Today's profile on theLiving Light Culinary Arts Institute comes to us via guest contributor Laura Bruno. Laura is an author, Intuitive Life Coach and Reiki Master Teacher. She visited Living Light for her 35th birthday. VegNews Magazine has cited Living Light Café as one of the top twenty vegan restaurants in the entire world.
As synchronicity would have it, though, Northern California’s Mendocino Coast provided the perfect solution. Fort Bragg—about 10 minutes north of J. B. Fletcher’s hometown and surrounded by redwood forests—houses the Living LightCulinary Arts Institute and Living Light Inn. Cherie Soria, the founder of Living Light, began her career 38 years ago teaching vegetarian cooking classes. A 16-year raw vegan, she has trained many of today’s most famous raw chefs, including Chad Sarno, Roxanne Klein, and Jennifer Cornbleet. The Inn composts their garbage, uses only organic bath products, and filters all tap water. VegNews Magazine citedLiving Light Café as one of the top twenty vegan restaurants in the entire world. For my 35th birthday, my husband was about to take me to raw vegan heaven!
I called ahead. Hey, I’m a writer, and I get curious! Plus, I coach a lot of artists, writers, chefs and visionaries—many of whom happen to follow raw vegan diets. What, besides eating insane amounts of gourmet food, might the Living Light experience entail? In a word, lots: much more than I imagined! We stayed in the eco-friendly Inn, and I arranged to interview the director (Dan Ladermann) and founder (Cherie Soria). I received a full tour of the facilities—kitchen, school, café, and store. I also talked to employees, customers, students of various levels, and yes, sampled some awesome raw food. The trip grew so comprehensive that Dhrumil invited me to share some highlights here:
Meeting Cherie and Dan
I encourage you to read the interview, because these are two of the most dynamic, light-hearted, hard-working and manifesting people around. I enjoyed their sense of humor, passion for healthy living, and their love, which spreads itself throughout Living Light. Along with their high level of energy and high culinary standards, Cherie and Dan bring a refreshing quality of non-judgment to everything they do. They realize not everyone wants to go raw, and they want everyone to feel comfortable at Living Light. Instead of dogma, they focus on “making healthy living delicious.” They don’t count percentages of raw or cooked diets; they just aim to make raw cuisine tastier than its cooked counterparts! They emphasize abundance, flavor, vibrancy … and professionalism.
Yes, Cherie and Dan are fun and friendly, but they also really know their stuff. Prior to joining Living Light, Dan spent years in the high-tech industry, and he still puts those skills to use. The classroom offers wide-screen TV and camera equipment capable of splitting the screen and zooming to a demonstrator’s hands. This allows students to hear and watch lectures but also to get close-ups of exactly how to perform each technique. Living Light records teaching DVD’s, lectures and special events, amplifying the learning experience. This professionalism extends into courses as well. Cherie emphasizes that Living Light is a “Culinary Arts Institute.” They offer more than just recipes and how-to-use a dehydrator. They train their students on things like teamwork, hygiene, proper knife cuts, ordering, timing, delivery, presentation, catering, how to teach nutrition classes, and all the details of running a commercial kitchen. Graduates of the weekend FUNdamentals class can go home and prepare their own raw food basics; graduates of their Professional Chef Certification Program learn everything they need to know to open and run their own successful living foods restaurant.
Kitchen and Classroom
With purple linoleum floors, ten Excalibur dehydrators (plus a commercial one), a special “fruit ripening room,” and a commercial lettuce spinner that looks like R2D2, the Living Light kitchen was designed to offer exactly what they wanted. Deliveries occur on Mondays and Thursdays and require “all hands on deck.” Team effort allows this kitchen to stay organized while serving both the downstairs café and the adjacent culinary school. The classroom offers individual stations designed as mini kitchens—underscoring that a raw chef can house all the equipment s/he needs in a small environment. For traditionally trained chefs looking to offer a few raw meals at non-raw restaurants, this fact alone helps mainstream raw cuisine!
The school provides everything except knives and chef attire—both of which they require for anything beyond the FUNdamentals class. I peeked into a Spa Fusion class ripe with tantalizing smells and beautiful presentation. The students had worked in teams to create masterpieces within a set period of time and using specific ingredients. Their joy, surprise and pride spilled over as they described each dish to the entire class. Next on their agenda? Eating and critiquing those delectable creations!
The Students and Employees
Living Light has graduates in 35 countries, but many participants choose to stay in Northern CA—some as employees or adjunct professors. Three years ago, they only had 5 fulltime employees, but the operation has grown to 31 fulltime employees, including Dan and Cherie. I met many friendly, enthusiastic and knowledgeable employees on my visit, along with several current students. In addition to the casual hellos in the Inn’s kitchen, I got to speak with Martine, a Canadian who has completed all of the Professional Chef course work and is now a management training intern—learning how to manage and direct this type of school through hands-on experience. I love Cherie’s willingness to share all of what she knows!
On the whole, I found everyone associated with Living Light very positive and excited about raw foods, sustainable living, and helping people heal from the inside out. Amy in the café was a particular delight—eager to recommend different dishes and very connected with each patron. Kari Bernardi-Ibsen attended Cherie’s first raw food class 10 years ago and has been a pastry chef instructor since August 2007. I enjoyed her passion for the Farm to School program, which teaches kids about raw foods and helps schools serve healthier options to children. Recognizing that many staples of this diet come from Mexico—papayas, coconuts, mangos, guacamole—both Kari and Amy feel called to raise awareness about living foods in the Hispanic community. In talking with impoverished mothers, Kari learned that many feel they cannot afford a raw diet, so she’s also working on ways to make fresh, whole foods affordable for lower income families. I found her conversation both refreshing and inspirational.
Constructed in 1912 from beautiful old growth redwood, the historic Living Light Inn is the oldest hotel and highest building in Fort Bragg. Huge redwood beams form the walls, floors and ceilings, lending a cozy feel—especially when the Northern CA winds start howling! We stayed in the Adventure Room, on the first floor next to the kitchen. Organic bedding and bath supplies welcomed us. The Inn also serves as a dormitory for out of town students, so the first floor rooms make good choices for people hoping to interact with budding raw food chefs. (For a more secluded stay, people would want to request the upper levels, with the Serenity Room offering the quietest rest.)
Situated about 8 blocks from the school, the Inn sparkles with the same special touches as the rest of the Living Light operation. Unlike most hotels with their chlorine-scented sheets and petroleum-based soaps, this Inn feels clean. You can drink the tap water and taste its freshness, and the non-toxic bed offers firm support. In the morning, you can walk to the café to pick up a fresh green juice and raw goodies for your day’s adventures. Not everyone considers such things when they travel, but if you do, you will find this Inn a one-of-a-kind experience.
Ah, the food! Cherie and Dan talk about “the final finesse of balancing taste and textures,” and that’s exactly what I felt the food achieved. I’ve eaten at many raw food restaurants and a number of potlucks, and there really is an art to creating phenomenal raw food. As much as I love the idea of raw restaurants, I find some gourmet raw food tough to eat day in and day out. Fortunately, Living Light’s food lives up to its name: light. Don’t get me wrong, I felt full after each meal! I just felt light and clear as well.
The café offers a variety of juices and salads, along with some prepared take-away items like enchiladas and decadent desserts. Amy fixed me a sampler platter, so I tried Marinated Kale Salad, Vegetable Antipasto, Marinated Bok Choy with Asian Greens, a Green Giant Juice, Carrot Soup, Lemon Bar, and lots of other tasty bits like chips and guacamole and a daily Green Soup for dinner. For lunch the following day, I tried the enchiladas and coconut water: heavenly! For an afternoon snack? Ice cream with chocolate sauce! (It was, after all, my birthday.) My non-raw husband even loved the Pumpkin Pie.