ICE Alumni Team Up to Bring International Flavors to the Littlest Gourmands
It’s a combination of exposure to nutritious foods and food variety that inspired ICE alumna Natasha Brunetti to pursue a job with Smart Moms Organics, a business created by fellow ICE alumna Chef Alice Zheng.
"Kids menus are all made up of pizza and mac and cheese, and, if you’re lucky, a quesadilla, but I open my kids’ bento box [from Smart Moms Organics] and it has a very different feel. It has pesto, it has fruit, it has a vegetable frittata — everything has nutritional density," Natasha says.
Like many ICE students, Natasha spent over two decades in a career that was a practical choice, but didn’t hold a candle to the passion she felt for healing through nutrition, especially through the principles of Ayurveda she learned from her grandmother.
"I always had a dream to be a chef, more a healer, actually," she says. "I had originally applied to medical school and then ended up in finance [but] I had reversed my own ailments and helped family and friends do the same. All through my career in finance [when I talked about nutrition and healing] people would make comments saying 'wow, you’re really passionate about this’ and ‘when you talk about this, your face lights up.'"
After what she calls a "good run" of 20 years in finance, Natasha followed this passion right to ICE’s Health-Supportive Culinary Arts (now Plant-Based Culinary Arts) program. This timing happened to coincide with two major life moments: the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and pregnancy with her first child.
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After a brief pause in lessons in the spring of 2020, Natasha completed her program, finishing with an externship at Divya’s Kitchen, a well-known plant-based eatery in New York, which included the opportunity to help chef-owner Divya Alter in the production of her cookbook.
With a new baby in tow, Natasha was looking for a way to jump back into the world of food that fit her limited time availability. That’s where the ICE Career Services team came in.
The timing was right. Fellow ICE graduate Chef Alice Zheng, who graduated with diplomas in Culinary Arts and Restaurant & Culinary Management, had recently shared a job opening for a social media and publics relations role at Smart Moms Organics with Career Services.
It was a perfect fit. Not only are both women ICE graduates — they're both moms of young children who left the corporate world to follow a passion for food instilled in them by their grandmothers.
Chef Alice, co-founder and head chef of the company, is following in her grandmother’s footsteps. An entrepreneur in her own right, her nainai (a Chinese nickname for grandmother) had started a dim sum booth in her native China that she eventually grew into a successful restaurant and catering company, well before women were seen as capable business professionals.
With the inspiration of her grandmother ever-present, Chef Alice co-founded Smart Mom Organics with a straightforward mission.
“Smart Moms Organics was born to help support parents, to allow families to spend more quality time together and to ensure children are getting the right nutrition for their development age while also developing a global palate and good eating habits," she says.
It’s this broad-minded thinking that so inspires Natasha.
"I love working for [Smart Mom Organics] because they’re thinking of multiple things in whatever they do," she says. "Whether it be going to the farmers' market every week to make sure that they understand where the food is coming from, but also that it’s seasonal, [which ensures] the nutritional density is high, or taking allergens into consideration, or thinking through the physical accessibility by making it kid-size, thinking about teething, thinking about the kind of variety of foods — it is all considered."
While these are valuable guiding principles, Natasha credits Chef Alice’s formal ICE training with providing the culinary skills to execute her vision, specifically citing the company's ever-popular "teething melts" which utilize molecular gastronomy techniques.
"It's how you take pure ingredients like egg whites, baby formula and strawberries, and make them stick together," Natasha says. "Where did [Chef Alice] even come up with that? That theory is from [her training at] ICE."
Currently serving over 300 families across the country, Smart Mom Organics is poised for even further growth, looking beyond their current direct-to-consumer model to get their products in stores from California to Vancouver to give parents the option for a "healthy snack that is kid-sized, not those giant muffins."
As an alumna in a relatively non-traditional food job, what advice does Natasha have for people considering making the leap to enroll in culinary school if they’re not sure what they want to do after graduating?
"I read all the alumni coverage from the school and I think we’re a good example of a slightly different model," she says. "Not everyone is going to go and work in a restaurant. I think it's a strong message, because I think sometimes you can be passionate about culinary school, but you come out and you're like, 'What do I do with this?' You can get stuck on the 'I should be in a restaurant' idea, and many people do do that, but I know that other people from my class have gone into things like healthcare, or catering or they're working in classrooms, and [Chef Alice and I] juxtapose because she works in the kitchen, which I don't have the time for right now because my baby is so young, so I work from home for her; it's two different spins on what you can do. She has children and I have children, and it's kind of like, you can still do all of this.”