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Culinary Grad Pens Book on Cooking with Vanilla

By: Rachel Handel Filed under: Culinary

July 7, 2015

“I was so inspired by my Tongan adventure that a portion of the proceeds from this book will be donated to The Heilala Vanilla Foundation”

Natasha MacAller knew she’d found a great opportunity. A family in New Zealand asked if she’d like to write a cookbook after visiting their vanilla plantation located in the Kingdom of Tonga. Natasha jumped at the chance. The book “Vanilla Table” was born.

Natasha, a former professional dancer who is now a pastry chef by trade, says that while vanilla is often used to describe something “ordinary,” it’s anything but plain. Her passion for vanilla began as a child when, before ballet class, her mom would spritz her with a vanilla perfume. It continued as she watched her mother bake vanilla infused desserts. Memories of baking with both her mom and her Aunt Agnes led to the development of favorite desserts including Vanilla Sugar Strawberry Shortcakes.

From Dancing to Culinary Arts
Natasha’s path to culinary arts isn’t typical. Before she became a pastry chef, she was a professional dancer—putting to good work the lessons that inspired her love of the vanilla scent. She performed in New York City’s Joffrey Ballet and the Boston Ballet, in roles from “Swan Lake” to “The Phantom of the Opera.”

“The mature dancer is a rarity. However, the craft of cooking doesn’t require perfect turnout, banana-arched feet, and great leg extensions. All it requires is hard work and a passion to learn,” she says.

When she wasn’t dancing, Natasha began to cater parties. Her success led her back to school at The Art Institute of Colorado, where she earned a degree in culinary in 1996.

After school, she worked as a personal assistant to food and travel journalist Janice Wald Henderson. She fact checked, answered phones, and helped Henderson to coordinate “Cuisines of the Sun,” which Natasha describes as one of the premier culinary events in the world. Her culinary path then took her to Hawaii where she assisted Chef Trey Foshee.

A Cookbook Comes to Life

This journey led her to the First International Vanilla Food & Wine event at New Zealand’s Heilala plantation in the Kingdom of Tonga. There, she and Chef Peter Gordon created, cooked, and served an array of vanilla dishes over three days.

“Heilala’s vanilla plantation began as an aid project and within a few years has grown into an award-winning, organic, fair trade family-run business that gives back to the village in jobs and resources. I was captivated, not only by all things vanilla, but by the generous and kind community on this tiny pristine Pacific island of Vava’u. It was here that Vanilla Table began to take shape. I was so inspired by my Tongan adventure that a portion of the proceeds from this book will be donated to The Heilala Vanilla Foundation,” she says.

Favorite Dishes
Today, Natasha is enjoying the success of her sweet culinary endeavors. She says it’s difficult to choose a favorite dish, but lists heirloom tomato soup—“so delicious, easy to prepare, and surprisingly divine” and chocolate chip cookies topped with vanilla sea salt as top picks. 

She recently returned to The Art Institute of Colorado, where she’d graduated at the top of her class in 1996, to perform a cooking demonstration. “It was far more than fun to return to [the school], a trip down memory lane. [I saw] where I changed gears and re-invented myself. [And I saw] friends, colleagues, and instructors from my time learning there that brought back great memories.”

She adds that she chose the school because she loved Colorado. “I arrived with a suitcase in my little red car from California, didn’t know a soul, and left with a newfound career and friends for life!”

Natasha recommends that aspiring culinary artists take every opportunity to become apprentices and to volunteer at every food and wine event. “You will learn so much about chefs and yourself and may even get a job interview on the spot. Follow your passion, love what you do no matter how little it pays at the start and network, observe and don’t be afraid to jump in and do the hard work; it will pay off.”

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