The Global Cafe Scene

Sri Chinmoy restaurants and cafes are not only for vegetarians

Sri Chinmoy restaurants and cafes are not only for vegetarians

Like many spiritual figures, Sri Chinmoy has long advocated a vegetarian diet. His reasons, however, are slightly different from the ethical reasons used by many others.

“When we eat meat, fish and so forth, the aggressive, animal consciousness enters into us,” he has said. “Our nerves become agitated; we unconsciously become restless and aggressive. The mild qualities of vegetables, on the other hand, help us to establish in our inner life, as well as in our outer life, the qualities of sweetness, softness, simplicity and purity.”

    Around the world, his students have started vegetarian restaurants and cafeterias, promoting his philosophy for vegetarian food – with an emphasis on enjoyment. (They go well beyond the beancurd and lettuce-leaf stereotypes espected by some non-vegetarians.) Food, after all, is healthiest when it can be enjoyed.

    Almost everywhere, restaurants are one of the riskiest small business ventures. Adding to that, most of Sri Chinmoy’s students started restaurants with one credential: the inspiration of vegetarian food. No Cordon Bleu diplomas, nor years of experience in the restaurant trade. Though some were excellent cooks, most of them started from square one.

    Here are some of the restaurants that have proven the value of inspiration, dedication, and – let’s not forget – good recipes.

OSLO, NORWAY: Opening in the Nick of Time

The foundation of Oslo coffee shop The Fragrance of the Heart sounds like a comedy of errors. The cosy coffee shop is nestled between the Oslo Town Hall, where the Nobel Prizes are handed out, and a gourmet restaurant (from which they leased the cafe). The café’s launch was advertised for Friday, 10 October 2003, and even as the day came precariously close, and they suffered numerous delays, proprietors Husiar Johnsen and Martanda Sekse were determined to open in time.

    Easier said than done. On the night of October 9, Husiar and Martanda were still hard at work – not simply decorating the shop, but learning how to make coffee. Fortunately, the “the best barista in Norway” (according to Martanda) had arrived, to give them a six-hour class. They were in training until the early hours of the morning, ready for the big test: the customers.

When they opened, just a few hours later, they served coffee and cakes free of charge. It was the least they could do, recalls Martanda, “because really, we had no idea what we were doing.” The customers were very kind… much to Martanda’s disappointment.  “They were almost too nice, because they never complained. You want feedback, but everybody’s nice.”

How many coffee shops would close just after opening day? After the launch-date excitement, The Fragrance of the Heart was closed for four days. “Husiar said, “No we can’t open yet.’ But I said, ‘We have to open. We’re paying the rent. We just have to jump into the water.’” Despite the misgivings, they re-opened, and started serving meals two months later.

    It might sound like comedy, but The Fragrance of the Heart was founded on drama – an adverse event, which Martanda sees, in hindsight, as a piece of good fortune. Eight years ago, he suffered a bicycle accident, which left him badly injured… and thanks to compensation, a little wealthier. With some of this money, he bought himself an apartment. Using this apartment as collateral, he took out a loan to buy the coffee shop. “I always felt something good would come out of that accident. You have to be positive.”

Nowadays, being positive is an easy task. The Fragrance of the Heart has several regular customers, including many of the VIPs buying a coffee en route to work at the Town Hall.

The gourmet restaurant next door might sound like competition, but once again it has proven a blessing in disguise – in various unexpected ways. For a time, they employed the restaurant’s head chef. He would cook for them during the day, then head next door to make dinner.

The restaurant’s owner was more than happy with this arrangement, and is happy to help them succeed. He wants them to do good business. This is partly because he was inspired by their happy, good-natured attitude...

And partly because he sold them the lease.

CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND: Feasting the Eyes – and the Palate

There is something different about The Lotus-Heart café/restaurant – and it’s not just the menu. True, the cuisine is noticeable: a global selection of non-GMO, organic, dairy-free, gluten-free or low-fat foods (all cooked in non-aluminium cookware). But the company philosophy does not end with the food.

    It’s obvious as you enter this colourful café. For years, the city of Christchurch has catered for vegetarians, but it has never had a place like this. The waitresses are wearing bright Indian saris, rather than the black outfits favoured by so many inner-city cafés nowadays. The multi-coloured decorations, including the unusual gift shelves, are watched over by a large painting of Lakshmi, the lotus goddess.

“They’re feeling something different, but they’re not sure what it is,” says Kuhakini McMillan, one of the staff.

 “The whole place is set up to be a manifestation of spirituality and the higher life,” says Harita Davies, manager of The Lotus-Heart. “In most places you go, the place is often decorated in a grungy or ordinary kind of way. The artwork may be disturbed, or just a reflection of the ordinary human struggle of life. But the artwork around the Lotus-Heart is by Sri Chinmoy, embodying a higher consciousness, light, joy…”

The descriptions on this page, and the revelations of the menu, might bring an image of a new-agey establishment run by crystal-gazing space cadets. Instead, the staff of The Lotus-Heart impresses as a practical and down-to-earth team. As for the food… the cajun vegetable stew, Indian falafel and mushroom roulade raise the question: how could anything so healthy be so nice?

“When we first opened up, we didn’t really know anything,” admits Harita, admitting that they had a sole credential: “We were just vegetarians.”

“It was a bit of a worry at first,” adds Kuhakini.

Things have changed since then. They recently added and extra floor, allowing more space for crowds to attend their Friday night live music. They also cater to eating places around Christchurch, and teamed up with New Zealand’s other Sri Chinmoy café-restaurant, Auckland’s The Blue Bird Café, to publish a recipe book, Bhakti Cookti Bookti.