Jenny Matthau, director at the National Gourmet Insitute in NYC believes that as a nation we are overfed and undernourished.

Not long ago the phrase “natural gourmet” seemed like an oxymoron. Gourmet cuisine meant French, buttery and rich, and natural was a nascent new-age movement embraced mostly by crunchy Californians. The Natural Gourmet Institute in New York, which celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in November, has been a pioneer in bridging the gap.


The school now has two branches, one for budding chefs and one for the public. “One is vocational, the other is avocational,” explains Jenny Mathau, who has been involved with the school as a teacher or administrator for 25 years. But the beliefs, she says, are the same—and they are making their way into the mainstream American diet, including our kids’ meals.

Travelingmom founder TMOM Orlando spoke with Jenny Matthau recently about the school’s philosophy and how to choose healthy foods for your family in the face of so many confusing choices:

TMOM: How did the school get started?

Jenny: The school was founded in 1977 by Dr. Annmarie Colbin who offered classes for the public out of her home kitchen on the Upper West Side. It was macrobiotic then and it’s become much broader and more eclectic.  

TMOM: How did you first become involved in the school?

Jenny: I came to the school as a student in the early 1980’s. I quickly started teaching and then administrating. I am mostly self-educated and I worked as a private chef. I traveled all over New York City and I cooked for all different kinds of people, from strict macrobiotics to carnivores—sometimes in the same family.

TMOM: What is your core message or belief? Is everything organic?   

Jenny: We advocate organic whenever possible. But the reality is that in New York City it’s too expensive to get everything organic. Instead, we try to buy high quality food like seasonal and local produce [CK]. The core message is that the bulk of your diet should be fresh, whole unprocessed foods. If we look at the way people ate 150 years ago and compare it to the way we eat nowadays, people eat almost all refined foods today. And the more processed the food is, the less nutritious it is. It has sort of become cliché, but as a nation, we are overfed and undernourished.

TMOM: How has the school changed over the years?

Jenny: Many of us have come to feel that we are not all that sustained on a very restricted diet. As a result very few of the people who work here are strict vegetarians—even though a lot of people think of this school as being the vegetarian school. It is an unfortunate misconception. The biggest problem with our food supply is food quality and processing—not that people are eating too much meat. Yes, Americans eat too much meat from unhealthy animals pumped full of growth hormone and antibiotics. They are also feeding the animals the wrong food so the composition of the meat is very different. So it totally affects the quality of the meat.  The kinds of animals that we used to eat were a lot leaner when we were hunting wild animals that ate wild plants.  

TMOM: I’m still not sure if a grain-fed chicken is better than another kind, or if a grain fed cow is better than a grass fed cow?

Jenny: We want free range and we also want organic, but if you’re buying from a large corporation and they’re saying it’s free range, this can be vague and mean that they have access to

the outdoors. How often that door is actually open is and how often they get outside? If the company has no commitment to the belief that going out and eating bugs and grubs is going to nutritionally enhance the quality of the meat, then who knows how much they are doing it.  I have a lot more trust in buying from the small, local farmer than buying from some faceless corporation.

TMOM: How about fish?

Jenny: The same is true with fish.  Wild fish is always preferable to farm raised. There is a very concrete nutritional difference, which is determined largely by what the animal is eating. When you order salmon in a restaurant, unless it specifically says wild salmon, it’s farm-raised salmon, which has the highest antibiotic residue of any animal and they often put dye in the pellets that they are fed. The fish is much lower in omega 3 fatty acids. 

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