Q&A with NGI Alum Nina Curtis
Nina hopes to be a leader for women who are curating the future of food.
Nina Curtis is a graduate of the Chef's Training Program at Natural Gourmet Institute. A chef with a driven personality, she has become a powerful voice for females in the culinary world. In honor of Women's History Month, we spoke to Nina about her efforts as incoming president of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs and the sold-out vegan dinner she is leading at the James Beard House in celebration of International Women's Day on March 8.
Where did your food journey begin?
It all began in the kitchen with my mom when I was eight years old. I am the eldest of four, so I needed to help out. My dad is a chef and I assisted him in his catering work. All of this really set my culinary foundation, and even though I went away from it for a while, I was drawn back in!
What made you transition to a plant-based lifestyle?
I competed in natural body building, Venice Beach style, for ten years. During that time my body stopped wanting animal protein and it was then that I learned just how much protein was available in a plant-based diet! I felt and looked better, my stamina increased, and my performance improved. I have now been vegan/plant-based for 18 years and there is no turning back.
You are incoming president of WCR Women Chefs & Restaurateurs and a Culinary Wellness Consultant. What advice do you have for women entering the culinary industry?
It’s a dynamic time to be in the culinary industry! The Future is Women and we are curating the future of food! I think that it is important for women to know what they want in the industry. There are many different areas to master but first you must obtain a solid culinary foundation and work in a professional kitchen for two years if possible, to build your skillset and know your products. Then work on your area of specialty, be it private chef, food stylist, food writer/blogger, etc. Be so good that they can’t ignore you!
How did your experience in the Chef’s Training Program at NGI prepare you to be where you are today?
I came into the Chef’s Training Program at NGI with some very specific goals. I did my research and I knew that NGI would give me a platform to launch from – and it did. The instructors are amazing and all have years of professional culinary experience which they bring to the classroom. The instruction and real life learning that each of my instructors provided me with were priceless. I also think that what you put into it is what you will get out of the program. I gave it my all! I was commuting back and forth from Los Angeles and New York during my training program as I had to continue to run my business in LA. I lost sleep but I ate well. I studied and I applied myself. I stayed close to the instructors and watched and listened. I did my volunteer work with passion. I was able to build a strong platform from my NGI training which is showing a huge return on my investment (ROI).
In addition to attending the Chef’s Training Program, you also have your Master's from Pepperdine University and trained at Living Light Culinary Institute and Trinity School of Natural Health. How did you juggle your time when taking these programs and working your way up the ladder in the culinary industry?
I definitely have multi-tasking skills! I had a plan and I stuck to it. If I take something on I am committed to it 150 percent. I love what I do, so it makes it easy to do it well. Don’t get me wrong: it takes effort and hard work, but I am not afraid of working hard and smart. I show up, I speak up, and I know what I want! People feel good with you when you feel good with yourself.
Based on all your learning experiences, what stood out in your experience at NGI?
I really enjoyed the bond that was built with my fellow classmates and instructors. I am still in touch with most of my classmate, who are really my family. We worked together, we supported each other, and that continues today. I can reach out to any of my instructors and they will get back to me immediately. I carry my NGI culinary experience in my pocket. Often when at work, I will have a situation and think, what would Chef Rich or Chef Barbara do? I smile and the answer comes!
What is the biggest hurdle female chefs and entrepreneurs are facing today?
I think that there are a few hurdles but a couple of the biggest ones include having the resources that we need to advance. Traditional financial institutions do not typically get behind our projects so we have to be creative with our resources, how we raise capital for business ventures, and ways of crowd funding. Female chefs are not heard or seen enough! We have to learn to build strong brand equity and get our product (which might be us, not just a tangible product) on the ‘shelf’ to be seen and experienced. As Incoming President of WCR Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, I am excited about the work that the organization is doing to advance, support, and give women chefs the resources, tools, mentoring, scholarships, and network to build a solid platform to launch from.
What were the lessons/takeaways from these challenging experiences?
The lessons are always about what did we learn, how do we improve and what are the next critical steps that we need to make? When we see more successful women chefs, restaurateurs, mixologist, food stylist and such in the industry, we will see more and more growth and more women will be attracted to the industry. It’s a tough industry with many rewards.
What is your advice in making culinary experiences/cooking seem more accessible?
We need more female images in the media who hold executive chef positions, female restaurateurs, women such as Deborah Brenner, owner and founder of Women of the Vine & Spirits, who is making sure that women mixologists, wine makers, and women at large spirits companies have a voice. The more young women see successful culinary, beverage and hospitality women leading the charge the better role models and mentors they will have to look to. We need to recognize that there are many areas in the culinary field that are available to us, more than just the commercial kitchen (once you obtain a solid foundation that the commercial kitchen can provide). It is an exciting time to be in the culinary industry, but we must have a plan, work our plan, edit our plan (as necessary), and measure our plan…and then know our next steps.
You are leading a five-course vegan seated dinner at James Beard Foundation on International Women’s Day with five other boss-lady chefs (including fellow NGI alum Cara Mangini!). What has been the best part of planning with these ladies?
I am so excited about the collaboration between WCR Women Chefs & Restaurateurs and the James Beard Foundation dinner! This is WCR’s third dinner at the James Beard House and we are presenting the second vegan dinner in the history of the JBF, as I understand from the JBF team. We are truly making ”Herstory”, and the five women that I have brought together to cook with me are truly global boss-lady chefs! I think that the best part of the planning has been working together remotely but feeling like with have all been physically together over the past several months of developing our concept and menu. Think about it: I am sending emails all over the world, in all different time zones, with women who I have yet to meet in person and we are still getting the job done! This is what women do. This is truly inspiring to me! I cannot wait to meet each of them in person, I feel like I have known them all for years. The support and camaraderie between us has been so liberating.
What are three go-to ingredients or favorite simple dishes to prepare for yourself?
My favorite simple dishes are 1. Chopped lacinato kale salad with mashed avocado, lemon juice, sea salt, and harissa dressing with chopped Roma tomatoes, Kalamata olives and toasted pumpkin seeds. 2. Blended creamy vegetable soup which is quick and easy when I am on the run. 3. "Toona" salad, made with sunflower seeds and leafy greens (deconstructed, like the tuna my mom use to make for me when I was a kid, minus the Wonder Bread!).
In your role with WCR Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, how do you hope to represent the powerful voice of females in the culinary world?
WCR Women Chefs & Restaurateurs is celebrating its 25-year anniversary in 2018 and I can only imagine the original thoughts, concepts, and ideas that the eight pioneering women had when they established the organization. I am grateful that I have been able to stand on their shoulders and look to the horizon. I look forward to continuing in their footsteps to keep the organization relevant and progressive, to expand our diversity and inclusion, and to be the source for women in culinary, beverage, and hospitality industries.
CREAMY VEGGIE REJUVENATION SOUP
- 1 cup filtered water
- 1/2 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
- 1 cup chopped spinach
- 1 cup arugula
- 1 snallb cucumber, peeled and chopped
- 1/4 cup fresh parsley
- 1 tablespoon light miso (not raw)
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic, crushed (1 clove)
- 1/4 teaspoon fresh ginger
- 1/2 avocado, peeled and pitted
- Combine the filtered water, orange juice, spinach arugula, cucumber, parsley, miso, lemon juice, garlic and ginger. Blend the mixture until smooth.
- Add the avocado and blend just until smooth, about 30 seconds. Don't over blend.
- Eat at room temperature or just slightly warm. Enjoy!
This story was originally published by the Natural Gourmet Institute. Learn more about today's Natural Gourmet Center at the Institute of Culinary Education.