Melanie: Thank you both for taking the time to speak with us! You are the people behind Pink Elephant Yoga and Pink Elephant Cooking. Your own practice spans over ten years now. What about Pink Elephant Yoga and Pink Elephant Cooking? Were these concepts always present?
Heather: Pink Elephant Yoga was always in our plans, Cooking is a newer addition.
Melanie: What does yoga in daily life mean for you? How do you live yoga, and what role does cooking play?
Heather: It brings you back to the age old question of the chicken or the egg. The way in which I nourish myself and how I now choose to cook was born through my experience practicing yoga. I believe that if my daily asana practice didn't exist, I might not choose to nourish myself in the same way. And of course the way that I respect my body through self-care has developed in that my body requires certain things and I provide that in food and practice.
Flippo: What does it mean for me? That begins with the morning practice. It changes the entire way your day is organized. For example, if you plan to practice early each day you can't stay up late or have dinner too late because it affects the outcome of your practice the next day. When you realize that, you automatically start being more mindful of how you nourish yourself. For about 12 to 15 years before I started practicing yoga, I ate a lot of meat, meaning 2 or even 3 times a day. That has definitely changed. Through a vegetarian or vegan diet you find yourself in a more calm and quiet state.
Melanie: So these are effects that you have observed concretely in your experience. That through a vegan diet you have changed spiritually as well. Are there other reasons to go to bed early and wake up to practice intensely an hour and a half or so on the mat each day? What brings you to the mat every morning? Why should a person have such a practice?
Flippo: For me it's this simple: it does me good. There's no other argument needed. And it doesn't matter if it's 30 minutes or an hour and a half, if I practice intensely with complicated poses or more relaxed with simpler 'beginner poses' - over time the challenge of getting to the fifth, twelfth or hundredth series no longer motivates the practitioner. You start instead to just do the practice and that is what counts. I follow my body and intuition when I practice these days. Of course, laziness can disguise itself as self-care and make you think you ought to practice gently when you are just a bit tired. This happens to us all now and again. In the end moderation is key in your practice and if you are listening carefully enough, you can create an embodied practice that takes all of your needs into account.
Heather: My practice is my anchor, especially because I am always out and about and have such a diverse workload. Not only do we cook and teach, but we also have a bunch of projects in the works. So yoga brings me stability in such an ever-changing life. It gives me the strength to work with high quality output and lots of energy, even considering the challenges of such instability in my work life. Without my practice I would not have the calm and I would suffer more quickly from the typical symptoms of stress which would definitely affect my work. Without yoga I would not be able to endure this level of pressure over a longer period of time.
Melanie: So what you're saying is that the practice generates clearly higher levels of energy and steadiness regardless of where you are.
Heather: Yes, the mat is really like my home away from home.
Flippo: I think it's also that you make a conscious effort over the period of your practice to be present and mindful of yourself.
Melanie: …and not necessarily prioritizing others first. You both have quite a lot of contact with other people, coming from a Festival and Events organization background where you are constantly working with people. Even when you are cooking you are in contact with people. What do you want to share with the people you are working with? Is there a message or vision that you want to pass along?
Flippo: I think that regarding our vision both Heather and I see things very similarly. I am basically vegan. Not completely, but for the most part. There comes the occasional cheese pizza exception or some cases where I do eat something with an animal-based product. I want to make people more mindful of what they are putting into their bodies. There are many factors, such as the season that foods are available and in which region they are eaten when. This is much more work than avoiding certain foods... its also about the way we eat. For example not watching TV while eating or sitting at your desk checking emails during a meal. Just like with my pizza example, it can happen but it should not be a regular habit. When it happens, it happens and you are aware of it and you then work towards making it occur less and less frequently. The less you eat things that are not ideal, the more you feel the effect of that food on your body the next day, which in turn helps you to be more careful the next time you want to indulge. And then when you indulge, you don't do it just to do it, you make a conscious decision to indulge making it a special single exception. In the end we are still looking at what makes us happy, and moderation can bring us to such a place of contentment.
Heather: I'd like to add another important point to that. It really became clear to me how terribly bland and boring vegan cuisine was. You could find little more than tofu-schnitzel or soy yogurt. Of course things were and still are changing to add more variety, but as we started this project, vegan cuisine was simply lacking creativity. I thought to myself, "with so many delightful fruit and vegetable varieties available, how is it that we keep going back to reducing our diet to these soy-based goods?" Food should be fun whether you are vegan or not. It should be healthy, but often when we think healthy food we prepare that our senses will not be engaged, or that the food is not to be enjoyed somehow. From the prep table to the dining room table, food should be fun and entertaining to your senses. This also counts for vegan cooking: it can be diverse and have variety beyond salad and tofu patties.
Melanie: In the end, this is also a very tantric way to interact with your senses: to enjoy the pleasure of what you are taking in, to experience the creativity associated with working with different materials and ultimately to celebrate ourselves as living creatures on this planet with all of the beauty and wonder that it encompasses. Is this an aspect that you have had from the start? I find spending time with the two of you is always very lively, especially in the kitchen. Have you always been so full of life? Or has yoga, or perhaps the food, changed you in some way?
Heather: Flippo and I have been working very closely together for over 10 years and it has always been fun. We have only taken on projects where we believed we would have fun and which would bring us happiness to work on. We have always been able to work together amicably and have a compatible sense of wit and humor to boot. That is what Pink Elephant is all about. And of course good food! But I feel that the food itself isn't enough, I think that our energy as a team brings something to the table, pun intended.
Flippo: In the end, we have fun. Fun with cooking, fun with eating, fun with everything we do. When it's no longer fun, then we stop. That's what I've always done in my life. Whenever an activity was not bringing me contentment, I've stopped it. Regardless of whether it was super successful or not. When the fun is gone, I have to stop. I feel that if cooking doesn't bring me the same happiness that I have today, the food will be lifeless and bland. Then you can still cook the same ingredients, but the food tastes different somehow. If I someday realize this, it will be the end of my professional cooking days.
Melanie: Does it go the other way around? For example, the folks on retreat or the students of the 5-year AYI teacher training who you know who come on retreats later on: does Pinkie food make people happier?
Flippo: Definitely! One thing that is particularly noticeable to me in the training groups, which is the most obvious and interesting, is the process that takes place over time. During the course of the training, lots of things are very important, but your diet the way you nourish your body also plays a role. People start off in the training initially delighted with our food, but at the same time they are a bit confused with the whole new way of eating and have to wrap their heads around it. Then they realize that all of the sudden they have a lot of energy and power. Interestingly, in the second week, people come to us and say, "Hey I have changed my diet around". It is unbelievable to see how people develop over the two years and how much people change. As I said, after a week you already see a real change and we get feedback time and time again. "I like this cuisine, my digestion has improved, my energy levels are high and more stable, I do not crave sweets anymore." A lot more than just yoga techniques are being learned during that two-year period. The combination of yoga and nutrition is a perfect match.
Melanie: I could imagine that a lot of people who have had this experience come to you for advice on cooking for themselves at home. What can one do to learn more about Pinkie Cooking?
Heather: Come and cook with us! We have an 'open-door policy', meaning that at buffets and events we are approachable for questions regarding the food that is being prepared. When it comes to questions about things such as bacteria for example, its much more complicated to explain and can take some time. We are also glad to answer questions via email and we have a lot of great information and recipes in our cookbooks. When you want even more hands-on experience, we offer workshops as well.
Flippo: That's right! We also offer cooking classes. Next year we are planning a longer and more intense Orientation course on cooking, almost like a proper training course. You won't be a chef at the end of the class, but you will come out with a lot of information about a well-balanced vegan lifestyle and how you can make changes in your every day life to eat better. The actual plan is still a secret, but as far as we are now in the planning process, it looks like next year we will be offering such a course.
Melanie: Another secret of the Pinkie kitchen is Pinkie cheese. This seems a bit confusing to me. How does cheese suddenly fit into vegan cuisine?
Heather: Well for the most part, folks are not vegan for their entire lifetimes, meaning that they have eaten animal-based products at some point in their lives. Much more often we decide to opt against animal products because we no longer want to financially support the system associated with how these products make their way to us. A prime example is cheese. At this time there are a couple of very pricey and gourmet options as cheese alternatives. My intention was to create something that anyone could access and was equally nutritious. It was a bit of a gamble. At this point we are still developing the product and we are really excited about this very interesting field. I think people really appreciate having a few options on the market.
Flippo: I can still vividly recall the first time that I tried to make cheese without the fermentation process. I had pressed cashew creme and put it in a form. The experiment took place at Sampurna one and a half years ago. Then, we let the cheese air dry. This first go-round was a completely raw vegan cheese. I have no idea why. I read the recipe somewhere and I thought, "Hey, I want to try that out". At some point we added the fermentation process, in a process similar to the way that sauerkraut is produced. Then we both started just trying things out. We test and experiment over a long period of time, and from there we often run into new things. This is how, for example, we came upon our bread recipe. Before then we simply picked up bread from the organic bakery. One time, he was on vacation and we needed a solution. From that point on, we started making our own bread. Baking, like all other cooking to this point, is a lot of fun!
Melanie: These days you can find as many nutritional coaches as yoga teachers. Do you dedicate your know-how to a specific method or teacher? Have you had coaches or teachers that you have learned a lot from or who inspire your cooking?
Heather: I don't follow a specific methodology such as Ayurveda or macrobiotics. I find it all quite interesting and I want to deepen my knowledge of one of these methodologies at some point. But in reality this has all come from me testing things out. An idea comes to mind of what I want to create and then I set out to cook it somehow. As a matter of fact, I have left all my cookbooks on the shelf. Now I look at cookbooks for their aesthetic and design only. I trust my intuition and creativity to put things together. Of course I am not re-inventing the wheel, but I don't want to just follow a recipe either. I let things inspire me, I follow the rules I follow with cooking for myself at home, because I know what I eat keeps me healthy and full of energy. At the same time, we are not getting too extreme like only raw. I feel that some influences from this and other nutrition methodologies are great but we stay open minded with it all.
Melanie: The main guide is no sugar, no gluten and no soy, right?
Heather: Yes, the only exception is the bread.
Flippo: Everything has changed principally as a result of the yoga practice. We have just noticed which foods give us a lot of energy. When the food is living, you have more energy at the same time than eating something dead. If I eat something that doesn't hold that energy, I am also lethargic, and my digestive system will reflect that as well. Most of what we do is based on our own experience as yoga practitioners and our experience relating to our own digestion. What we find is that when we are able to easily digest something, other people are able to digest the food well. Some factors that are prone to intolerances such as soy or gluten, are simply eliminated. Gluten is still present in our bread, but aside from that, everything we prepare is gluten-free. This ultimately defines cooking style. We eliminate animal derived products and sugar and voilá, we are able to still cook creative delicious and healthy meals. Our cooking-style? It's a mashup: a bit of Ayurveda, a bit of macrobiotic - just a good mix of all around healthy eating principles. We explore the cuisines of different countries and theme our day on foods from a particular region. Ultimately, it's just a mix from around the world.
Melanie: Flippo, you are in charge of the soups, as I understand. And they always taste to me like soups that my grandma used to make. So that leads me to ask: What role did cooking in your childhood play? Had your mom always been a passionate cook who prepared delicious home-cooked meals?
Flippo: My mother knew how to cook really well and her specialty was soup. However, I never saw my mom in action in the kitchen. It never seemed to be a big deal, as we were a really big family with lots of kids. So, my mother just cooked and we sat down and ate. For me, the cooking started when I started my own family and developed my own sense of gastronomy. And this mainly developed by our tradition of cooking at home, be it indoors, in the backyard or in the courtyard garden. Every weekend we left a free day to cook and invite guests over to eat. Everyone would bring some vegetables or something we could work with. We would spend whole weekends cooking together at a large table on the terrace. In this way, we have also helped to pass on the tradition of cooking and eating mindfully. The kids really took well to it and so instead of hearing something like "I have to cook now!", it's more like "Let's cook!". On those weekends with perfect weather it was especially good fun. We had the grill going, and in that time we cooked and created new recipes that were amazing. This continued and grew over time, especially when we started to look at catering. Even though catering is a lot of work, through our family and friends practice runs we are able to come up with creative meals even for large groups. So cooking is fun for me. My first ever prepared dish, was a roast pork with dumplings. And it was so delicious!
Melanie: And what is your culinary background, Heather?
Heather: My mother could not cook, and I was a lock-key child . That is why, at a very young age, I started to prepare my own meals. In addition, I was lucky enough to have access to a Japanese family. This was a phenomenal experience, which developed my taste for Asian cuisine. The family would eat what seemed to be the strangest things and they just tasted terrific. My father couldn't even warm a meal up for himself, but he enjoyed eating well and would take me to very fine restaurants which offered a wide range of culinary experiences. We never had McDonalds, which might be the case for other typical American families. This has shaped my tastes for fine cuisine as opposed to junk food. I've never been a big fan of meat, so that was no big deal to let go of when I chose to go vegetarian.
Melanie: My final question is a 'deserted island question'. If you were to create a kitchen and were only allowed three devices, which would they be?
Heather: High power mixer, a good knife and a bowl to put everything into. A very fancy bowl, by the way.
Melanie: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
Heather: I'm so glad that we have become such an integral part of Ronald's teacher training programs. Especially because I am so convinced that yoga and nutrition go hand in hand. That is why I am particularly pleased that Ronald has made us part of the training and also considers this aspect to be so important. He has faith in what we do and leaves us freedom to work independently and creatively. The only requirement he gave us was to make sure that the meals were sugar-free. This challenge wound up being a great step for me personally in the way I ate. I had never focused on a sugar-free dient for myself. Now, after giving it a try, I have firmly established this in my own life. I can feel how this has brought even more balance and wellbeing in my own life and I am glad that I can offer that in my cooking.
Flippo: It is still very important to me that we do not use anything processed in our kitchen at all, not even jam or bread. The only exception is the peanut butter. You won't find a single box or package of pre-mixed anything in our kitchen.