We defy you to identify the ingredients in one of Olivia Roszkowski's recipes. Using what amounts to culinary alchemy, Olivia converst cauliflower into ice cream and almonds into Parmesan cheese. And that's just for starters.
Olivia is our go-to gal for healthful recipes that satisfy. She's the New York City-based chef-instructor and former Columbia University neuroscience major whose job at Natural Gourmet Institute involves dreaming up crazy-delicious vegan or vegetable-centric dishes.
Vegetables weren’t always Olivia’s go-to food category, though. Growing up in the mostly Polish (and now-hipster heavy) neighborhood of Greenpoint, Brooklyn as the daughter of a butcher, “I didn’t like vegetables that much,” the angelic-looking chef recalls. “I grew up on really rich flavors, Polish food that was a little bit Americanized,” like crisp potato latkes with homemade applesauce and sour cream, or roast chicken with chanterelle gravy.
Yearly summer visits to a sustainable farm in the Polish countryside, where her relatives grew all their food, animals and animal feed was lost on her, though. “When you’re seven you don’t appreciate those things,” she says. “I would bring ketchup from home!”
At Columbia cooking was “just for fun,” she recalls. She helped lead the school’s culinary society and “procrastinated from studying by cooking for friends on my floor.” Her goal was to become a doctor, so she pursued four years of pre-med courses, completing grueling internships including one at Bellevue Hospital’s emergency ward. Later, she would point to these early experiences to explain her supernatural cool under fire in the kitchen: “You can’t freak out when somebody comes in with a gunshot wound," she says.
Olivia graduated in 2007, a littled “burned-out” from her pre-med studies, and started classes at Brooklyn College with the thought of becoming a registered dietician. She also enrolled at NGI’s chef training program for fun. It was there—where fresh, whole and organic foods are emphasized and 80 percent of the curriculum is plant-based—that she found her life’s true path, and learned to cook and love vegetables. “The more I saw the connection between food and health, and the enjoyment it brought,” she says, “the harder it got to stay away from cooking.”
A kitchen internship turned into a job at chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s Soho restaurant Mercer Kitchen, followed by a stint at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam Bar. But the Natural Gourmet Institute called, and eventually Olivia moved into a job at her old school as daytime office manager, which led to catering and private cheffing gigs. Soon, she was creating menus for the Friday night dinners, learning the skill of writing recipes and coaching students through their preparation. She got so good at it that last year, Olivia headed 20 percent of NGI’s Friday dinners.
Along the way, she developed a reputation as NGI’s umami queen, for her mastery of that “sixth taste” that provides a meaty, savory punch to dishes. She realized that the most popular dishes at Mercer Kitchen, like the shrimp salad or burger, were packed with umami flavors like mushrooms, tomatoes and truffles. Then Olivia twigged to something else: “Everything I like to make has umami!” So she began delving into the science of this potent, food-enhancing element in way, she says with satisfaction, “that comes full-circle with my neuroscience background.”
Umami, Olivia learned, “comes from natural glutamates (amino acids that enhance flavor) that can be produced, for example, by carmelizing rather than using raw onions, or by roasting vegetables for stock rather than using them raw.” While much of the umami found in our diets comes from high-protein foods like aged or cured meats and cheese, flexitarian Olivia’s focus is on creating plant-based umami using ingredients like roasted mushrooms, or techniques like pickling, smoking, or lacto-fermentation (think Korean kimchi).
Keeping the umami natural is also important to her because for some diners, artificially made glutamates (MSG, for example) “can act as a neurotoxin,” she says, leading to headaches or other unwanted effects. What she likes about the naturally umami-rich, plant-based dishes she creates is that a little bit goes a long way: “They provide satiety by letting you indulge in decadent components, so you can’t eat a lot.”
Umami-licious dishes have become Olivia’s trademark at NGI, yet in a way, they’re just newer versions of cherished foods lodged deep within her memory. When she ticks off the out-there dishes she’s created at NGI, she sees a thread that takes her straight back to the Polish Greenpoint of her childhood. “It goes back to the food I was raised on,” she says, “decadent and rich.” And to us, her modern dishes combine the best of all worlds. "They provide satiety by letting you indulge in decadent components," she says. "So you can't eat a lot."