Recently I was lucky enough to send Chef Lee Gross of M Café some questions I had about his macrobiotic menu and his history as a chef. If you haven’t made a visit to M Café, get there. Not only is the food good for you, it is mind blowingly delicious. (Try the Teriyaki Brown Rice Bowl (veg, salmon or black cod) with heirloom-varietal organic brown rice from Koda Farms topped with tempura-battered or fresh steamed vegetable). Anyways, here is my interview:
For my followers, who may not understand macrobiotic foods, how would you describe, being that you are the expert?
Generally speaking, macrobiotic food ingredients are the simple, humble building blocks of the traditional human diet: plants (land vegetables including leafy greens, roots, and sweet round vegetables (squash, onions, etc.), sea vegetables (making a comeback!), cereal grains (including rice, millet, quinoa, etc depending on where you are in the world), beans and legumes, seeds, nuts, fruit, and much less frequently, animal foods. More specifically, a macrobiotic approach to food selection and cooking requires an awareness of the energy of food — not just a food’s flavor, texture, or nutritional profile. For this reason, in macrobiotic cooking, whole grains and plenty of vegetables form the basis of the cuisine, as these foods are considered to be energetically balanced, which means they will best support our overall health — both personal and planetary.
When did you become interested in macrobiotic food? When did you become an expert?
I first learned about macrobiotics — the philosophy and cuisine — during the summer of 1998 when I worked as sous chef at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in New York. It was here that I met chef Julie Jordan, who became my mentor and dear friend, and introduced me to this beautiful approach to cooking, and to life. I became more knowledgeable after two and a half years of immersion and study at the Kushi Institute, and then further refined my understanding and knowledge through years of personal macrobiotic practice. But I still consider myself a novice… The study of macrobiotics is the study of life itself, and there is always so much more to learn!
What made you want to explore the macrobiotic route?
Something clicked inside of me when I was a young cook, coming up the ranks in a high-end French kitchen in California’s Napa Valley. I was working with all of this amazing product, and learning from a great chef, but something did not feel right. I began to see and think about food, and my role as a cook, in a broader context. I began realize that I could be (or should be) doing more to help the global predicament. I began to feel that the restaurant industry was complacent around the real issues involving food and the environment, hunger, social justice and human health, and that I wanted to use my skills and talent (as a cook) to do some good in the word! When I discovered macrobiotics, what resonated with me instantly was the idea that food is medicine, and that proper diet can form the foundation of a healthy, peaceful and sustainable world.
You have two very successful outposts of M Café and have cooked for some celebrities. What is the one thing you are most proud of that you have accomplished at this point in your career?
The success of M Cafe, and helping to introduce thousands of people to a better way of eating — and showing them that it can be enjoyable and delicious! And to think, when we first opened the doors, most people had no idea what quinoa was, and thought kale was an inedible salad bar garnish…that is until they tasted it with our spicy peanut sauce! Just look at this town now…you can’t get away from the stuff…quinoa and kale are EVERYWHERE!!! (this is a good thing!)
Do you always eat macrobiotic foods or is it just the majority of your diet?
As I mentioned earlier, all natural (real) food can be considered macrobiotic. Some foods just have a more extreme energetic nature, meat and sugar being two of the most pronounced examples, each with its own distinct energetic effect on the body. To truly understand and appreciate why vegetables and whole cereal grains are better for you (and to truly experience their more balanced energy), you almost need to experience the extremes once in a while. After my years of intensive macrobiotic study at the Kushi Institute I went through a period of more wide, or erratic eating. This was just part of my learning process. I needed to “widen out” my diet to be able to settle into a place that was going to work for me in the long run. I had to find my own “macrobiotic center of balance”. There is no one-size-fits all diet that’s going to work for everyone. The “Standard Macrobiotic Diet”, as espoused by Michio Kushi is merely a jumping off point for a person’s journey of self discovery. You have to question everything, especially when it comes to something as personal as diet. And, most importantly, everything changes, always, especially our physical body. We need to be able to adapt to change each and every day.
In terms of M Café’s contest, what was the most difficult dish to macrotize?
I don’t really like trying to “macrotize” junk food, because very often the result is not macrobiotic at all, but simply “vegan junk food”. To me, for a dish to be even remotely macrobiotic, it needs to be wholesome and nourishing. Not to say that vegan soy cheese mozzarella sticks are not delicious (because there are!), but it’s hard to rationalize them as truly macrobiotic. Last year’s “chicken pot pie” entry, was turned into a wonderfully wholesome and satisfying dish that offered the same kind of satisfaction as the original, but without any of the ill-effects and with a heck of a lot more nutrition.
If you had to recommend any dish at M Café for a person new to macrobiotic food, what would it be?
Totally depends on who they are and where they’re coming from. Some people are totally intrigued, and want to know the “real” macrobiotics. For them I would recommend a Breakfast or Dinner Bento or the Lunchtime Macro Meal. These dishes represent a more “traditional”, Japanese approach to macrobiotics. For the more reluctant, skeptical novice it would have to be the Big Macro, as it is made from the same ingredients found in the Macro Meal (whole grain brown rice, vegetables, sea vegetables, etc), but in the form of a burger. They should order it with a side of our organic french fries, so they can experience the delicious harmony of fried potato dipped into a ketchup made from root vegetables and Japanese umeboshi plums (a traditional Japanese medicinal food). I’d tell them to compare how they feel after eating our fries, versus french fries with the more ubiquitous tomato and sugar-based condiment. Which makes them feel better – more balanced and centered? I think you already know the answer!
After a little research, I learned you went to school in Providence and Massachusetts and then travelled onto New York. As a fellow East coaster (Boston) and huge sports fan, I have to ask…Red Sox or Yankees?
No comment… Actually, no opinion! I’m really not much of a sports fan. But if I do go to a game, I order fries, and pack in my own ketchup 🙂
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