Big Brain Award Winner Natalie Morris Makes Art of Gastronomic Proportions

Natalie Morris was a Slow Foodie by pure instinct.

During culinary school at the Art Institute, the budding chef hadn't heard about the global movement to eat seasonal, local food, but she immediately recognized a key issue:

"Why do we have to keep ordering food from one big company? It's not even in season," she recalls.

Then, two years ago, she got a position as a prep cook at Quiessence, where executive chef Greg LaPrad taught her about Slow Food. Morris went on to work for Arcadia Farms, Mosaic, Edible Phoenix magazine, and Community Food Connections, the nonprofit behind the Phoenix Public Market.

All that would've been enough of a pedigree to make her a player among Valley supporters of sustainable food, but Morris decided to research how she could take her career to the next level.

The answer came in the discovery of a one-year program at Italy's University of Gastronomic Sciences (a school affiliated with Slow Food International), where she's now one of 50 candidates enrolled in the master's program for food culture and communications. Local restaurants rallied to raise money to help Morris fund her trip, and when New Times about the effort, we thought Morris was a perfect fit for our inaugural Big Brain Awards. Since we didn't have a culinary category, we made it this year's wild card.

Although Morris now spends her weekdays taking a 40-minute trek to and from the city of Parma to attend class in the small village of Colorno, she says this is the only thing that's routine about her new life abroad.

"I'm not yet adjusted to Prosecco in the morning or a caffe at night, nor have I learned anywhere near enough Italiano to respond politely when asked if I want these things," Morris says.

The curriculum is pure culinary fantasy — and did we mention that the school is located in the former castle of Napoleon's second wife? There are courses on writing, history, photography, and economics, all pertaining to food; educational trips to different regions of Italy, as well as elsewhere in Europe; and food tastings galore.

"We are consistently reminded by the Italians, both at school and not, how to taste food. Chocolate, cured meat, honey, cheese and beer have been our test subjects as of late," Morris tells us. "Fun, yes, but we are always brought back to reality with 10 page papers on the logistics of food democracy in our world today, with our only resource being an Italian library."

She'll round out her year with a customized three-month internship. Of course, that will just be the beginning for Morris.

"I'm currently thinking I'd like to intern for Slow Food Presidium, establish farmers markets throughout this side of the world or even aid in developing food policies. I have fallen in love with my food anthropology class and consider this as a possibility for beyond life in Italy."

Don't be surprise to hear her name a lot more often — as soon as she's back in Phoenix.