Falling UP –Interview: Pauliina Salmenhaara–One woman’s journey from Diplomacy to RAW food chef & entrepreneur. SOULSCAPE explores Pauliina Salmenhaara’s path–including the ups and the downs and a few leaps of faith.
Early in life, you were groomed to take a path that would lead you in a different direction than the one you are facing now. Tell us a little bit about that. In particular, tell us about the process… Were you afraid of turning your back on the career you (I assume) were expected to take? —I ask because I think a lot of our readers are interested in finding an authentic sense of self. This path usually does not come without taking risks.
I grew up in central Europe and travelled much throughout Europe in my childhood. My parents took me everywhere they went. I developed a sense early on if being with “big people” and hearing about business and politics. I also loved languages and at one point was studying seven.
My parents always said I would make a good diplomat. There was an expectation that I would not only graduate from high school but get a university degree. International Relations came highly recommended to me, and I took that path, although deep down inside I wished to have studied cinema studies, literature, art history, journalism, or something more creative.
Immediately after graduating I got a 6-month traineeship at the Human Rights Department of the Finnish Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Wow. What a stroke of luck. Could it be that my career towards being a diplomat could start straight out of university?
However, I was disillusioned there and opted instead to join an NGO for human rights in Finland.
My career there was cut short when my husband got posted in Shanghai, something which delighted me because I had been studying sinology for fun.
In China, I volunteered for multiple organisations supporting the wellbeing of orphans and children living beneath the poverty level. At the same time, I was working on my PhD on human rights between China and Finland.
It was tedious and I often asked myself: who am I doing this for? I thought my father expected it of me, for he, too, was working on a PhD of his own.
However, when I turned 30, I had a typical age-crises, where I sobbed and groaned over the meaning of life, of my life, of what my purpose in life was. I also burnt out, with two toddlers and working full time with my volunteer responsibilities.
I finally decided that I would quit the PhD. The biggest hurdle was calling my dad and telling him. Guess what? It wasn’t a big deal to him. He didn’t think any the less of me, he didn’t love me any the less. That was all in my head.
However, the next year, when I got an inkling of the potential I had to heal myself through alternative therapies, I wanted to learn more. I took up the study of holistic massage and reiki.
Can you imagine the call home to my parents? The moment I told them, “Mum, dad, I’m studying massage now,” the phone line went silent at their end. I could literally hear them scratching their brains thinking what on earth had now possessed me.
They did not take me seriously, and that summer told their friends in Finland that “Pauliina has taken up a new hobby.
Yes, I had also taken up the study of raw food, and started teaching and doing private diners. I loved serving food to people and seeing their faces light up.
Setting up a cafe would have been expensive and almost futile in Singapore, so we decided to try out in Bali. We enrolled our children at the Green School, packed our things up either into storage in Singapore or Finland, and hand-carried the rest with us to Bali.
We didn’t know exactly what we were doing and we told the children this was an experiment. We would see how life takes off in Bali and check in every three months to see how everyone was doing. And that’s where this current business basically fell in my lap.
After months of futile effort and dead ends, the founder of Living Food Lab mentioned to me that she was selling LFL. It was a dream for me. Without knowing anything about running a restaurant, I knew in the depths of my being that I was meant to do this, and I was ready to learn the lessons the hard way.
My husband and I said, “Let’s try. If we fail, at least we tried and won’t end up wondering “what if?”. We weren’t afraid of losing money or failure (well, that’s what we told ourselves, and we set some reality-based limits). We were more afraid of not trying than trying. We just had to do this, and luckily our daughters supported us.
You are the director of Living Food Lab. Tell us a bit about that: What is it; what inspired it?
I’m the director, yes, and also have 8 months training with Matthew Kenney both online and onsite (in Huahin, Maine and New York) as well as one-month training with Elaina Love.
I started in 2013, and in the past few years, it’s become more normal to hear people calling themselves a raw food chef after a few weeks of training. I was never comfortable with that and wanted to keep on learning and experimenting beyond just a few weeks of study.
I’m still uncomfortable using that term next to people who have done heavier training and done “time” in kitchens.
The name “Living Food Lab” already says a lot. The food is “living”, as in “alive”.
It’s said that raw food, not heated above 42-47 degrees Celcius, keeps alive the nutrients, enzymes and vitamins. All our dishes are vegan, with a few exceptions with honey, although since we bought the business in June 2017, we can make all dishes honey-free, and indeed aim to be 100%.
“Lab” refers to the fact that we are constantly experimenting, as our tagline says: Experiments in conscious eating. We have some all-favourite, set recipes, but some recipes live as per new ideas or available ingredients.
We also want to keep the excitement alive by making sure we surprise and delight our diners with something new.
You are originally from Finland?
Born in Finland to Finnish parents, I moved to Brussels at the age of 6, Stockholm at 12, the university in Tampere at 17, then Helsinki at 23, Shanghai at 26, Singapore at 31 and now Bali at 41.
What took you from Singapore to Bali?
Singapore was wonderful when our children were young. Many people consider it a family-city, and it’s also an easy Asian city to live in.
Over ten years we developed strong friendships and our girls thrived at St. Joseph’s Institution International. I was also happy with my role as chairwoman of Athena Network and my work with R.A.W. Inside Out, which I founded in 2013 and have been running since. However, when I spent two months in the US completing levels 3 and 4 of Matthew Kenney culinary academy, the time away from family and home gave me a new perspective and one day I knew that I had outgrown Singapore.
I no longer felt it was my home.
I called my husband and told him my feelings. He asked me what did I want to do about it. I suggested that maybe now was the time to take that deep breath in and move to Bali.
We fell in love with Bali back in 2001, and I visited the Green School a total of 6 times, each time falling deeper and deeper in love with the premises, atmosphere and teaching philosophy at this school in the jungle.
He said he would talk to the girls. The girls were agreeable. Somehow, although we were on different sides of the ocean, we were aligned, ready for a new adventure.
Whilst I was in chef school my husband and daughters visited Bali, looked at housing, made some decisions about where to live. He organised it all, and on New Year’s eve 2016, we flew into Bali and clinked champagne glasses to start 2017 in this Island of the Gods.
What are some of your favourite Bali ingredients?
Turmeric, chilli, ginger, kaffir lime, coconut (fresh, grated, dehydrated), the various sambal.
It seems like too much of a contrast, are you able to fuse Finish culinary ideas with Asian ones?
Finnish cuisine isn’t exactly vegan, with heavy use of fish, meat, and dairy products. I prefer to keep Finnish cuisine as Finnish cuisine by adjusting it to a vegan version through making a few modifications.
What do you love most about Living Food Lab?
There is so much to love, but mostly I love the people involved in it, both our team and our customers. The Green School location is divine, a bamboo structure nestled amongst tall trees and lush jungle. It’s a school, and so our customers are mainly students, parents, teachers, and staff. It’s a big family.
If I go there, I can easily spend most of the day talking with parents and children, and we often cut through small talk to what’s really happening in our lives. For example, I had an operation over the Christmas holidays, and coming back to school meant a flow of hugs and how-are-yous.
In reciprocity, I gladly lend an ear to parents and teachers, wanting to be of support and help.
What do you like least?
For our Green School location, what I most love is also what I least like: the jungle location. We really are out in the boonies.
If our supplier doesn’t come on time, that’s it: we are without supplies unless the organic Farm Stand has some produce we can substitute.
The electricity constantly goes off, our equipment is hard to maintain in outdoor conditions, which are open to the elements, including the occasional flooding, insects, cats, geckos, etc.
A bamboo structure is also challenging to maintain.
Sometimes we run out of water.
Does the weather in Bali influence what you cook?
It certainly does.
We sell a lot of drinks: infused coconut waters, juices and smoothies. We also don’t make food that’s too heavy. It’s light but nourishing.
We also have to consider what will keep. Some foods mould very quickly under the humid conditions, so we only make small amounts on special days. I also love a gentle dose of chilli, enough to make me sweat even more.
If the food made at Living Food Lab was a book, which book would it be?
It would be a book of twists and turns and sudden inspirations, love, friendship and loyalty, with bursts of crazy laughter.
If the food made at Living Food Lab was music, what would it sound like?
I’m actually a huge music lover and at home, love to cook to a variety of music, from jazz, hip-hop, and pop to rock, golden oldies, dance and classical.
It would sound like whatever mood we are in.
If I had to choose a style of music for Living Food Lab, I’d say it was joyful music, maybe a musical.
What chefs most inspire you?
I’m inspired by chefs who forage, who use nature as both the source of their food and the platform and cooking tool, as in heating food in the earth. Opposites attract! A raw food chef who is attracted to those who know how to make extremely hot food!
If you could eat anywhere in the world, where would it be, what would you eat and why?
I would eat in northern Finland in a white winter scene, a steaming iron pot of mushrooms and comforting potatoes bubbling on the fire, surrounded by reindeer and the sound of drumming.
This is because I love to be in nature, to eat from nature, to immerse myself in the elements and feel the grandness of it all. I like to eat in peace and quiet and immerse myself in magnificent solitude whilst enjoying some grounding food.