Saturday, September 5, 2015

Los Angeles Food & Wellness Series: Part One

To kick start my Los Angeles series, I've decided to sit and chat with chefs, restaurant owners, and others who are health & wellness seekers. All of them are on a path to knowledge, wisdom, and empowerment when it comes to physical, mental, and emotional well-being. 

The Springs

For my first interview, I was lucky enough to speak to chef Michael Falso of one of my favorite LA spots- the Springs. If you've not been here, it is an absolutely amazing experience. I have never tasted fresher, tastier, or more wholesome foods. The Springs is unlike any of other place in Los Angeles. Though touted as "vegan" and "raw," it's not what you'd expect. There's no judgment here, and the vibe is different from anything I've felt; it's clean-cut, earthy, contemporary, and approachable all at once. There's no emptiness in its open space and sleek style.  It also doubles as a wellness center, with a spa and yoga studio adjoining the restaurant. Label it whatever you like, but to all food and wellness enthusiasts, it doesn't disappoint. Take a bite of one of their delicious salads, or sip a thick and creamy smoothie, and you'll be hooked!

Name: Michael Falso
Occupation: Chef at the Springs 
Location: Los Angeles, CA

What was your lifestyle like growing up? How did you eat? 

It was the Standard American Diet- lots of dry pasta, ground beef dishes of all sorts, and so forth. My mom would have fresh fruit, but it didn't seem appealing to me. I occasionally ate that but never consistently. The first time I remember having a peach that wasn't canned was when I was fourteen. How had I not had one before then?! It was amazing. I think there was a lot missing I didn't notice. Everything was highly processed, very carboydrate-rich, and not nourishing. So I think that's why I kept eating; I was looking for the nourishment I wasn't getting.

Did you ever struggle with anything mentally and emotionally? If so, how did you deal with it?

Oh yea, definitely- emotionally for sure. I was really frustrated and believed I needed to accept that there was nothing I could do. It was extremely depressing to be sentenced to be overweight and unhealthy forever. I didn't know what to do! Diets didn't help, and the food didn't taste good. I primarily wanted to go to culinary school to learn what went into things and how to make healthy dishes. I didn't realize that [that was the reason] at the time. At the Culinary Institute of America, you gain the "freshman 50." We were exposed to a lot of things and ate a lot of heavy foods. That was really valuable, because I was eating things I'd never eaten before but at the same time felt awful. For how much weight I gained and how much food I ate then, I had never been hungrier. That's something that I talk about with my friends a lot too; we were constantly hungry. We were overfed but malnourished. 

Where did you work before the Springs?

Before this, I worked at Moon Juice, the juice bar in Venice. I also worked for Matthew Kenney for awhile, then Pure Food & Wine in New York. And I also worked for Mario Batali. 

What inspired you to change to making plant-based dishes?

I was actually significantly gaining weight. I had gone to the doctor and found out that I had high blood pressure. I was just diagnosed with sleep apnea at the time, and I was considered pre-diabetic. I was ballooning- literally- and didn't necessarily know why, or what the reason was. I was thinking all the food that we made was from scratch, so it seemed, "Oh, this is the healthiest option," like the meat and pasta. But it was all so heavy! 

I was desperate. I tried all different kinds of things. I made myself exercise seven days a week, and that helped a little bit. There was something still not right, but I couldn't really put my finger on it. One of my friends gave me a book called Eat to Live [by Doctor Joel Fuhrman], and when I was reading it, it made so much sense. He challenges you in it to eat fruits and vegetables for six weeks straight. I don't know why I did or what possessed me to actually do it, but I sat down and scratched it out in a notebook, because I wanted to try it! I bought a Vitamix and started making smoothies. I literally stuck to it, and I want to say by the end of the first week, there was such a dramatic shift in everything I was feeling. I went from being extremely depressed to actually being light-hearted. I was looking at food differently; everything changed. I dropped ten pounds in one week! I started having more energy, sleeping better, and I thought to myself, My god, this is only one week. That was the start of it, and it got me interested in pursuing "vegan." I didn't want to say that word, and I don't think I even understood that [that's] what it really was. It felt really restrictive and unnatural, but it truly started a journey making a connection between what I was eating and what I felt. 

It was because of this that I went looking for a smoothie while out with a friend one day, and we found Pure Food & Wine. It was packed, and people were enjoying themselves. I was looking at the food people were eating. It was beautiful and really well done, so I wanted to just try something. I took a bite and had that experience where you eat something, and in your head you're just looking for the words to describe what you're experiencing. I was completely blown away! Like, how was this raw food? It really stuck with me, and I kept going back to it. I ended up quitting [at Mario Batali's] within a week of that experience and going to work there. It was that powerful.

Why raw?

I am not completely raw now. I was strict for a year and a half- very regimented and very unapproachable about it (like my mind was made up). It didn't serve me that well. I'm glad I did that, as my intention was clear about what I wanted to pursue. But it was not the most balanced. I was very hungry all the time. I had to always think about what I could eat, where I could eat, and where to get it. I'm not interested in living like that; I don't want to schedule out every moment of my eating life. It creates an imbalance. I think it was good for me to get that way, because I knew it was possible to choose what I wanted to make. For the first time, I was making my own recipes [he designed the Springs' menu]. I'm not interested in eating meat, but I've had cheese a few times. When I go home, I eat my mom's Christmas cookies, because that's the tradition of my life. I'm not giving that up. I'm sure she could make it without butter or refined sugar, but I'm not concerned as I'm not consuming it on a day-to-day basis. I don't feel guilty about it. I think I've found my own worth through it; it's not all-or-nothing. 

Do you notice a difference in your mental and emotional well-being since eating this way? How?

VERY much so. And if nothing else, I became very aware of Omega 3 intake. It's very important for mental stability. I take a supplement and eat a lot of flaxseed. I don't like to play with that, because it's missing from a lot of our diets. 

I feel more in control and feel better about myself. It has revealed a lot of my deeper intentions and showed me what was important to me. On the nutritional side of things, I was very prone to mood swings, which is closely related to blood sugar levels. I get less headaches now. 

What's a typical food day in your life look now?

When I first wake up I have a green juice. I've read a lot about that not being good for you due to the sugar rush (because it goes straight to your blood), but I feel incredible! I can go most of the day without eating anything else. It's not that I'm trying to, but I feel full. The next time I eat is usually by three o'clock when we have family meal. It's usually a salad and a grain (rice or quinoa), since it makes it a bit more hearty. We'd love to make only raw meals, but it's not financially realistic or sustainable.

Why did you choose to work at the Springs?

For California, there's not that many places to get very good or tasty salads. We need salads that are meals and satisfying. The salad isn't meant to be eaten with other things; it's concentrated nutrition. This was the primary reason. Also, I'd fallen in love with juice and wanted to try my own flavor combinations. 

Kimberly and Jared (the owners) are from New York; they'd actually eaten at Pure Food & Wine, so they probably tasted some of the dishes I made! They moved here within same time frame as I did, and we were introduced by a mutual friend. I was listening to all the things they wanted to do, and it sounded incredible. When I started to see things come together, I wanted to be a part of it. I couldn't separate myself from the operation at all. 

How do you balance work and lifestyle in order to stay healthy? 

I work all the time, so it's very hard for me to do; I just don't have an option. I have to do it. I love bikram yoga. It's so awful and so hot and so terrible that I don't have a choice but to to meditate to get through it! The discomfort forces me to disconnect and be mindful. I feel really good at the end of it and feel better sweating, and it makes me hydrate properly. 

I used to go to farmer's markets and just kind of look around and get inspired by seasonal produce- what was coming in and what was going out. I've also been reading a lot. I take an acting class as well; I'm partially serious and partially not. I don't hope for anything from it, but it's just great exploration of self and a very difficult exercise. It's terrifying, but I like it. 

Is there anything you won't eat because you know it makes you feel unwell- be it anxiety, depression, etc.? Or any type of food you think people should avoid eating in particular?

Coffee... I like cold brew, but when I have it my heart races, and I get very shaky. People don't realize that one cup is supposed to be eight ounces (not a coffee mug cup). It really, truly affects people in ways they don't realize, and it really affects me. Even if I have a little, I get very anxious, sweat and feel uncomfortable. It's very taxing on your nervous system and on your adrenals!

Has eating better inspired you to make other lifestyle changes?

I wouldn't be in California if it wasn't for my change in eating; I wouldn't have been interested in it. Meditation and mindfulness have helped me be more aware. I was becoming "vegan" without knowing it and began throwing around the "V" word with everyone. My family and friends thought I was throwing away my life and wasting really great career opportunities. 

But I came to realize there's something very dark about consuming animal products. It's easier not to acknowledge when it's a part of your routine. I don't want to call it "wrong," but I think having a little space between each allowed me to recognize that. At the Springs, we aren't dogmatic- it's not anyone's place to shame someone else or to tell people what to do. Everyone comes to their own realizations at their own time if that's what they're seeking. We try to focus on providing the most nutrition in each bite as opposed to throwing around blame!

What is your favorite dish to make?

It changes quite a lot, but I have a really big thing for salads. I have a knack for piling them up and tossing them with the right amount of dressing. 

Is there a particular health advocate or wellness figure who inspires you?

Dr. Fuhrman, because he was the most eye-opening and kind of in-your-face experience. I'd never made that connection before in my life, and it just became obvious to me. And then Victoria Kutanko (Green Smoothie); it got me interested into trying to make smoothies taste good. 

Finally, what would you say to skeptics who don't believe mind and body align?

You can pull it off now but not forever. That's not to say that just eating healthy or taking care of yourself will guarantee you longevity or a healthy future, but it removes some serious risks in an already stacked situation. We have chemicals of all kinds that we're ingesting, breathing, and putting on our bodies. Why wouldn't you want to do the best for yourself that you can?

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