Her tag line is “Real Food for Real People,” and that’s what Natalie Brigmond, known formally as The Food Optimist or more familiarly as Chef Natalie to her friends and clients, is passionate about. I sat down with her recently to talk to her about her work as a personal chef, caterer and lover of food and all things healthy (and super-tasty). Her eyes shine as she talks about things like getting her family’s meat and produce delivered from places like Riverview and Serenbe Farms because she’s committed to eating locally and as naturally as possible. Here’s what Chef Natalie has to say about personal chef work, cooking for families and her passion for bringing healthful, whole-food eating to as many of us as she can.
Q: I have to start with a question I’d ask any formally trained personal chef: what does someone like you eat for breakfast? It’s easy to imagine you always whipping up crêpes or fancy omelets with elaborate ingredients!
A: We do a quiche or an omelet once a week or so, with whatever veggies and herbs we have left from our box from Serenbe, since we get what they have fresh sent to us and get to create meals from there. That might be our dinner even! But most days for breakfast, I’ll have fried eggs and whole grain toast, or a [whole-fruit] smoothie.
Q: Speaking of family meals and cooking at home, tell me what it’s like with your boys [Natalie has two sons, Noah, 11, and Harper Paul, 4]. Do they have a wide range of taste preferences and enjoy a lot of foods? Do they cook, too?
A: They do cook. Both of them are good eaters and will eat most anything. Harper is funny, and will say things like “I’m not an herbivore, Mom! Where’s the meat in this quiche?!” but generally he’ll eat it anyway. And Noah has a few things he truly doesn’t like, such as raw tomatoes, so I don’t put those in things I make for them; but at his age, he’s got a good bit of ownership in the kitchen and will make a number of dishes, like chicken parmigiana, for example. I’ve encouraged them all along to try things as well as to eat really healthfully and to have a largely unprocessed diet, simply by putting that kind of food in front of them. I believe in that.
Q: Tell me about cooking for your clients as a personal chef. You do custom meals, largely for families and couples, and you also focus on providing meals for people with special diet and health needs. How did you get into that and why is providing a health-focused meal service important to you?
A: I grew up loving food, and the experience of cooking with my family is something I remember enjoying from very young – that immediate sense of being connected to each other and appreciating one another. I call all my clients my “families” and feel like I provide something important to them by listening to what they need and figuring out how to provide it. Many of them come to me with specific questions or concerns, or doctors’ instructions, so as my business has grown I’ve developed a system for gradually refining what I provide for each family to meet their individual needs. I believe that the healthier and more whole-food (organic, unprocessed) you eat, the better you feel and are. For health reasons, I need to eat a low-sodium diet, so I share an understanding with the people I’m cooking for of wanting to eat better, and how it makes you feel when you do improve your diet.
Q: What’s your process like of figuring out how to shop, cook and prepare food for your families? Do you typically have a lot of regular and repeat customers?
A: Most of my customers come to me knowing they want a personal chef. A lot of them have a certain amount of money to spend and may have decided, for example, that they need to lose weight and instead of two gym memberships for the husband and wife they are going to start walking or running and use the money to hire me to prepare them meals on a weekly basis. So, they’ll decide to go with one of my packages – say, five meals of four servings with the cost of groceries included. We’ll sit down and I’ll ask them a bunch of questions about their goals, and the kind of foods they like and don’t like, and all of that kind of stuff. As I cook for them and get to know them better, I can adjust my work to really suit their individual taste preferences. I accommodate dietary restrictions like food allergies – gluten and caisin are big ones – and taste preferences – for example, many people really dislike cilantro while others love it. Spice is a big point of sensitivity; one customer’s “little bit of flavor” is another’s Mt. Vesuvius! I tend to cook for my families on a repeat basis, and we build a rapport and trust. Most of the time, if people are making changes to their diets such as lowering fat content or going towards less processed, more whole foods, it happens gradually and our food relationship evolves over time.
Q: You also do cocktail and dinner parties and other events. What do you enjoy most about that side of your business?
A: I love to do parties! I like to say “There’s nothing wrong with perfect.” It makes me happy to see beautiful little displays of hors d’oeuvres, all lined up in tidy little rows – maybe it’s the French side of me! The aesthetic pleasure of cocktail parties is always a fun challenge, plus the atmosphere of those kinds of events is always enjoyable. Going into a client’s home is a measure of their trust, and bringing my staff with me where we bring all of the ingredients we will use for the dishes and will be there typically interacting to some degree with the client’s guests is a pleasure.
Q: Finally, why “The Food Optimist”? It’s not a name you hear for your typical chef or food service but it does seem to fit you!
A: I wanted to start from the beginning with a name that could grow with me, that was more than just my personal chef “brand.” Eventually I want to do packaged meals, and I plan to write a cookbook – I’ve even been thinking about a food cart now that the street food movement has finally gotten some real traction in Atlanta! The name can encompass everything I want to do with food and cooking, but it also clicked with me because it’s how I feel about food and everything good that it symbolizes. Eating well and enjoying food – and by extension, enjoying it and what it symbolizes with those you love and care for – is something optimistic and hopeful. The name and what I do are a way of sharing my view with others.