Pietro Leemann
The Salt of Life

4 June 2015

At 6:20 pm the restaurant is still closed. In Milan, at number 18 Via Panfilo Castaldi, between Porta Venezia and Piazza della Repubblica, the lamp outside, a sort of torch, is switched off. The staff, including the chefs, will arrive shortly. They will open the doors, tidy up the dining rooms, prepare the ingredients, wash the last pieces of cutlery. Joia – Alta Cucina Naturale, the first and only vegetarian restaurant in Europe to be awarded a Michelin star, opens a few minutes before 7:30. And has been doing so since 1989. Its founder Pietro Leemann, a Swiss chef born in 1961, received the precious star almost twenty years ago. After studying at hotel-management school, Leemann spent the years from the age of sixteen to twenty-nine traveling in Switzerland and in kitchens all around the world, experimenting with nouvelle cuisine and creative Italian cooking and working with master chefs of the caliber of Angelo Conti Rossini, Gualtiero Marchesi and Frédy Girardet. In 1986 he went to China and Japan, where he spent two years teaching at the prestigious Tsuji Culinary Institute in Osaka. On his return he opened Joia, which immediately became an institution for vegetarians and a discovery for everyone else. Today he continues to travel around the world, supports numerous campaigns against the waste of food, writes books—most recently Il sale della vita, published by Mondadori—and is an ambassador of Expo Milan 2015. He loves nature, but really loves it.

Let’s get straight to the point, how do you become a vegetarian?

Being a vegetarian is a choice that can have a variety of motivations. For some it’s a health thing, for others it’s more a question of the environment, for others still it’s because they love animals. In general, there is a spiritual need behind it, the vegetarian is seeking a loving relationship with the whole of the animal world. Certainly, it doesn’t make much sense to be vegetarian and then look down on your neighbor or someone whose skin is a different color. But the basic idea is that we can’t love a cat and then eat a lamb.

Joia, Milano.

Joia, Milano.

Yes, but as with every choice there’s a certain point when something clicks. What was it for you?

Choice is the salt of life and it is what distinguishes us from the animal world. For the tiger it would be wrong to become vegetarian. But we have free will, a double-edged sword, as we can make the right choice or the wrong one.

Are you born a vegetarian or do you become one?

I’m convinced I was born vegetarian. I’m a child of the sixties, when people thought you should eat meat twice a day. Then I started to think about the whole question. At a certain point I decided to set off for the East and I felt that it was my nature. So I took the big step.

I don’t want to insist, but there must have been a moment at which the choice became concrete.

In fact, although the journey was a long one, I remember the exact moment when it all started. My father raised pigs that were then slaughtered. At the age of sixteen I made friends with one of them, which at the fateful moment bolted. He wanted to live, he looked at me and seemed to be saying “What? We were connecting, we were playing together until yesterday and now you want to kill me?” In the end animals feel it.

Now I’m going to ask you the really big question: is a vegetarian diet healthy for children?

My daughter grew up vegetarian until the age of seven. Our anthroposophical doctor recommended it to boost her immune system: today she’s sixteen, she’s five foot eleven and she never gets sick.

But then she chose to eat meat.

Everyone has to decide for themselves, otherwise it turns into fanaticism and you lose the authentic motivations. Having said that, you can bring a child up vegetarian, but you have to do it with a full knowledge of the facts. In this regard, I recommend the books of Leonardo Pinelli, who explains how to raise vegetarian and vegan children.

So it’s possible?

Certainly. The plant world offers everything we need without the problems linked to the animal world, like toxins, harmful fats, proteins that are hard to digest.

Joia, Milano.

La forza titanica del Bene. Photo: Giovanni Panarotto.

And yet, during adolescence meat is necessary, at least that’s what we are told. Especially for the energy it provides.

In general vegetarians are more lively people, because meat slows down our functions and the burst of energy you get from sugar lasts only a very short time. We shouldn’t forget that some kinds of food compel us to eat them, taking away our freedom of choice. Those who eat sugar do it because they’re addicted to it, while meat reduces us to a primary level that decreases our sensitivity and awareness. Our life ought to be a process of liberation from our habits. Are we free to smoke or is it the cigarette that is imposing its will on us?

I shall continue with my objections: human beings are omnivorous.

I too used to be omnivorous, I was a glutton. At the age of eighteen I worked in a restaurant where they always ate meat, and they gave me lots of it because I was the chef’s favorite. But at a certain point I was almost having hallucinations. I didn’t know who I was, I was eighteen and my brain functioned like that of a fifty-year-old. We shouldn’t forget that meat gives us a certain aggressiveness, much in demand in this society in which the young, especially males, have to assert themselves. But what do we want to be? True values are not domineering. They are constructive, not destructive. In India, for example, other values hold.

Yes, but in India there is also a lot of sexual violence.

India is a country of great contrasts, you find harmony and fanaticism. Vegetarians and vegans are often fanatics too, but this should not be prejudicial to the value of vegetarianism and veganism.

What is your connection with Veronesi, a keen vegetarian?

We carry out a lot of projects together and above all we have a friend in common, Marco Bianchi, the chef and scientific advisor to the Fondazione Veronesi. One of the things we promote is the association The Vegetarian Chance, which organizes meetings about an alternative diet capable of saving the environment and improving health with taste. Veronesi has been a game changer because he has demonstrated scientifically that eating little meat is of real benefit to the organism. An interesting fact: there have always been very few vegetarians among his patients. Today getting cancer may seem inevitable, but it is not necessarily so. You can also choose not to get sick, and the link between diet and health is more and more evident.

Veronesi has said that Auschwitz and cancer are proof that God does not exist. What do you think?

I believe that God exists, while we are the ones who cause cancer. In the Christian view, and in the Oriental one too, we are responsible for what we do, and we reap as we sow. With free will, God lets us choose. There is always this idea that all the evil in the world is God’s fault, but it is a way of not assuming our responsibilities and blaming someone else. Marco Ferri, my teacher, told us to look at the skier who falls: the fault is his, not the snow’s. And it’s good to behave in a certain way and reap the rewards.

On the subject of rewards, how did you feel when you received the Michelin star?

Happy and angry too, because Joia was the only vegetarian restaurant with a star in Europe. And it still is. A pity. We have a quality team, there are sixteen of us in the kitchen and we are investing a great deal to get the second star too. But the system has to change its criteria: I, for example, am a sworn enemy of foie gras.

Death to foie gras.

It’s shameful, it should not exist. Like tuna. We know we shouldn’t be eating tuna because there are no tuna left. And yet people go on eating it.

Joia, Milano.

Relazione privilegiata. Photo: Giovanni Panarotto.

In China, where you lived for two years, on the one hand they practice shark finning and on the other there are apps that tell you where to find the nearest vegan restaurant.

Chinese culture is marvelous. Soon I’m going to Taiwan to make a documentary on vegetarianism. The fact is that we live in a dual world, in which something right is balanced by something wrong. Then there is the watershed, or the moment at which we decide which side to take.

Let’s say that the world is split in two, on one side there is Confucius, on the other Socrates.

Socrates may say something, but until you experience it and put it into practice you haven’t made it yours. Cooking is an extraordinary instrument, because in eating we affirm our philosophy of life, we exchange views and reflect on our choices. Through our choice of food we declare who we are. And on this turns our future too, in the sense that we become what we eat. We can shape our life or let it be shaped for us. The world in reality is divided between those who decide for themselves and those who don’t. Then there are those who want to determine the fate of others, and this too is wrong.

On the subject of determining the fate of others, you can’t vote in Italy, can you?

No, unfortunately not.

Who would you vote for?

I think a new party needs to be founded. It doesn’t make sense to speak of right or left. The change should come from within, because the economy has no political color, and neither has nutrition, nor illness.

But is there anyone in particular you like?

Italy is full of people of value, who think in a constructive way and would do well to go into politics. But it’s not just politics that shapes our destiny. There is information too. The media do not provide information in the correct way because they are conditioned by advertising, without which they couldn’t survive. Information is subordinate to advertising and this prevents citizens from being truly informed—especially when it comes to food.

Let’s talk about your latest book, Il sale della vita. Where does it come from?

It is the result of my transformation from omnivore to vegetarian, with the external events and inner quest that made this transition possible. I needed a profound meditation on the vegetarian choice and on life understood as an adventurous journey.

Plans for Expo Milan 2015, of which you’re an ambassador?

I try to do my bit in society. I take part in conferences, I work to change reality from the inside. In part because we are living at an interesting time in history: people ask cooks lots of things, our opinions count more than they used to.

A small parenthesis, what is the difference between a cook and a chef?

The chef runs the kitchen, the cook does the cooking.

So you are a chef?

In reality, I’m a cook who has gone deeper into some subjects than others have.

Joia, Milano.

Sotto una coltre colorata. Photo: Giovanni Panarotto.

What do you think of MasterChef?

It doesn’t promote the right values. Cooking is not throwing pots and pans and calling people names.

So what is it?

It’s feeding others, proposing values through food.

Let’s go back to the Expo.

I’m in a privileged position, they’re asking me to do things and to speak. I will fight hard to promote the values of vegetarian cuisine, to introduce some changes. I have a series of appointments and I’ll try to be effective. I think, for example, that there’s a lot of talk about zero food miles and biodiversity, but if a traditional foodstuff ruins your health or does not feed people it makes no sense to incentivize its production. In Switzerland, at one time, people had to emigrate because the agricultural model was totally wrong.

So it all depends on where we are?

Carlo Petrini says that there are countries where it would be impossible not to eat meat. But this doesn’t mean that we can’t stop eating it. The Eskimo has reasons to eat seals, I don’t have any to eat foie gras.

So here, in Milan, it’s better to be vegetarian. What’s it like there near Corso Buenos Aires?

It’s an area that is taking off. I opened Joia twenty-five years ago and it was a seedy place. Now it’s gone from being a rough neighborhood to a trendy place. In the vicinity there are a Buddhist restaurant, another bar that does vegetarian food and a little farther away the Lucca, which has a vegan menu.

You’re contagious.

Sure. And it seems they want to turn our area into a pedestrian precinct. I come to work by bicycle. I live in Gorla and ride along the Martesana Canal.

A question for the restaurateur. How do you decide the contents and the prices of a menu?

It’s a complex undertaking. I’m convinced that a restaurant has to offer an abundance of good things, and balancing costs, abundance and quality is not at all simple. For breakfast in hotels they give you a pat of butter, a miniature pot of jam and a skimpy piece of bread. Stinginess saves you money, it’s true. But then the customer doesn’t come back.

And TripAdvisor puts its oar in too.

Today the trend is downward and people spend less at the restaurant than before. So you need balance. At lunch we have a bistro that for 11 euros offers salad, a single course, water and coffee. In the evening, instead, we propose a menu for 115 euros that lets you choose the dishes you want. Let’s say that it’s a democratic proposal.

Joia, Milano.

Mi ha pensato Fabrizio. Photo: Giovanni Panarotto.

You choose your staff. You don’t discriminate against omnivores?

I choose them, but only 30 per cent of my staff is vegetarian. Some have become vegetarian, in part because here that’s the only food we cook. There are three head chefs: Fabrizio, who’s responsible for creativity and external relations, Marco, who’s been with us for eight years and Sauro, who has a degree in anthropology and runs our cooking courses.

You’ve told me what more vegetarian cuisine has to offer. What does it offer less of?

It consumes less. Today we waste lots of paper, plastic, water. To be sure, from a philosophical point of view nothing is created, nothing is destroyed, everything is transformed and so nothing is consumed. But our actions have to have a meaning. Those who reflect do less damage. We need to ensure that the whole system changes. Even the plastic bags have to change.

Piero Santoro, a designer born in 1982, has invented MEG, an open-source greenhouse connected to the net and completely automated.

Great, but we have to go back to buying vegetables in season. The current system is a bad one, but luckily we are getting close to the countryside again, thanks in part to the GAS, the Gruppi di Acquisto Solidale [Ethical Purchasing Groups], which make it possible for farmers to get a fair price for their seasonal produce. The paradox is that, for example, it is not even worth picking our grapes in the South, because the prices are too low. And so everything comes from Spain, including the strawberries on sale in January.

Once and for all, what is the right season for strawberries?

May and June.

Let’s talk about spices. Which is your favorite?

Spices help up to assimilate substances and stimulate the organism. Some are sweetish and some are hot, and the Indians are masters of their use, sparingly or in quantity. My favorite is ginger. I put it in everything. It is tart, hot and fragrant, aids digestion, gets rid of colds, dissolves fats and balances the organism. A real panacea.

And basil, which it seems derives from the Greek βασιλεύς, or the plant of kings?

According to Hare Krishna, the Indian philosophy I follow, the most sacred plant is tulsi, a type of basil that is simply exceptional from the medical viewpoint.

Let’s end with an experiment. You’ve talked to me about the negative energy that certain foods have. Let’s take two empty jars and write negative thoughts on one and positive thoughts on the other. Then we put the same amount of rice in the two jars. Which will spoil first?

There’s no doubt about it, the one with negative thoughts. I’ve done the same experiment with water. On one bottle I wrote swearwords and heaped bad thoughts, and said prayers over the other. Well, there was a considerable difference of taste between the two.

How do you explain it?

The Japanese researcher Masaru Emoto, who has always been contested by the scientific community, used to say that water has a memory. Everything is connected, as the Vedas and Chinese culture argue too, so our actions are always symbiotic and each of us is responsible for every drop in the Ocean. A spiritual approach to life is fundamental in order to perceive the perfection of the whole and the presence of a higher intelligence.

Higher than ours?

At bottom we are just tiny insects with respect to the infinite.

Joia, Milano.

Yoga. Photo: Giovanni Panarotto.

Joia, Milano

Joia, Milano.

Sincerità. Photo: Giovanni Panarotto

Sincerità. Photo: Giovanni Panarotto.

Nel Paese delle Meraviglie. Photo: Giovanni Panarotto.

Nel Paese delle Meraviglie. Photo: Giovanni Panarotto.

Yoga. Photo: Giovanni Panarotto

Yoga. Photo: Giovanni Panarotto.

Di non solo pane. Photo: Giovanni Panarotto.

Di non solo pane. Photo: Giovanni Panarotto.

Felicità. Photo: Giovanni Panarotto.

Felicità. Photo: Giovanni Panarotto.

Francesca Esposito

A journalist, she contributes to various publications, writing on architecture, photography, arts and crafts. She is responsible for communication at the new Fondazione Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. She currently resides in the heart of Milan’s Chinatown, after having lived in Shenzhen, Rome, Parma, London and Paris. She is planning a getaway.

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