NGI.

Besides culinary training, the biggest treasure I got is the friendships with my classmates. Before coming to NGI, I didn’t give much thought to my classmates and I supposed they would be just like classmates from other classes I’ve taken. But I was wrong! The sixteen of us came from all over the world: Australia, Britain, Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Norway, and the United States. Every small conversation was a potential catalyst for an in-depth cultural exchange. We learned so much from each other, every day. We formed a deep connection, and I feel I now have true friends all over the world.

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Things to do in NYC

Living in Hong Kong for two years, I thought I knew what an energetic city looks like. But again, I was wrong! New York City is exceptional in every way. You have easy access to the world’s best art, music, and food. Shows at Broadway theaters, concerts at Lincoln Center, and numerous exhibitions enriched my mind. I also volunteered at several culinary events, such as New York City Wine and Food Festival, City Harvest’s Bid Against Hunger, and a few James Beard Dinners. For other extracurricular activities, I used an app called Meetup and joined several vegan/vegetarian groups, a book reading group, a salsa dance group, and a walking group. There’s just so much to see and learn in NYC!

Top Eats in NYC

One thing that I regret is not trying enough restaurants, but it’s impossible to try all the interesting places in NYC!

My favorite vegetarian/vegan restaurant is probably Peacefood Cafe. Its downtown location is near Union Square, a 15-minute walk from school. Although everything at Peacefood Cafe is so delicious, their chickpea fries are to die for!

The Michelin one-star vegetarian restaurant NIX is also a great restaurant. I worked there as an intern for a month and the chefs at NIX are the happiest chefs I know. They love what they’re doing and this positivity is reflected in their food. I highly recommend the tandoor bread and all the dips (my favorite is walnut red pepper).

Superiority Burger has the best vegetarian burger; VSpot has delicious homemade sprouted tortilla chips (and if you go there on Thursday night, they have free standup comedy shows!); and Candle 79 and Le Botaniste are great vegan restaurants on the upper east side. For fancy fine-dining vegetarian experiences, Daniel, Eleven Madison Park, and Per Sse are good choices.

Recommending restaurants makes me hungry, and how cruel it is as I’ve left NYC and I don’t know when I can come back to taste these delicious foods!

My final remark: do what you love and go where your heart leads you.

If you have any questions, feel free to reach out to me! I’d love to connect with like-minded people. My instagram is “shumanwillcook“.