Meet Shanti Allen, Executive Chef and founder of Alchemy, Ubud’s first completely raw vegan restaurant.
Shanti meets me for our interview in a sundress and sandals, her long blonde hair loosely braided to one side. I follow her through the kitchen, where a bank of food dehydrators are concentrating flavors, and creating the textures raw foodies love. The smell is nutty and warm. “They are going pretty much all the time,” she says. The kitchen staff is prepping a colorful assortment of tropical fruits and dark green vegetables.
She leads me upstairs to a balcony and offers me a bright bean bag as she settles into one herself. I’ve spoken with a lot of chefs, but I can’t think of a single one I would describe as relaxed. But that is exactly what Shanti is, perhaps even serene. I start our interview by asking her about her journey, from being raised in a Swedish vegetarian commune to running a celebrated raw vegan restaurant in Ubud, Bali.
Where do you come from and how did you become a raw vegan chef?
I was brought up in Sweden in a vegetarian commune. My mom became a vegetarian when she was pregnant with me, and I was raised vegetarian. We grew our own vegetables, and I had spirulina since I was little. I was brought up in a health conscious environment. As kids we would go into the garden and snack on cucumbers fresh from the vine.
I also was really into cooking as a child. And my mom was really great because she let me make a big mess and let me do whatever I wanted to in the kitchen, as long as I cleaned up after. So I started experimenting really early.
When it was time to get a job, I studied to become a mainstream chef. I worked in high end restaurants in Stockholm.
I loved to travel, and was always drawn away from Sweden during the cold season. I lived in Peru, and also America. I came here to Bali for five months, and then decided to stay.
When it comes to raw food, it always made sense to me that when you cook something, it loses nutritional value. But for me, I didn’t want to stop making all these cakes and these fun things. I didn’t realize that you can make raw food cakes!
So your first impression of raw food was probably similar to many people, which is the image of eating a lot of salad and not much else.
I read a lot of raw food cookbooks, and everything they said about the nutritional philosophy totally made sense to me. But when it came to the recipes, it was not really fun, it was limiting. But then I took a course in raw food, offered by the organization Raw Food Bali, and we made a raw food cheesecake. It was delicious! We made all kinds of really interesting things, and that completely changed my perception of raw food.
You worked as a chef in a more mainstream restaurant environment for years, but lost your passion for cooking. Yet one thing that is very evident at Alchemy and in your food creations is passion. What is it about this new environment and being a raw food chef that has reignited your passion for food?
It´s not quite accurate that I lost my passion for cooking. I don´t think that will ever happen. However, my passion was not able to thrive under the conditions of the restaurants I worked in due to pressure and stressful circumstances. For me food preparation is a blissful state, so it becomes awkward if somebody is yelling and cursing in the kitchen, for example.
I had this in mind when I created my own restaurant kitchen, vowing that the environment has to make the employees feel supported, happy and creative. I believe that the environment that the food is prepared in is just as important as the quality of the ingredients.
Prepare it with love and eat it with love.
What’s inspired you lately?
Here’s the thing…my job is so inspiring. I feel ecstatic about my job, it’s so much fun. And I never think I can find something more inspiring about my job, but there are constantly new things happening that are even more exciting.
Now I’m writing a cookbook, and that is a dream for me. I just love reading cookbooks, I read them just like other people read novels. But writing is even more fun. So we are doing an Alchemy recipe book, and it’s going to be a lot of recipes from here. It will also have advice on how to incorporate more raw food into your diet in an easy and fun way.
How do you source your ingredients?
We have our own farm where we grow organic vegetables. We also use other organic farms and suppliers. It´s wonderful to find people and companies who are as passionate as Alchemy about organic and raw, and to support them.
We like Big Tree Farms because we know the owner there invests a lot of effort and time and money to ensure that his products are guaranteed raw. We also buy from Balinese farmers who are passionate about growing organic vegetables.
What led you to the decision to undertake farming?
I believe that organic farming is one of the best ways towards a sustainable future, and to really have an impact in the direction of our collective future. I would love to see every restaurant and every school and every household have their own organic farm.
Also, by growing our own vegetables we can ensure that everything is done organic and to our standards. Our farm is in the mountains of Jaliluwih. By having it at a high altitude we ensure that we don´t get flooded with pesticide residue through the water from other non-organic farms.
What percentage of your produce comes from your own farm?
Probably 70% of the vegetables. The rest is sourced from other organic farms.
Recycling is not commonly practiced in Bali, and for the average person, there is no easy way to do it. Alchemy invites customers to bring their recyclables to the restaurant, what do you do with these containers?
We wash and sterilize them, and reuse them for our products.
In the past decade Bali has seen an increasing interest in organically grown food. Yet there is little third party certification or oversight. When a restaurant says they serve organic food, or a product claims to be organic, how can a person know what this means or if it is even true?
I rely on my intuition when choosing what restaurants to eat at. There are certain people I know who have restaurants here in Ubud who are just as passionate about organic as we are at Alchemy. So I feel comfortable trusting their food is organic. I think that this is the only way to really know.
At Alchemy we have to be detectives to really ensure that products are organic. It happens that a supplier brings a certificate stating that it´s organic, when the truth is that the certificate has just been bought. This is why I love working with people who are passionate about organic, and I like supporting them because I know they can be trusted.
Is sourcing organic ingredients difficult?
Yes, it can be difficult. It takes some effort. Certain things are not available organic, unfortunately. And often, our suppliers run out of stock of ingredients that we rely on for consistency.
What advice would you give to omni-eaters who are curious about raw vegan food?
I would say it´s wonderful that they are curious! We live in an artificial culture with false food, false time, deceptive politics, artificial money, false media and so on.
Real, original plant foods in their natural state have the possibility of bringing people back to their true selves. It is the one thing that has changed my life for so much the better, and I wish everybody could be able to experience the extraordinary health and happiness that I have had since, and also feel as wonderful as I do every day.
So if somebody is curious I would recommend them to try it! Follow this diet for 8 weeks and see how it makes you feel. What I recommend is to simply add in more raw, natural, organic plant food to your diet rather than focusing on what to eliminate. Let the unhealthy food get crowded out naturally by replacing them with nutrient dense, high quality and delicious plant food.
I notice that your customers are expats. Do the Balinese have any interest in this kind of food?
That’s because of preference and price. The average Balinese spends $1 on lunch. We do get the occasional Balinese customer and it’s like a treasure to me. I just love it so much. But you know, I can count them on one hand.
There is this one Balinese man who is really interested in raw food. He’s trying to get his children into making smoothies and he asks me for advice. He participates in workshops.
So let’s say you made one day when all your food was $1, or comparable to an average Balinese lunch, would the Balinese come?
This is what I think. For example, I see how our staff eats [the staff is all Balinese] and they will take salad because we encourage them to eat here. They can eat here for free and drink from the juice bar. They will have the sweet juices, like pineapple, and they will take salad with their rice. But for Balinese, rice is important. So maybe that would be the way to do it.
So you could have a “bring your own rice” day.
Yes. As long as they can have rice with it. But we tell our staff about the health benefits of green juices and sometimes they will try it. Especially if they are having some kind of health issues. If they mention that they are having some problem, like stomach issues, we’ll tell them how good cocobiotic is for their digestion, and they are more open to trying it because there is a specific reason.
Also, I think our breakfast bar is easier to sell to the Balinese, because it’s sweet.
What is your idea of a sustainable restaurant? What are the aspects that make it so?
There are many aspects, and all of them are important. What comes to mind first is of course organic ingredients . Recycled and natural material in the interiors and exterior design are also important for sustainability. We use recycled wood for our furniture, for example. And kitchen utensils and customer utensils should be natural material. Fair wages and good employment terms are important. Recyclable material for takeaway. Proper waste management. Biodegradable cleaning products.
It´s important not to cut corners, and also be prepared that it can be challenging at times. Keep the vision.
It’s possible to make money running a sustainable business. When you can show that you can be profitable without cutting corners, other people will be more likely to start similar businesses. We do the best that we can, and we don’t cut corners when we’re talking about a few dollars here or there. We just take the hit and make sure we do things in the proper way. And in the end, we’re going to make it.
If you could change one thing right now that would make running a sustainable restaurant in Bali easier, what would that be?
It would be great if someone could invent organic, biodegradable lids for takeaway drinks. We have the paper cups, but as far as the lids are concerned, right now all that is available is plastic.
Want to learn more? Visit the Alchemy website here.
photo credit: Elle Brooks