BEIRUT: A handful of women crowded around Chef Brisa Deneumostier as she sprinkled a heaping bowl of cocoa powder into mashed avocado.
A little agave syrup, a little honey, a healthy sum of hazelnuts, a minute in the food processor – “and now we have our healthy Nutella,” she said.
Avocado-based Nutella, sweet potato in the burgers – hold the fries – and citrus-cooked scallops: Deneumostier stuffed nutrient-rich surprises into every course of her annual cooking classes held at Eddé Sands’ Wellness Week.
Born in Peru, trained in New York City and now bringing her tips around the world, the seminomadic chef made it to Lebanon to delight hotel guests with cleansing foods, after the country’s deteriorated security situation nearly deterred the annual visit.
Each year, Deneumostier begins her classes with an unconventional course starter: 10 minutes of meditation.
“Imagine the whole of Lebanon breathing as one,” she said, sitting straight-backed, her eyes closed as around eight students joined her pre-cooking ritual accompanied by live harp music.
“One day I was cooking and I thought this is exactly like meditation,” she said.
“Usually we are thinking of the past or the future, but when you’re in the present, you feel harmony.”
As the women moved to the kitchen, raucous laughter interrupted the peace, as another warm-up exercise reddened the cheeks of Deneumostier’s adult students instructed to feel their cucumbers before slicing them.
“This is a cucumber and nothing else,” she reminded the ladies, a smirk on her face, as the women turned the waxy green vegetable over in their hands.
Deneumostier graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Manhattan and has spent the subsequent years on a journey to find innovative ingredients from around the world. From South America to Europe, Japan, Southeast Asia and North Africa, she has experimented with local cuisine and generously shares the fruits of her research at her annual workshops.
The spirit of relaxed camaraderie followed Deneumostier from one busy cutting board to the next, as the women chatted about everything from the merits of a mandolin vegetable cutter to the constant anxiety of building a house in Lebanon.
The conversation even turned to the young chef’s love life, as she coyly indulged the group of curious women.
Of Deneumostier’s many lessons, using foods packed with taste and color was a common theme in each of the three dishes. Ingredients like chili pepper, smashed garlic, roasted sweet potato, soy sauce, lemon and cilantro gave each dish layers of flavor.
In the first course, the creamy sweetness of green mango mixed with the smoky aroma of sesame oil lifted the flavor a simple cucumber and carrot salad to new heights.
“Last time it was so yummy, I said I wish I had put more,” said one of the students as she spooned a large serving of the mango salad onto plates.
Fresh ingredients – basil, mint, grated ginger, halved strawberries and vanilla beans – gave Deneumostier’s recipes a brightness that compensated for the lack of fattening ingredients and meat.
Deneumostier presented a version of bunless vegan burgers using sweet potato, a South American grain called quinoa, lentils, hummus and tons of fresh spices. The patties were rolled in sesame seeds, baked, plated on top of mashed roasted eggplant and drizzled with laban.
“The sesame seeds keep them together and add a little crunch,” she said.
The recipes and cooking philosophy eliminates the need for calorie counting or eating flavorless foods.
For example, the chef had no intention of replicating the flavor or texture of a hamburger in her vegan patties, instead relating it loosely to the falafel. Her invention of totally new dishes, rather than creating healthy versions of fattening ones, made the meal satisfying in the way dietetic foods are often not.
The chef said her love of food began at home in Lima: “I was raised in a family where cooking was a feast.”
At around the age of 16, the chef became interested in Buddhism, yoga and meditation and fused this love of Eastern spiritual practices with the culinary arts, she said.
As the women dipped into the avocado Nutella topped with fresh strawberries, the class finished with moans of delight. Thanking the chef under her breath for the modest dessert serving, one student whispered, “because I could eat a whole bowl of this.”