What do you do if you grow up on a farm; learn good Italian cooking from your mother, and then go to school for a business degree?
If you're Anthony Fassio, you wind up at an institution that emphasizes food quality and technique, and the health aspects of a good diet.
As CEO of the Natural Gourmet Institute (NGI), which calls itself a health-supportive culinary education organization, Fassio is offering classes to everyone from clinical dieticians and nurses to those studying the health of the food chain.
“My background is in the business and culinary side of the food industry,” says Fassio. “I've worked throughout the supply chain.”
Fassio says he's seen food from its very beginning to its preparation, spending his early life on his family's egg farm in Salt Lake City, then getting his undergraduate degree at UMass Amherst in operations management.
“I was looking for big corporate America, big production,” recalls Fassio. “I went to work for Frito-Lay and Pepsi, but then went back to the farm, helped them focus and 're-vision' the company and move from conventional to organic egg production. I got my MBA from Westminster College in operations management and strategy, and then I started rethinking everything. I saw I had educational experience everywhere but up until where people get the food.”
Growing up in an Italian family, Fassio said everyone loved to cook. “I thought, I'll go to culinary school. Technique was my foundation. I never wanted to become an executive chef. French cuisine is the foundation of the culinary world we know today, so I went to the Cordon Bleu in Paris for nine months, came back to the U.S. and started to work in the restaurant industry in New York City.”
Fassio went to work as a line cook at a Manhattan restaurant. “That experience for me was more about validating my degree, getting real-world experience, looking for a way to pull in my culinary degree with my business background,” he says. His next job was at a non-profit. “I was its first director of their food entrepreneur incubator. We'd bring in an entrepreneur and give them culinary advice and support to help them start a business.”
Fassio says he found that it's one thing to know, but entirely another to teach. “I learned about myself, and the business process, about growing an idea into a successful business.”
One of the main things he learned, he says, is, “You have to have a well-executed product. Most of the entrepreneurs I worked with were either caterers or developing a packaged product. In the beginning, many had a lot of passion, and a particular product – gluten-free, vegan. But if the product wasn't good, people wouldn't come back again and again. So, to build a base of repeat customers and also customers that start to talk about your product, it has to be #1. You know the show, American Idol? It's like that. It's clear some of the contestants thought they were good singers because their moms told them so. Some people would come to our program and say, I have the best brownies or cupcakes or Sudanese stew, and it was because their mothers told them it was good.”
Initially, Fassio thought his role would be about the business end of things, financial systems and accounting and that sort of thing. “Going in, I just assumed there would be some recipe development, making a good product but also a good recipe, and then developing it to make it a consistent product. But that took a lot more focus than I anticipated.”
Fassio soon after went to work for the Union Square Hospitality Group (USHG), where he did ingredient- sourcing and food safety. Then he became chairman of the board of a non-profit organization that helps to promote biodiversity and local sourcing. “I was at USHG at the same time, looking for a way to pull everything concisely together,” he says.
Though he wasn't actively looking, he had become aware of NGI. From his board work at the non-profit, he had engaged with the organization's core mission because it was in line with flow food. “I was talking about what they were doing and serendipitously, a friend said they were looking for a new CEO. I said, I'll throw my hat in the ring and the rest is history,” says Fassio.
He's now been at NGI since last July.
“We started to look at our vision and we redefined it altogether. One of our main programs is our licensed, accredited culinary degree program. We've gone back to the beginning and are revamping our curriculum altogether. We're restructuring the flow with our main components: building on technique but focused more on recipes, and building in technique recipes using seasonal ingredients. It's one of our core philosophies, to procure more ingredients in a local manner. We do a lot of sourcing from farms within 150 miles of New York City.
We get our eggs from Millport Dairy, and we have a direct relationship with our poultry producer, Cascun Farms, an hour and a half outside New York City. We buy ingredients either directly from the farmer or the Union Square farmer's market or use Farmer's Web, an online aggregator of farms, which allows us to go online, see what's available, what's being harvested, and create an order that gets delivered all in one order from multiple farms.”
What kind of students does the institute look for? “Our program is interdisciplinary with culinary technique and nutrition. We have registered dieticians on staff who write the clinical components of our classes,” Fassio says. “Students learn culinary techniques and clinical nutrition. We also teach the health of the individual, how the food you eat has an impact on your health. We talk about the health of the food chain, how ingredients are grown or raised and how that helps the ecology of the farm. The nutrient component, how what we eat affects our health, brings us students from the clinical world – registered dieticians, nurses, pharmacists, so they can take their clinical training and translate it to food.”
Going forward? The healthcare industry, from an institutional consulting perspective. “We do work with hospitals and schools in helping them to change their food programs, because their level of quality is very poor. We have to work within certain constraints – who we can order from, what we can order – but that doesn't mean you can't order better. If rice is on the menu, let's change out white rice with brown rice. If you can't buy from the farmer down the street, that's ok, but it's what we all aspire to, in the end.”
Finally, Fassio says, the school is teaching people to know what types of food to source out and how to make sure they're sourcing in a way that has source-integrity. “There's a lot of 'green-washing,' out there. Products say they're natural or sustainable but what does that really mean? The whole verification of the supply chain has to be a lot more transparent. The level of sophistication of consumers is really increasing. They say, it's got to at least tell me what's in there and I, as a consumer, will make the decision. We're helping with all of that.”