Cooking as Pure Sadhana

Pietro Leemann’s Joia was the first vegetarian restaurant in Europe to hold a Michelin star. The Swiss chef shares his culinary and spiritual journey with SanātanaYoga.

“Sometimes when we have to explain something deep and spiritual, we use poetic words. A poet can convey a message with words. When I read poetry, something inside me understands emotions in a deeper way. Food is another way to offer a deep experience, but I want to offer something poetic, so I play with different things. If you come to Joia, you first see something very beautiful, then you read something deep, and then eat something interesting. You experience food in three ways. My mission is to make people vegetarian by making them enjoy the experience. I do this by speaking to them in the language of poetic food,” says Swiss chef, Pietro Leemann, whose Joia, in Milan, was the first vegetarian restaurant in Europe to hold a Michelin star. 

Mr Leemann’s culinary and poetic creativity is evident in Joia’s menu where you will find gems like The navel of the world (a Milan-style risotto with golden courgettes, wild garlic pesto and gently spicy pepper cream), Bees fly, larches get their leaves, I look peacefully to the future (Monti Sibillini giant beans, cooked like old times, crunchy rye bread cubes, grilled eggplants, confit datterino tomato and green sauce) and Pomo d’oro (marinated tomato, diced red fruit and vegetables, flavoured with passion fruit, basil mousse). I connected with Mr Leemann over Skype for this interview and spent an hour talking to him about food, spirituality and Vedanta.

His earliest memory of food is eating carrots and tomatoes plucked directly from his garden at home, which held a very deep meaning for him. It developed a love and respect for nature which Mr Leemann expresses through the food at Joia. “My food interprets nature. When you eat my food, you might be in Milan but you will feel like you’re in the mountains.” In 1995, he collaborated with Swiss photographer Jean Bernard Aegerter for the book Colors, Tastes, and Textures in Vegetarian Haute Cuisine, which is food inspired by the shapes and forms in nature. The book is a culinary icon and the following year, Joia received a Michelin star. 

Cooking as Pure Sadhana - Pietro Leemann
Pomo d’oro (marinated tomato, diced red fruit and vegetables, flavoured with passion fruit, basil mousse).

Nature and spirituality have held Mr Leemann’s consciousness from a young age. When I asked him about his spiritual influences and what forms of meditation he practised, he was equally curious about what form of yoga and meditation I practised. When he was 20, he read books on theology and philosophy to satiate his curiosity about the subjects. It’s also when he started to experiment with vegetarianism. “In Switzerland, we have a tradition where people eat quite a lot of meat. When I was working in restaurants at the start of my career, most dishes were made with meat. I knew too much meat isn’t good for health, so I started to experiment on myself and started becoming vegetarian. When I did this, my physique changed and my health was much better. In the years before I turned vegetarian, my mind was very heavy and I could not think freely. I was feeling extremes. Very happy, or sad or angry. When I changed my diet, even my mind changed. There was also something changing in my consciousness. At the time, I didn’t know what it was because I hadn’t yet discovered Vedanta. I didn’t know what the meaning of ahimsa was. But turning vegetarian made my consciousness more peaceful and balanced,” says Mr Leemann. 

He has been mentored by culinary titans like the Swiss chefs Angelo Conti Rossini and Jean-Michel Colin, and the Italian chef Gualtiero Marchesi, who expanded his knowledge about food and philosophy and shaped his early ideas about gourmet cuisine. “Angelo was a very charismatic person and a very good cook. When I was very young, he had come to our home and brought a Charlotte, which tasted so sublime and good that it convinced me to become a chef. Food can speak so deeply to people. It is close to our experiences. For instance, we might be in some place and then suddenly the smell of something can transport us to a memory of another place. Taste and smell have that quality. They are deeply rooted in our consciousness. Taste can be material and spiritual, too. The taste of Angelo’s Charlotte was spiritual. I wanted to cook like that. From the age of 16 to 29 I was studying how to cook and practising and learning. It took me 13 years to develop my technique. It is important to have good role models. To have Angelo as a role model when I was young was important. Marchesi was a very intelligent person and very close to the arts. His knowledge wasn’t just focused on cuisine. It was very wide. He helped me expand my interests and learn about music, art, and I am glad for that. Art makes life better. Jean-Michel Colin is a great cook and also the first cook I worked with who was deeply interested in spirituality. So with him, I could speak about those things.”  

While learning to cook from his culinary mentors in Europe, Mr Leemann was also reading occidental philosophy but couldn’t find the answers he was seeking. It made him restless and he decided to explore the world and travelled to China and Japan where he discovered Buddhism and a whole new world of food. Growing up with the Christian faith, the concept of God is very deep-rooted in Mr Leemann, so while the philosophy of Buddhism resonated with him, he found his spiritual path in Vedanta. “Going to China, and Japan and learning Tai Chi, etc., was research for me. I was trying to find what path resonates with me. Nothing is wrong or right in any religion but I feel any religion or approach should resonate with the believer. I was trying different things. Finally, I felt most at home with Vedic and Indian culture. It’s the same with recipes. You experiment, try different things and arrive at what works best. Life is also like that, we keep trying till we get what we’re happy with.”

Lord Krishna watches over one of the dining rooms at Joia, Milan. 

When Mr Leemann returned to Europe after travelling, there was a small trend in Italy where more people were choosing vegetarianism, which gave him the opportunity to start Joia and cook gourmet vegetarian cuisine. But it wasn’t without challenges. Only a few people wanted to eat vegetarian so initially, it was difficult to find an audience for the kind of food being offered at Joia. “When I came back to Europe in 1986, part of Italian society was becoming vegetarian. But, we didn’t have restaurants that served high-quality vegetarian food, so we wanted to start a restaurant for that part of the population. It was difficult in the beginning. My cuisine was very different from Italian tradition but after two or three years, Joia started to become famous, we were mentioned in guides, etc., and after four years, we tasted success. What is strange is that after 30 years, I’m the only gourmet vegetarian restaurant. I mean, it’s good for me cause then people come to eat my cuisine (laughs). But really, I think it’s a shame because there should be more gourmet vegetarian cuisine. I hope in the future, more gourmet vegetarian chefs are born,” states Mr Leemann. 

In 2007, he met Marco Ferrini (Shriman Matsyavatar Prabhu), who has become his spiritual teacher and introduced him to deeper studies of Vedanta, the Bhagavad Gita, and also introduced him to Ayurveda. “I found Yoga, Sankhya and Vedanta, and read about these scientific Indian systems to describe the universe, philosophy, theology. It was fantastic because it finally gave me the answers I was looking for. I started chanting a lot and chanted the holy name of Krishna. Discovering Ayurveda made me realise that I chose the right path for food. I agree with Ayurveda’s balance of flavours and using spices for their health benefits.”

A doorway to Heaven (Japanese-style well cooked and soft eggplant, mosaic with sauces in contrast, summer soup, rich in herbs, crudités and flowers, diced porcini mushrooms and Vallemaggia pepper).

Vedanta inspired Mr Leemann to take the spiritual name Parameshwara Dasa, and he feels his life’s choices led him to this path. After he started chanting and learning Vedanta, there was also a big shift in his cuisine and the food he offered at Joia. He explains this saying, “The big change in my food is that earlier, it was very good but it was bhoga not yoga. It wasn’t an offering to God. After I became Parameshwara Dasa, my food became prasad and we offer it to the deities. We’re the only non-vedic restaurant in the world to do this. Now, when I offer my food as prasad, it is yoga. It was a big change for me to understand the difference between bhoga and yoga. We speak to the people who come to Joia in four ways: Beauty, Poetry, Taste and Prasad. People have many reasons to come to my restaurant. His studies on Vedanta brought him to India in 2012, when he visited Haridwar on the banks of the Holy Ganges in North India. The experience delighted and astonished him. “Travelling to the Himalayas wasn’t a vacation, it was a pilgrimage. The Holy Ganga is not just a river. She changed my life. When I bathed in the Ganga for the first time, I experienced a deep purification. It is not something that I can explain in words because it is a feeling and an experience. Ganga taught me how to connect to and with nature. After I came back to Locarno, I felt that same connection with the mountains and nature near my home.”

I asked him what he thought of Indian food but unhappily, he didn’t get a chance to eat at  home with an Indian family in India, which he feels is much better than eating at restaurants. He did get to eat a lot of Indian sweets as prasad, “I’ve always loved dessert very much and even at Joia, we have very good dessert. I feel dessert is very important. It makes life better (laughs). Also, in Indian tradition, you have many sweets. Some are a little too sweet for my taste (laughs) but I like that it is used to celebrate tradition and festivals. It is elevated to being spiritual. When Indians give prasad, I think that is a very deep message. That’s my approach to desserts as well,” says Mr Leemann. 

We should learn to cultivate love when we cook. Be gentle with the food. Cooking with love makes food better.

He is observing a trend across Europe where more people are turning vegetarian as they experience the positive changes that come with being vegetarian, and he looks forward to the change. “In a small way, I was one of the pioneers of this movement because I have been cooking vegetarian food for 30 years. My cuisine stands for choice, change and represents my philosophy. I feel very strongly about free choice. Being vegetarian or anything else should be a choice and not an imposition. Both my daughters learned how to cook when they were very young and they’re fantastic. They’re not vegetarian and I don’t force them to be. It should always be a choice. When we cook for ourselves, we are free. We can choose to cook what is better for us and what we like to eat. Cooking is a kind of meditation. When we cook, we should cook to give people something that’s pure. But, if we are not pure, we can’t cook pure food. We should learn to cultivate love when we cook. Be gentle with the food. I know many cooks who are very technical but their food is not good. My mother is not very technical but her food is very, very good. This is because she is able to give a lot of love to what she cooks. Cooking with love makes food better.”

Discover Chef Pietro Leemann’s cuisine at Joia.

September 3, 2020
Photos Lucio Elio

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