My Story – How I Became an Ayurvedic Chef!
Let me assure you that I was not born into Ayurvedic cooking. I doubt my parents, Baptist school teachers, ever even heard the word. I grew up in Texas, most of my life in the Dallas area, but part of my childhood was spent on our 300-acre farm in East Texas. There I lived amidst nature and ate food we grew ourselves. Nonetheless, Texas was not home to a colony of health-conscious, vegetarian cooks of any kind. Ayurvedic cooking, with its idea that food is medicine, would have been considered bizarre.
After high school I surprised my parents by going to cosmetology school rather than college. They were both educators and felt I needed a “formal” education. I followed my own path, and it proved the right choice for me. I had success in that field from the start. In the 70s, I pioneered in the first ever holistic day spa salons that focused on beauty and health with a preventive approach. I appeared on The Today Show where I was introduced as “the beauty guru.” I always emphasized natural and organic products, and at the time it was revolutionary. Judging by the products that many salons continue to use, it still is revolutionary. Don’t get me wrong, I love the beauty part of being a female, makeup and enhancements, but from the beginning I believed that outer beauty really begins with an inner state of wellness.
While pursuing that career, I also began expanding my inner world. Early in the 70s, I studied numerous self growth and spiritual topics and became a vegetarian, which led me into Eastern religions. From there I met my guru and joined the Hare Krishna movement, a far cry from my Baptist upbringing. Over the years I made many trips to India to study Ayurveda and Eastern religion. That was a long way from the meat and potatoes and super-sweet desserts of my mother’s kitchen. Little did I know how far down the path of Indian cookery I would eventually go. In 1978, I founded and funded Kalachandji’s Restaurant, which is still winning awards today for being the healthiest restaurant in Dallas.
In the 90s my husband Michael and I moved to Cuernavaca, Mexico. We had a beautiful home with lovely terraced gardens and staff to take care of everything. It was a wonderful life in an exotic locale with plenty of free time. Then one April evening after we’d been there many years, we got a phone call from our spiritual master. Sri Gurudeva, a devotee of Krishna, asked us to move to Cambridge, England where he planned to study for a doctorate in theology. He wanted Michael to be his secretary and me to be his chef.
What a shock! I never imagined myself surrendering everything material and moving into an ashram, especially not in my 50s! And even though I had studied, practiced and taught vegetarian cooking with an emphasis on Ayurveda, it did not prepare to be an Ayurvedic chef. Sri Gurudeva was a demanding adherent of the Ayurvedic lifestyle and I felt woefully unprepared. Still, when your guru chooses you out of all disciples, you say yes.
As you can imagine, there were many challenges in uprooting our exotic ex-patriot lives in Mexico and moving to an ashram in England. Our first job was to find a six-bedroom house in Cambridge and then remodel it to our guru’s exacting standards. The real estate agents just laughed at the crazy Americans. But we found the perfect house, renovated it, decorated it and moved in before Sri Gurudeva arrived in the fall.
I practically lived in the kitchen – I worked from 5:30 in the morning until 10 at night. It was an enormous kitchen with big glass windows that looked out over this magnificent property, though truthfully I spent almost no time admiring it. I was too busy single-handedly preparing three complete Ayurvedic meals from scratch every day. Many days these meals included Gurudeva’s guests, which were many and frequent … and hungry. I wore a traditional Indian sari at all times.
Gurudeva had me trained by many Indian cooks from different regions of India, each with their own style, and by many of the amazing devotee cooks in our movement. Being a connoisseur of food and understanding the science of eating, my guru had me learn how to cook gourmet vegetarian Indian food that was low fat and healthier than the typical Indian recipes. There were evenings, however, when I would fix Italian, Mexican or just wholesome food for variety.
In Ayurveda, food preparation is a science that requires a lot of thought and planning. For instance, I had to make everything fresh for every meal – nothing canned, boxed or frozen. Breakfast always included fresh, exotic fruits, hot grains of some kind or Indian “pancakes,” homemade bread, fresh juice and hot tea. Lunch and dinner typically included handmade chapattis (Indian tortillas) or fresh-baked bread, three vegetable dishes at each meal, a soup, special rice preparations, and a variety of condiments like fresh ginger, chilies and lemon. These are eaten at each meal to enhance proper digestion. Thank goodness the desserts were generally prepared by someone else in our order and brought to me every week.
In the Ayurvedic system, all tastes – sweet, salty, bitter, sour, pungent and astringent – are honored and included in every meal. Meals are designed around these six tastes in order to prevent cravings and insure satisfaction and balance. Preparing food this way required a lot of planning. For the most part, I was not an extemporaneous chef!
I have collected all the recipes that I learned from all the master chefs who taught me. All of these recipes were adapted by Gurudeva, who had studied Ayurveda for more than 30 years. I have included many of these recipes in this cookbook.
The things that still inspires me the most about this Ayurvedic system is that it teaches that food is sacred and there is a science for the proper way to eat. The system teaches us to let food be our medicine, as all the spices have medicinal properties. I also appreciate that food is prepared in a way to enhance the fire of digestion. Everything needs to be prepared fresh so there is vitality in the food, not the dead, empty calories we pretend is nutrition here in the West.
The system takes into account the body, mind and spirit. The science of this way of eating helps the digestive system, which is a prime driver of good health. Stimulating foods are identified and monitored because they speed up the body and create digestion issues, which may lead to other dysfunctions. The mind is taken into consideration as fresh foods from the earth, eaten with little karma, provide more peace of mind, less anxiety and more clarity. Slowly, through the efforts of Dr. Deepak Chopra, the West is becoming aware of this way of preparing and eating food. I am so thankful that I had the blessing of cooking for my guru, and I am thrilled to pass on this exquisite (and delicious!) science to you. My guru told me it was part of my destiny and my spiritual mission to write this book and share this ancient system with you.