In this episode we speak with Lauren Lewis, a yogi and chef with expertise in plant-based cuisine. Lauren has operated a personal chef and culinary education business for nearly twenty years, and served as personal chef of Colorado Governor Jared Polis for over a decade.
She combines her deep passion of food and yoga in her workshops and regularly conducts retreats and one-on-one sessions on healthy living with clients.
Listen as we chat with Lauren about her thoughts on health & wellness, intuitive cooking, balancing priorities, and how to align food & movement in leading a better life.
Kirk Bachmann: Hello everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode we are featuring Lauren Lewis, a chef with expertise in plant-based cuisine, and a chef who has cooked for a list of very prestigious names.
In addition to being a personal chef and running a culinary education business for almost twenty years, Lauren is also an accomplished yogi, and is deeply passionate about bringing together the concepts of food and movement in living a better life.
Join us today as we chat with Lauren about her thoughts on food, health & wellness, yoga, and the keys to a happy, healthy life. Lauren, I’m so excited to see you. How are you?
Lauren Lewis: I’m good. I’m so grateful to be here. Thanks for having me.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. Are you at home right now? You’re in Boulder, right?
Lauren Lewis: Yep, I’m here in Boulder.
Kirk Bachmann: What about this rain? Is this insane?
Lauren Lewis: Yeah, I think it’s pretty good.
Kirk Bachmann: (laughter) Do ya?
Lauren Lewis: It’s mitigating all the fire season that’s coming up, so I’m happy to see it.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely, absolutely. So, let’s kick this off. We’ve known each other for a minute, and I’m really digging the plant-based cuisine movement in this country. Is that the type of cooking that sort of helped you become a chef, or were you just chef-ing, and then became interested in plant-based cuisine?
Lauren Lewis: I think it’s two-fold. I grew up in a household where my mom lived in the kitchen – she was an amazing chef. And she still does – every time I call her she’s cooking something. I also had two grandmothers that both were the same – one Russian, one Italian. So I was just immersed in food culture for my whole life, and I found it to be the absolute most-nourishing thing, just to cook food and eat together. So I had a deep love for food, cooking, and community that way.
But at a very young age, I stopped eating meat and started eating a plant-based diet. I was 11. That felt at a time almost like a step in the direction of activism for me to be able to create really delicious food, and have the pathway to people’s changes be through their stomach. People love to eat, and so I thought, “If I could cook really good vegan food – plant-based food – then maybe a few more people will consider a bit more of a plant-based diet.” I think it was two parts: I love to cook, and I care deeply about animal welfare and the environment.
Kirk Bachmann: Beautiful, and your mom supported that move at that time when you were 11?
Lauren Lewis: Totally. She bought every plant-based cookbook she could find and just started going for it. So I was fully supported, which was a complete privilege.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, I love that. And I know we’ve had conversations and talked about the rhythm of cooking. Did you think, at 11 already, that you had found a rhythm in cooking, or did that come much later?
Lauren Lewis: That came much later, for sure. (laughter) I think I started to understand healing food and whole foods toward the end of college. I started my plant-based journey as like, “If it’s plant-based, I’ll eat it or cook it.” Then I realized that holistic health is a lot more focused than that. I have the privilege of going to a culinary school, The School of Natural Cookery, that was completely focused on holistic cooking, whole-foods-based cooking rather than just, “If it’s vegan, eat it.” That’s where I think true health came from, eating mostly whole foods, looking at how things grow, cooking with the seasons, listening to your body’s intuition, eating what you crave – that kind of thing.
Kirk Bachmann: Powerful. I have to ask before we go forward. I’ve heard this story a couple of times – we’ve talked about it a little bit – but is there a little bit you can share about becoming the personal chef for a period of time for the sitting Governor of the State of Colorado, Mr. Polis?
Lauren Lewis: Sure, yeah, that was a great honor. I was the personal chef for Governor Polis and First Gentleman Marlon Reis for over 10 years, and I still have the privilege of occasionally cooking in the Governor’s Mansion. I think it all started with the First Gentleman desiring to become vegan. And he’s a huge animal welfare advocate. I look up to him very much. He’s used his power to make some important changes for our furry friends and the environment, so he’s awesome. They’re both wonderful. I was nervous the first time I cooked for them.
Kirk Bachmann: I bet (laughter), and the guests that they invite, right?
Lauren Lewis: Yeah, they’re just like anyone else.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, I love that.
Lauren Lewis: Through all the fundraising campaigns, I got to cook as he was stepping toward becoming governor. And so I met a variety of amazing people, including someone that I absolutely look up to – Nancy Pelosi. It was a fun journey, and it still continues to be.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s great. When it comes to health and wellness, can you share a little bit for our audience, how that comes to play in your life?
Lauren Lewis: Yeah, I would say, yoga, fitness, exercise, eating mostly whole foods are pillars of my lifestyle. They’re not just what I talk about – I definitely live that way. I also think that pleasure and enjoyment and satisfaction are important factors in a healthy and whole life. So, it’s not about always limiting yourself or pushing yourself to fatigue, but rather listening and softening when you need to take a break – eating something that’s super yummy, that’s not necessarily super healthy…all these complex matrix of factors to create whole health.
Kirk Bachmann: Do these two passions of yours, food and yoga…do they align?
Lauren Lewis: Yeah, I almost see them as a same practice. Because yoga asks us to pause, and listen, and feel, and just get clear with what’s happening – and so does cooking. You have to have all your senses engaged, especially as a personal chef, which I was for so many years. Five pots going in the oven, the pressure cooker chopping…and you just have to be there in the moment, and yoga asks that of you also. Whenever we can engage in the moment, we’re really noticing what’s right in front of us.
I think that’s one of the most powerful things we can do at any given moment, whether we’re playing with our child, or mountain biking, or all those things. The practice of presence and listening. And checking in with intuition – it might sound kind of like “cliché yoga teacher” to say that, but we all have this inner guide, and there’s so much information coming at us all the time, that sometimes it’s easy to lose sight of a deeper knowing. Like, “I should be eating this way,” or “I need to prioritize cooking.” I can’t eat at a restaurant every single day and expect long-term sustainable health. So yeah, they align for sure.
Kirk Bachmann: Well, I know…for our audience, Lauren hosts a couple of yoga sessions virtually right now, for Escoffier, a couple times a month. And I know I need that, even if it’s just to hear your voice and talk me, oftentimes, not necessarily off the ledge, but just calm me down a little bit to get through the day. It’s very, very peaceful for me, and I greatly appreciate it. Are there some misconceptions, Lauren, that people have about plant-based cooking and eating?
Lauren Lewis: Yeah, and that actually sparked a thought that there’s misconceptions about yoga and cooking in general, which is that you have to be good at it to do it.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, and I’m not. At all. (laughter)
Lauren Lewis: You’re great. (laughter)
Kirk Bachmann: I can cook, I can cook. Oh, yeah. But the yoga is painful, it is…but useful.
Lauren Lewis: That’s funny (laughter), but just starting where you are, and then in terms of plant-based, I’d say the biggest misconception is that it’s limiting or bland, when in fact, I think that it opens us up to an entirely new set of ingredients because you start to look a little more closely at what’s growing in the world. It’s endless – the bounty is really endless – we are so lucky.
Especially living here in Boulder, we have access to so many different small markets and big ones, and we can get such diverse ingredients that there’s new flavor profiles…and it’s all new. There’s such a newness to this genre, that we’re creating things that may have never been created, or at least in mainstream. So there’s an opportunity for some really exciting dishes to come out of it.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. Coming back to the running of a business, and in your health, is it hard to balance? You’re so busy. I follow you on social media – you’re constantly engaging with people. Any advice for those who find difficulty in balancing their work with their family, their priorities, whether it’s school, or work, or whatever? Not to put you on the spot, but everyone’s listening. What do we do, Lauren? What do we do? (laughter)
Lauren Lewis: Oh, I wish I had the answer. I am often a little busier than I want to be. So my constant work is to say “No” more. That’s like a mantra in my life: Say “No.” I think that if something is deeply inspiring, it’s worth it to push yourself a little bit, and I find myself doing that often. But paring down the things that don’t let you up. I could do so many things that are just mundane, and when I clear space, something new comes up that’s way more exciting. Sometimes I think it’s easy to get stuck in doing things that are just what we’re used to, rather than what are feeding us, so to speak.
Kirk Bachmann: Interesting…
Lauren Lewis: But it’s a balancing act. I haven’t got it dialed in. I think it comes back to intuition. Is this exciting for me? Do I want to be doing this with my precious time? And if not, no matter how scary it is, drop it.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. Has that taken a long time to get to that place? What you said, to say “No?” I find that very difficult. (laughter)
Lauren Lewis: You do? (laughter)
Kirk Bachmann: I like to say “Yes.” (laughter)
Lauren Lewis: I get it. It’s been a journey also for me. When I graduated from culinary school, my mantra, my motto, was to say “Yes” and figure it out.
Kirk Bachmann: Sure, sure.
Lauren Lewis: I always teach students that – say “Yes.” If you get offered a job, say “Yes,” and figure out how to do it. And now, my personal one, based on the busyness and fullness of my life, and especially including parenting a six-year-old, is say “No”…and it’s working right now.
Kirk Bachmann: Because that gives you time back in the day, right? For what you believe is important, or what you need.
Lauren Lewis: Yes, and I think at some point I started to relate busyness to self worth. The more I do, the more on my to-do list, the “better” of a person I am, or something like that, which was completely fabricated, and actually not serving me, or my family, or my work.
Kirk Bachmann: So with that said…tough question coming: What’s the easiest path or way to start to incorporate more health, more wellness into our lives? Pretend you’re just talking to me, “Kirk, this is what you need to do.” Because I’m kind of built that way. If I do this on Monday…I told you the other day, I got the rower. I’ve got that down, right? Every morning, I’ve got my rowing routine, and I feel good. Yeah, I feel good about it. But there’s pushback, even when I’m talking with my staff about focusing on health and focusing on themselves. “But I have this,” and “I have this deadline,” and “I have that,” and “I have this.” So there’s pushback.
Any advice? You’ve already said say “No,” but there’s got to be baby steps that help us get to a place where we feel that we’re doing the right thing every single day.
Lauren Lewis: I’m not sure if it’s a one-size-fits-all because I’m the kind of person that needs small bites. I just keep using these food terms.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that. (laughter)
Lauren Lewis: But small bites to implement. If you just say, “No more sugar, no more wine, exercise two hours a day,” it’s just not accessible. I like to have those small pleasures in my life. I want balance. So, finding little ways to get myself if I want to change something. Just adding in a class that I love. I love to dance, so I take a dance class every week. That’s totally amazing exercise.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s for you. That’s just for you.
Lauren Lewis: Yeah.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, I like that.
Lauren Lewis: But then sometimes when we take these small measures that help us feel better, it becomes exciting to notice how good we can feel, and then it leads to more. I think accountability helps, having someone that’s got your back, that’s watching out for you, like, “Hey, good job, maybe come with me to yoga?” or “Let’s do a plant-based challenge or Meatless Mondays”, or whatever it is that your goal is. It’s a tricky thing.
Kirk Bachmann: Do you have any examples of either a client – you don’t have to use names – but a client, or a case study, or someone where you were a part of that success story? Whether it was through coaching through yoga, and you actually saw the transformation?
Lauren Lewis: I’ve definitely experienced that. People oftentimes hired me when they were ready for change. And sadly, sometimes, they were ready for change because something major prompted it, such as cancer.
So, I have cooked for many, many people who are recovering from or going through treatment for cancer. And one woman comes to mind when you say that. She had a pretty advanced stage cancer, and she was in bad shape. I cooked for her through her journey and really put all of my intention into creating food that was deeply nourishing – whole foods, plant-based, low oil, low salt – like really therapeutic food. And I do believe that it really helped her, and she made it through. I thought of her often, and a few years went by…and then she showed up in my yoga class without knowing that it was gonna be me teaching.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, wow…wow.
Lauren Lewis: Now she’s one of my most regular yoga students, and she’s just on top of the world.
Kirk Bachmann: And doing well…oh, that’s a beautiful story.
Lauren Lewis: And a grandma, yeah. There’s just one more quick one.
Kirk Bachmann: Okay, great.
Lauren Lewis: I cooked for kids’ summer camps a long time ago, probably a decade ago or more. With these little guys, it was five guys. I did it I think three years in a row, and I taught them how to cook without recipes. Just recently, one of them’s in grad school, and two of them are in college, and their mom messaged me – one of the moms – and said, “They’re proposing to their girlfriend, and they’re cooking the meal that they learned from your kids’ camp.” (laughter)
Kirk Bachmann: From years ago…isn’t that something.
Lauren Lewis: Yeah, that made my heart swell.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s gratifying. You mentioned cooking without recipes. Let’s talk about that a little bit. In classical French cooking there are recipes. However, it’s really the technique. But I think this goes a little deeper with you though, cooking without recipes. This is intuitive cooking, right? To some degree? Because I’ve heard you say that before. Chat about that a little bit.
Lauren Lewis: Totally. I learned that from my mentor, Juliana Satie. She’s amazing, and another mentor, Maya Keeley. And it is technique-driven, as well. So it’s not that it’s a free-for-all in the kitchen. (laughter) You pay attention to method, just as you do.
Kirk Bachmann: Sure.
Lauren Lewis: And through that…and this goes back to that deep paying attention that we do in yoga, that we do in cooking, where if you pay attention to when you turn the fire up, or when you broil, or when you coat with oil, or when you cook without oil, or you cut this way – what happens? Then when you start to know that, you can design the outcome without looking at a recipe.
The other really impactful thing about intuitive cooking, or cooking without recipes, is: If I go to the store, and there’s an incredibly beautiful kabocha or acorn squash, and I’m like, “I want to use that for dinner tonight,” I can then build my whole meal around that without having to reference something. I can turn this into a soup, or roast it and stuff it, or put a sauce on it. It just allows this freedom that turns into creativity, and creativity is, I think, for every single one of us, a requirement as part of that matrix of health. We need to be able to express ourselves. So cooking without recipes is a form of edible self expression. It’s pretty functional.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. So many great comments. When it comes to expression…and I’m going to call it a trend, but I think it’s so much more than a trend, I think it’s here to stay. I know that my family has kind of moved towards, over the last three or four years, more plants, more often. And we’re really happy about it. We do dive into a few proteins – mostly when one of my chefs, who’s a farmer in Fort Collins, brings me some eggs from the chickens on his farm that all have names and are taken care of very, very well. And it makes us happy.
What about the industry and the growing interest around plant-based cooking, in your mind, not to put you on the spot, really is more than a trend? Isn’t it, Lauren?
Lauren Lewis: Absolutely. As I mentioned, I started at 11, and I remember visiting a friend in New York City – I grew up on the East Coast – and we went to a coffee shop. I was probably 12 or 13. We were with my best friend’s older sister, and they had soy milk on the menu, and I was like, “Oh, my gosh! You can get soy milk in a New York City coffee shop. The world is shifting.” And that was…well, I’m 40 now, so how long ago was that? 17, 27 years ago? Oh, my gosh. Since then, the options are everywhere.
From that standpoint, the world has completely shifted. It’s absolutely not going back. I know so many more people that are aware of even the language around it, or what it means, or how to cook for someone that chooses to eat that diet. If you look at the investments and growing market of the food industry, I think I saw that an oat-milk-based company is going for $10 billion this week.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s unbelievable.
Lauren Lewis: So, it’s here to stay.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely.
Lauren Lewis: And from an environmental standpoint, the global population simply can’t sustain the amount of meat that we’ve been consuming, at least in the way that we’ve been doing it. A shift has to happen somehow for sustainability.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. Anything that you’re able to share that you’re working on right now that’s real interesting?
Lauren Lewis: Gosh, I would say the primary things that I’m focused on right now are retreats. I lead a Costa Rica retreat annually – cooking and yoga. I’m looking to expand that to Colorado, and I’m building an online yoga platform that’s a little more robust than just Zoom. So we’ll see…I’m also trying to bring more attention to my precious child that definitely needs me around.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it.
Lauren Lewis: I mean, that’s what I’m working on.
Kirk Bachmann: So, when the pandemic entered our lives, you pivoted pretty quickly to still connect with your yoga classes and such. Do you think some of that is here to stay? Or are you looking forward to being outside or in a studio? Or will it be a combination of all of the above?
Lauren Lewis: That’s a great question. I’m still not totally sure. I think maintaining at least some degree of online presence is going to stay. But sometimes when I’m in the basement of my little makeshift yoga studio, doing Zoom classes, and it’s a beautiful sunny day here in Boulder, I’m like, “This is probably not exactly where I want to be.” I’m figuring it out.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. Well, we’ll stay tuned. In our sort of wrap-up here, in the couple of minutes that we have left, the name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. So, Lauren, what is the ultimate dish? I love the acorn squash that you just threw out there, intuitively. It gave me some ideas for tonight. But what’s the ultimate dish?
Lauren Lewis: Well…I suppose…
Kirk Bachmann: No pressure. (laughter)
Lauren Lewis: I’m wondering, is it what I’m cooking, or what someone else was cooking?
Kirk Bachmann: All the above, yeah.
Lauren Lewis: Okay. I mean, the ultimate dish is about consuming something, and not just the taste of the food, but the experience, right? So, my friend Maya, who you met, was my favorite chef of all time. She used to make these tamales with an avocado, pico de gallo, and fresh Colorado green chili, and like a cabbage slaw.
Kirk Bachmann: Are you getting chills, too? I’m getting chills just hearing that. Wow, wow. Yeah.
Lauren Lewis: She taught me how to make it just like her. And her and I both would cook that for each other. I think that’s probably…if I just could have one meal in front of me right now, that would be it.
Kirk Bachmann: That would be lovely. Hey, I have to ask…I ran into you, it was a while ago, we were kind of over by Rapha, there on Pearl Street, and you had just gotten a…I think it was an electric bike? Are you still rocking the electric bike?
Lauren Lewis: Yes. (laughter) It’s the best thing ever.
Kirk Bachmann: Do you take it everywhere? I’ve been thinking about getting an electric bike.
Lauren Lewis: Oh, yeah. Don’t hesitate. It’s the best because…yes, I like to pedal and exercise. But the truth is, the electric bike takes any stress about the commute out of it, and it’s pure joy. Get one.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. So, you know that we will soon be launching a plant-based program here at Escoffier. I think July is our target date. We’re all pumped to go, and I know you had something to do with that. And I’m so thankful and proud of you for that. And there’s a standing offer to come teach when you want at Escoffier.
Lauren Lewis: I appreciate that. That’s so meaningful.
Kirk Bachmann: Beautiful. Lauren, thanks so much for being with us today. Will you come back at some point?
Lauren Lewis: Absolutely. Thank you for having me, and congratulations on that new launch of your amazing course.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely.
Lauren Lewis: Making a change.
Kirk Bachmann: Absolutely. For the better, yeah. Thanks so much for being here today.
Lauren Lewis: Thanks, Chef Kirk, I appreciate you.
Kirk Bachmann: Bye bye.