An Ital diet is even more vegan than vegan.
Italian cuisine means no salt and no chemically modified additives. Plant-based innovations like Beyond Meat, Impossible Burger and Silk Almond Milk have no place in an Ital cuisine that’s all about serving natural, pure and clean food.
Developed by Rastafarians in the 1940s to eliminate processed foods and promote a healthier lifestyle, Ital food is beginning to gain traction as the vegan cousin of Jamaican cuisine. And here on Long Island, Hempstead-based chef Troy Levy is leading the way with his private chef and catering business, Chef Troy’s Table.
“In the 1970s, the Rastas in Jamaica were outcasts, so they had to go back to the mountains,” said Levy, 40, who grew up in Jamaica and was introduced to Ital cuisine by his Rastafarian uncles. “They started cooking everything naturally and they had to find other ways to prepare meals. They had to do everything from scratch.”
Rastafarians place a high value on “unity” and spiritual connection with the earth. This goes hand in hand with maintaining a purely natural diet.
Levy said Ital goes beyond the kitchen – that it’s a whole lifestyle that emphasizes food as medicine.
Chef Troy’s Ital table is a private catering company that gives others the opportunity to experience and pursue a sustainable lifestyle.
Armed with his vast knowledge of flavors and tastes, Chef Troy fuses French, Japanese and Mexican influences to create fully plant-based, nutritious meals for customers daily or for special occasions, from small celebrations to large gatherings of up to 800 guests or more cultivate .
He also offers cooking classes for adults and children, live cooking demonstrations, restaurant consultations and help with menu development.
Levy, who said he’s on the hunt for a physical store on Long Island, even offers an option for those who aren’t quite ready to try strict Italian cuisine: a menu that features organic produce with a free-range emphasis and grazing uses meat.
The chef published an empty recipe book, “My Ital/Vegan recipe book‘, which encourages archiving one’s own Ital recipes on the blank pages of the book. His first Ital cookbook is due out this summer, Levy said.
Levy said his overall life purpose these days is to create a movement that promotes healing through food.
“I want to make sure people are aware that our food should be our medicine and our medicine should be our food,” Levy said. “What we put into our bodies is of great importance to how our bodies work – if I could leave anything on this earth, it would be for people to understand.”
A passion for cooking that started at the age of 8
Chef Troy Levy’s passion for cooking began when he was 8 years old and was learning about the vitality of food from his mother in her kitchen in Jamaica. He said the flu was spreading in the local community at the time, and when his mother fell ill, she hired him to cook the family’s traditional Sunday lunch.
“She walked me through, I brought her the spoon and asked, ‘Is that enough seasoning?’ and put it in the pot,” he recalled.
Levy finished cooking the meal and when his neighbor Julia stopped by to try it she was completely incredulous that he had managed it.
“It was so good,” Levy said.
This boosted his confidence and before long he was hired to temporarily run his stepfather’s cookshop when he contracted the flu.
“It was a huge task for me,” Levy said. “Seasoning the meat, making oxtail, rice, peas and stuff like that was crazy. But I made it, and a lot of people still didn’t believe I cooked it.”
Some of his friends at the time saw cooking as a “girl thing,” Levy recalled, while others named him their group’s chef, and he proudly wore the title.
One particular cooking technique that interested Levy was steaming fish, which he said is prepared differently in each of Jamaica’s 14 “parishes” — or counties.
At 18, Levy had the opportunity to come to the United States. He met his father for the first time and learned that he owned a bar and lounge in Queens.
“I said I have to find something to do that I’m passionate about,” Levy said. “I realized my dad was a really good cook, so I started steaming fish and selling it, and I started making so much money. People would come from Connecticut, Poughkeepsie, Albany, Long Island, everywhere just to get my steamed fish.”
This was just the beginning of his extensive culinary career.
Learn the profession in the USA
When Levy first ventured into the world of work, he said he really couldn’t say exactly what he wanted to do with his career.
He briefly lived in Florida and worked at a small Jamaican restaurant. Then, after moving back to New York City four years later, he decided it was time to post his resume there.
Soon his phone started exploding, he said.
After his applications were accepted, he said he would have to pass a series of exams and test his skills in the restaurants before being hired.
Things didn’t go as he had hoped for Levy.
“I’ve tried at every restaurant and failed miserably,” he said. “I knew nothing about good food, I know how to cook, I know taste, but I didn’t go to cooking school or anything.”
One of the tries was for a Spanish tapas restaurant called Casa Pomona in New York City, where he met Filipino chef Don Flores, who said that although Levy struggled, he immediately saw that spark in him.
“He asked a lot of questions, he was very curious about a lot of things,” Flores said of Levy’s time in his kitchen. “I can feel the passion, I can feel everything about what he wants to achieve in life and that to me is a mark of good mentorship.”
Flores considered Levy “the Jamaican brother he never had,” and promised that if Levy was willing to learn, he would take him under his wing and teach him the ropes.
Levy said he learned everything from Flores – including cutting techniques, Spanish cooking methods and how to use certain kitchen appliances.
Flores expressed how much fun it was tutoring Levy during his time at Casa Pomona and talked about how they keep in touch to this day.
“I told him you will go far, all you have to do is focus on what you want to do in life, what you love and you will be amazing. And he did,” Flores said. “He’s a very talented guy … I’m proud of him because he really got to his roots.”
Levy continued to work, gleaning knowledge from other notable New York establishments along the way, such as Jamaican fine-dining restaurants Milk River and Suede RestaurantBB King’s in Times Square and the Highline Ballroom in Chelsea.
He has also appeared on the Food Network’s hit show Cooks vs. Cons (Season 4), Good Day New York on Fox 5 and Foodie Down Bronx TV. For the past four years he has been a celebrity demo chef at the Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival in New York and Florida.
“I really consider myself blessed because to get all this knowledge and information I worked in a restaurant where people graduated from cooking schools and I teach them something they didn’t even know,” said Levy.
Now that he’s fully transitioned to Ital cuisine, Levy said he strives to showcase cuisine in the most authentic and organic way, and to honor the Rastafarians, whom he recognizes as the “pioneers” of Ital.
“When I stopped cooking meat, my cooking friends said, ‘You’re going to be broke,'” he said. “I’m not doing this for money, I really want people to understand my culture from my point of view.”
Above: Chef Troy Levy. (All photos courtesy of Troy Levy.)