Personal vegan chef Leslie Ashburn teaches others how to follow a vegan macrobiotic diet with an emphasis on local, in-season foods in order to obtain better health. In addition to being a personal vegan chef, Leslie is also a teacher, offering her services in arguably one of the most beautiful places on earth —Honolulu, Hawaii. She shares with Vegan Mainstream about her life as a chef and the lessons she teaches.
Vegan Mainstream: Tell us about your personal chef business and classes. How did you get started in this field?
Leslie Ashburn: I learned about macrobiotic cooking while living and teaching English in Japan. I found it interesting and began taking macrobiotic cooking classes there. The macrobiotic diet is not necessarily vegan by definition, but my personal choice is to live and teach a vegan macrobiotic diet. When I returned to Hawaii from Japan, I started working as a personal chef and a cooking teacher focusing on living a whole-food, plant-based diet.
VM: How long ago was it that you returned to Hawaii to begin your own business?
LA: I came back in 2005, and feeling so inspired by the knowledge I learned while in Japan, made the decision to change careers and focus on building my business. I have been teaching and cooking for people ever since then.
VM: What types of classes do you teach?
LA: I teach a wide variety of cooking classes. For example, some of the classes I’ve taught include Mexican, Indian, and Greek, as well as classes that focus on gluten-free foods, local produce or foods for weight-loss.
VM: What strategies did you use to build your business?
LA: I started by going around to people in the community, such as massage schools and the culinary institute we have here in Honolulu to talk to people and distribute information. I made cold calls. I told people about what I was doing and asked if they needed anyone to teach. As I started doing more in the greater Honolulu area, people asked me to cook for them as a personal chef.
VM: What type of personal chef services do you offer?
LA: It’s varied. I’ve had regular customers who enjoy my food weekly or monthly. I’ve had tourists from Japan, Canada and Russia who want dinner parties, cooking classes and daily meals. I’ve cooked for well-known community figures, as well as people suffering from health issues. It really changes all the time.
VM: Where do you hope to take this business in the future?
LA: I would love to open a farm-to-table plant-based cooking school. Even though Hawaii is considered to be one of the healthiest states, we also have significant issues with diabetes and obesity here. We face a lot of issues with sustainability if we were to be cut off from the mainland. I want to focus on how we can use a wide variety of health supportive plant-based ingredients including as much locally grown produce as possible. I believe that eating straight from the source (vs. processed foods) nurtures our health, the community and the environment.
VM: Is there wide knowledge about plant-based diets in Hawaii?
LA: Hawaii is a culinary melting pot. The cuisine is rich and varied. However, only in the last year have we gotten our first 100% vegan restaurants on Oahu, and they are currently somewhat limited in what they offer. My vision would be to have more restaurants like you see in places like LA and New York.
VM: Did you have any experience in the food industry or culinary training prior to beginning your business?
LA: My father was in the food service industry, so I’ve worked in several different restaurants. When I started my company, I took what I had learned from those restaurants and translated it into my field [veganism].
VM: How long have you been vegan for?
LA: I’ve probably been vegan since 2004. I became vegan because I just felt better eating that way. I had more energy, and the diet supports my beliefs about what’s good for the earth and the environment.
VM: Do you have a blog or use social media to promote your business?
LA: Yes! I have Facebook and Twitter accounts as well as a blog, Macro808.blogspot.com. Social media really [helped grow] my business, especially Twitter. It helped [me] brand myself and provided access to a much wider audience than before.
VM: Based on your experiences with introducing people to the vegan diet, what would you say to someone who wants to become vegan but thinks it is too hard or time-consuming?
LA: I would tell them to make friends with other vegans. [That] is important, so you feel like a part of something and also so that you have the support you need. Also, you don’t have to be a gourmet chef, but you can go out and get good quality vegan ingredients. Set a goal to try one new recipe or food every week. If time is an issue, a lot of delis offer really good, quality vegan food.
In my classes, I really try to emphasize life skills that people have lost with the onset of the industrial food system, with eating fast food. Even with health food, I think people just go to the freezer section to get frozen foods. My emphasis is on whole foods and teaching people how to use simple, low-cost ingredients, making meals fast, easy and delicious.
VM: Do you have any advice for someone interested in becoming a vegan chef?
LA: Yes, I think the funnest and most efficient way is to get some kind of training. In addition, what I did while I was studying was to start cooking regularly for my friends and family so that I could test recipes. I cooked as much as I could every day until I built a knowledge base of how ingredients behaved and how flavors went together. From there, you can create your own personal style.
Read more from Leslie at Macro808.blogspot.com.