A 2003 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park, Briana Pennell started her career as a high-end pastry chef at the prestigious Rebecca’s in Greenwich, as well as at Whole Foods. “The cuisine at Rebecca’s is very refined, and working there was a great experience,” she says, “but after a few years, I was ready for a change.”
Pennell’s fascination with healthy living began when she visited her uncle’s yoga retreat in Mallorca, Spain. “I cooked vegetarian food for the people on the retreats and it sparked something in me. I wanted to be able to cook healthy foods for people with dietary restrictions that would taste good and encourage health and healing.”
A curiosity about Ayruveda, the ancient Indian system of balancing the mind and body, led Pennell to The Raj, an Ayurvedic spa and wellness center in Iowa. Working with some of the top vaidyas (Ayurvedic chefs) in the U.S., she became a special diet chef for people undergoing purification treatments.
“I’ve always enjoyed cooking and baking. It’s pure pleasure for me to greet people with food,” she says. “And I’ll still bake and cook to the specifications of any client, but my focus now is on vegetarian cooking and baking for people with allergies and other dietary restrictions.” Whether a client is seeking assistance in treating an illness or simply wants to explore a healthier lifestyle, Pennell says her catering business can help.
Ayurveda, or the “science of life,” is based on the principle of living in harmony with nature and discovering one’s “dosha,” or mind and body type. Diet plays a key role. “Ayurvedic food not only helps balance the body and mind for overall health,” Pennell says, “it also improves digestion, energy levels, high blood pressure, depression, complexion and other issues.”
Pennell says Ayurvedic cooking, a style largely focused on South Indian cuisine, employs “gentle” foods that are easily digestible. Her sample menu includes dishes like lentil couscous, almond asparagus, black bean cakes with avocado chutney, and mixed veggies steamed in coconut milk. “But the choices are vast,” she says. As part of her catering business, she’ll cook or conduct cooking classes in clients’ homes or create menus for delivery.
With baking still her specialty, Pennell creates gluten-free, sugar-free and nut-free confections including birthday cakes and cookies. She says she can design nearly any kind of sweet or bread to fit any dietary restrictions. “I’m just getting started,” she says. “So I’m really open to working with clients from a variety of dietary angles. I’m basically a pastry chef turned health nut!”
When she’s not catering or baking specialty cakes for her own clients, Pennell can be found working at Norwalk’s Sugar and Olives. Lest you assume Ayurvedic cooking isn’t your style, Pennell swears she’s converted more than a few skeptics. “Even carnivores love my veggie burgers,” she insists.