An Ital diet is even more vegan than vegan.
Ital cuisine means no salt and no chemically modified additives. Plant-based innovations the likes of Beyond Meat, Impossible Burger and Silk almond milk have no place in an Ital kitchen that’s all about serving natural, pure and clean food.
Developed by Rastafarians in the 1940s to eliminate processed foods and enhance a healthier lifestyle, Ital eating is beginning to take a foothold as Jamaican food’s vegan cousin. And here on Long Island, Hempstead-based chef Troy Levy is leading the charge through his private chef and catering business, Chef Troy’s Table.
“In the 1970s in Jamaica, the Rastas were outcasts, so they had to go back to the hills,” said Levy, 40, who grew up in Jamaica and was introduced to Ital cooking by his Rastafari uncles. “They started cooking everything natural, and they had to find different ways of preparing meals. They had to make everything from scratch.”
Rastafarians place great significance on “oneness” and being spiritually connected with the Earth. With this comes maintaining an all-natural diet.
Levy said Ital goes beyond cuisine — that it’s an entire 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 flavor and taste, Chef Troy fuses French, Japanese and Mexican influences to cultivate completely plant-based, nutritious meals for clients daily or for any special occasion, from small celebrations to large events of up to 800 or more guests.
He also offers cooking classes for adults and children, live cooking demonstrations, restaurant consultations and help with menu development.
Levy, who said he is on the hunt for a physical storefront on Long Island, even provides an option for those not quite ready to try a strict Ital cuisine: a menu that utilizes organic produce with an emphasis on free-range and grass-fed meat.
The chef published a blank recipe book, “My Ital/Vegan Recipe Book,” that encourages people to archive their own Ital recipes on the book’s blank pages. His first Ital cookbook is set to be published this summer, Levy said.
Levy said his overall mission in life these days is to create a movement that promotes healing through food.
“I want to make sure people are aware our food should be our medicine, and our medicine should be our food,” Levy said. “What we put in our body is of great importance to how our bodies operate — if I could leave anything on this Earth, it would be for people to understand that.”
A cooking passion that began when he was 8
Chef Troy Levy’s passion for cooking began when he was 8 and learned about the vitality of food through his mother in their kitchen in Jamaica. He said said the flu was spreading across the local community at the time and when his mother got sick, she entrusted him with preparing the family’s traditional Sunday dinner.
“She walked me through it, I would bring the spoon to her and ask ‘Is this enough seasoning?’ and put it in the pot,” he reminisced.
Levy finished cookng the meal and when his neighbor Julia came by to try it, she was in complete disbelief that he had made it.
“It was that good,” Levy said.
This fueled his confidence and soon enough, he was tasked to temporarily run his stepfather’s cook shop when he came down with the flu.
“That was a huge task for me,” Levy said. “To go and season the meat, do the oxtail, rice, peas, and stuff, that was crazy. But I did it, and a lot of people still didn’t believe I cooked it.”
Some of his friends saw cooking as a “woman thing” back then, Levy remembered, while others assigned him as the chef of their group, and he proudly held the title.
One particular method of cooking that interested Levy was steaming fish, which he said is made differently in each of the 14 “parishes” — or counties — in Jamaica.
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 need to find something I can do that I feel passionate about,” Levy said. “I realized my father was a really good cook, so I started to steam and sell fish, and I started making so much money. People were coming from Connecticut, Poughkeepsie, Albany, Long Island, all over, just to get my steamed fish.”
This was only the start of his extensive culinary career.
Learning the trade in the U.S.
When Levy first ventured into the work world, he said he really couldn’t pinpoint exactly what he wanted to do with his career.
He lived briefly in Florida, working in a small, “hole in the wall” Jamaican restaurant. Then, after returning to New York City four years later, he decided it was time to put his resume out there.
Soon, his phone began to blow up, he said.
Once his applications were accepted, he said he was required to go through a series of trials and test his skills at the restaurants before being hired.
For Levy, it didn’t go as he hoped.
“I did a trial at each restaurant and failed miserably,” he said. “I didn’t know anything about fine-dining, I know how to cook, I know flavor, but I didn’t go to culinary school or anything.”
One of the trials was for a Spanish tapas restaurant called Casa Pomona in New York City, where he met Filipino chef Don Flores, who said 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 about Levy’s time in his kitchen. “I sense the passion, I sense everything about what he wants to achieve in life, and that’s what makes, for me, markings of a good mentorship.”
Deeming Levy as “the Jamaican brother he never had,” Flores 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 slicing techniques, Spanish cooking methods and how to use certain kitchen equipment.
Flores expressed how much fun it was to teach Levy during his time at Casa Pomona and spoke of how they still stay in touch to this day.
“I told him you’re going to go far, all you have to do is focus on what you want to do in life, what you love, and you’ll be great. And that’s what he did,” Flores said. “He’s a very talented guy… I’m proud of him for really going to his roots.”
Levy continued to work and pick up knowledge from other notable New York City establishments along the way, such as Jamaican fine-dining restaurants Milk River and Suede Restaurant, BB King’s in Times Square and the Highline Ballroom in Chelsea.
In addition, he has appeared on the Food Network’s hit show “Cooks vs. Cons” (Season 4), Fox 5’s “Good Day New York,” and Foodie Down Bronx TV. He has been a guest celebrity demo chef at the Grace Jamaican Jerk Festival in New York and Florida for the past four years.
“I really consider myself blessed because for me to get all this knowledge and information, I’ve been in the restaurant working where people graduate from culinary schools, and I’m teaching them something they didn’t even know,” Levy said.
Now that he has made a full shift to Ital cooking, Levy said he strives to present the cuisine in the most authentic, organic way possible and honor the Rastafarians who he recognizes as the “pioneers” of Ital.
“When I stopped cooking meat, my chef 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.”
Top: Chef Troy Levy. (All photos courtesy of Troy Levy.)