The place – Monte Verità, in Ascona, Switzerland – is already promising and self-declaring like a manifesto. Pietro Leemann, the Swiss chef among the organizers of the Festival as well as an icon of vegetarian haute-cuisine (his restaurant Joia, in Milan, is the first Michelin-starred vegetarian restaurant in Europe), explains to us what it is all about.
Was there a need for an international Festival on Vegetarian Culture and Cuisine?
The world is changing: people want to eat healthy, and that usually means vegetarian. There is a lot of demand, but not enough offer, especially high quality. We’ve established a contest to promote vegetarian culture and chefs as well as consumers. It will inspire chefs to cook vegetarian dishes and meet the rising demand. Vegetarian cuisine is now known to be better. We will explain why during the Festival thanks to a series of talks on food culture. Knowledge helps you eat better.
The first day of the Festival will take place at Monte Verità, in Ascona, Switzerland. Why did you choose this place?
It is the place of birth of vegetarianism in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. A group of idealists met willing to create a new society based on new values. Vegetarianism symbolically started in Monte Verità. New thoughts and innovative ideas met on these hills overlooking Lake Maggiore, visited over the years by Bakunin, Krishnamurti, Nobel prize winners, thinkers, philosophers, and politicians. It is a wonderful place to start this project.
The contest is for vegan chefs. Why is it more restricted compared to the Festival’s overall theme?
Vegan cuisine is very pure, it needs more creativity. When you cook you need to balance each of the elements of the dish. This is the point of the contest.
You became vegetarian in 1985. How did it happen?
I always had an inclination. It was a gradual process, and I don’t think it’s ok to change overnight one’s diet. I believe that if you start a journey of introspection and thinking, you tend to become vegetarian as a consequence of it. The difference between a vegetarian and a non-vegetarian is about thinking of what you eat as opposed to eating whatever you can find without thinking it through.
You spent two years in between China and Japan. How did this experience influence you?
I had just finished a round of great experiences working with Girardet, Marchesi, at Corviglia in St Moritz, but, I didn’t feel the excitement around "nouvelle cuisine" was a real change in Western cuisine. I wanted to search for a new philosophy in gastronomy in the Far East. I’ve put my cuisine’s foundations there, cultural and technical; I’ve learned about philosophy in India, and gastronomy in China and Japan.
Is it necessary to have a spiritual approach to the world to become vegetarian?
Of course. Nutrition is the key to your health, the environment, animal rights. Being a vegetarian doesn't necessarily mean you are a spiritual person, but in general, once you become vegetarian you naturally tend towards spirituality. The choice you make influences your body, your psyche, and your spirituality.
What mistakes you shouldn’t make when cooking vegetarian?
You shouldn’t cook vegetables that are not in-season, overcook your vegetables or don’t cook them enough, put too much dressing, cook them together instead of cooking them apart. It’s also very important to preserve the vegetable’s beautiful color.
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