Behind the Scenes: Friday Night Dinner at Natural Gourmet Institute
Friday Night Dinner (FND) at Natural Gourmet Institute was a weekly, three-course, plant-based dinner open to the public and the final project for students in the Chef’s Training Program. FND was added to the curriculum as an opportunity for students to showcase their newfound culinary technique, gain real-life experience and express their individual creativity.
For many, executing a multi-course meal for over 70 guests was seemingly impossible at the beginning of the program, but after extensive training, careful planning, and good old-fashioned hard work, the dinner is a success and students surface with the confidence and experience to enter the culinary industry.
We’ve interviewed our faculty and graduates to learn the ins and outs of planning a large-format dinner like FND.
What are the requirements for students’ FND dinner menu?
The students must scale several menu planning hurdles. First, the dinner must be balanced according to NGI criteria. That means primarily, the meal must be predominantly whole foods that are seasonal. There must be a whole grain and a sufficient amount of protein in the meal. The school's criteria also emphasize a meal with a variety of colors, textures, and cooking techniques. The dinner must be three courses and vegan. A small amount of dairy can be offered as an option in one course, but there must also be a vegan version offered.
How long do students have to plan their menu? They don't have long. The full-time students plan and test their menu over the course of 3-4 weeks. The part-time students have about twice the amount of time.
What goes into the recipe testing process and costing? For the recipe tests, a lot of brainstorming, negotiation, recipe research, tasting, discussing and refining recipes. For costing, students sit down with their recipes and the price lists from the school's purveyors. The students calculate the price for each ingredient, the total cost of the recipe, the cost per serving for each recipe and the cost of the entire meal.
What are students graded on? The students are graded on their planning and effort, their recipes and costing, their group dynamic, how accurately they ordered ingredients (too little v. too much), the presentation of the food and the taste of the food.
Are there practice rounds? The students do three rounds of practices: They first test the entree, then all three courses and then they do one final test to refine their recipes.
Chef’s Training Program Student Hilary Tjian:
What was the origin of your group’s menu concept? Our concept originated from the timing of our FND. It was going to be the first week in January so we wanted it to be seasonal and local but also something about fresh starts and new beginnings because of the new year, which is how we came up with the concept of New Year's Resolutions. From there, we thought it would be a fun idea to tie each course to a resolution basing it off of ingredients we used and/or the concept and composition of the dish.
How did your group manage the process of FND planning and execution? We did most of the creative brainstorming and conceptual development as a team, but tackled the logistics (aka doing the math, writing the recipes, editing and costing) individually.
What was the biggest challenge of planning your FND? Our group was an opinionated bunch, so we definitely had to compromise and work together in terms of making small decisions about cooking methods or ingredients, but everyone was open-minded and supportive of each other's ideas. It might seem small, but one of our biggest debates was plating — there are so many interesting ways to plate a dish when you're dealing with a number of components, and you just want it to look the best that it can!
What was the most memorable moment of the process? The most memorable moment was definitely the night of service. Everyone was excited and nervous and crossing their fingers that everything went smoothly. When we came out to greet the guests after the meal and they all looked so happy and impressed with the food, that was definitely the most memorable moment.
What advice would you give other students planning an FND? Don't procrastinate! The process is much more manageable if you tackle assignments as soon as you get them. I'd also recommend testing recipes out at home — it's really helpful to work out the kinks before you have to execute in the NGI kitchen.
From a guest’s perspective, what is the most compelling reason to attend an FND? The creativity! People make assumptions when they think of vegan food, but NGI teaches students to think differently about ingredients so you never really know what you're going to get at an FND. Moreover, the meals are always made with love and there is nothing like eating a meal that you know the chefs put so much love and effort into; it really makes a difference!