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A kitchen internship turned into a job at chef Jean-Georges Vongeri-chten’s Soho restaurant The Mercer Kitchen, followed by a stint at David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam Bar. But then Natural Gourmet Institute called, and eventually Olivia moved onto a job at her old school as daytime office manager, which led to catering and private gigs as a chef. Soon, she was creating menus for NGI’s wildly popular Friday night dinners, writing recipes and coaching students through their preparation.

Along the way, she developed a reputation as NGI’s umami queen, for her mastery of that fifth taste that provides a meaty, savory oomph to dishes. She realized that the most popular dishes at The Mercer Kitchen, like the shrimp salad or burger, were packed with meat-free 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-licious dishes have become Olivia’s trademark at NGI, yet in a way, they are just updated, healthier 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 connects her 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. mami, Olivia explains, comes from natural glutamates (flavor-enhancing amino acids) that can be produced, for example, by carmelizing rather than using raw onions, or by roasting vegetables for stock. While much of the umami found in our diets comes from high-protein foods like aged or cured meats and cheeses, 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 important to her because for some diners, artificially made glutamates (MSG, for example) can act as a neurotoxin, she says, leading to unwanted effects. What she likes about the naturally umami-rich dishes she creates is that a little bit goes a long way, a real bonus for people who are trying to push back from the table a little bit sooner.

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