Q&A with Chef Elliott Prag
Chef Elliott Prag graduated from the NGI's Chef's Training Program in 1995 and has utilized his passion for cooking and "food as healing" in the restaurant business, as a private chef and caterer and as an instructor at ICE. Read on to learn about Chef Elliott's experience at NGI as a student and how he hopes to shape the future of the school as a faculty member.
Tell us a bit about your background.
I’m originally from Detroit, and I love my hometown. My childhood in a Jewish suburb was unremarkable, except that my mother had built a beautiful horse farm in northern Michigan. I spent a considerable part of my childhood riding and training horses. I’m a graduate of Wayne State University in Detroit. Throughout college and after, I didn’t really know who or what I wanted to be. I had flirtations with grad school for English and law school, neither of which I finished; I even worked in management consulting as a writer (YUCK). My life didn’t get interesting until I discovered food and its power to heal.
When did you become interested in cooking and what drew you to attend Natural Gourmet Institute to pursue your culinary degree?
In the late ’80s my mom invited me to dinner at a health food restaurant in suburban Detroit, where she gifted me a couple of books about macrobiotics. The books were Recalled by Life and The Macrobiotic Way. I had never been to a health food restaurant, and the food was new and strange to me, though not unpleasant. I did wonder how my mother happened upon this new scene, but that mystery was solved when she later introduced me to a good looking younger “macro” guy named Ron. Ron wasn’t in the picture long, but I found the books fascinating. They introduced me to an idea I had never even thought about: that food had the power to heal and impact our energy field. It wasn’t long after that I started re-evaluating my life as a whole (management consulting: YUCK), which to that point seemed a bit unanchored. My Uncle Tommy asked me one day, “What would you do if you could do anything?” I told him I would go to this school in New York I’d read about – Natural Gourmet Institute. I remember he said, “Then get to work, no excuses. The next time I talk to you I want to know what you’ve done to make this happen.” And so I did. I attended and graduated NGI in 1995.
What was it like to attend NGI then?
NGI was a lot smaller, with only the two kitchens on the first floor. Although the technical basics were the same, the rest of the curriculum was more free-form. Many of the instructors lectured based on their backgrounds in the healing arts including macrobiotics, herbology, acupuncture, and Ayurveda. It was also a less disciplined time in terms of kitchen culture: everyone had to wear chef whites, but there was a lot of free expression around chef pants and even more around hats. And of course, the food was different; it was definitely more in the spirit of uncomplicated whole foods. Remember, there was no internet then. Today, the food at NGI today is much more market and trend driven, in addition to being healthy. What hasn’t changed is the warm, family-like atmosphere that a small school fosters.
Tell us about your experiences in the food industry post-culinary school.
Well, I wasn’t young when I went here, so by the time I graduated, I was 35. For about a year I worked in restaurants to build my skills, but I felt in the long run that only someone passionate about the pressures and crazy challenges of the kitchen would want to earn so little money. I transitioned to working as a personal and private chef, which was FAR more remunerative and normal with respect to working hours. I did that for several years successfully, and even started a catering company during that time. While I enjoyed that, I was invited to teach a public class here (knife skills) which opened the door to me teaching at my alma mater, NGI. I’ve taught here since 1999, with a two-year break where I opened a farm-to-table, health food restaurant in Sofia, Bulgaria. That was a remarkable adventure that I’m still nostalgic about.
You’ve done a lot of traveling over the years. How it has that shaped the way you approach cooking?
Like all the instructors here, I am inspired by the culinary culture I’ve experienced in my travels. Also, the diversity of New York brings that richness to your doorstep. The work we do at NGI translates well internationally because every culture has traditional whole foods in their history.
As a graduate of the Chef’s Training Program, what is it like to be part of the faculty today?
It’s so gratifying and rewarding to still be part of this work. I remember it being a fantasy of mine to one day work at NGI when I attended here. I never imagined it would happen to me, really, but where else do I belong? C’mon. I adore this nutty, feisty little school where everyone feels like family to me.
What goals do you have as a full-time chef instructor?
I just want the program to grow, adapt to the needs of the market and our students, get better and better, and remain true to our roots and values. I know nothing’s perfect, but I and my colleagues have worked and continue to work tirelessly to improve it. And though it sounds cliché, I want to keep learning from our students. They’re the smartest, best informed of any culinary school.
This post was originally published by the Natural Gourmet Institute. Learn more about today's Natural Gourmet Center.