Natasha Czopor’s raw food empire of healthy snacks and vegan desserts have swept the country, winning awards and omnivore fans along the way. I spoke to Dublin’s raw food queen about starting a business, feeding Olympians, and why going raw is easier than you think.
It’s official: raw food is rock’n’roll.
“Thanks Natasha for having us” shouted the lead singer of Mikey & The Scallywags to his 2am audience at this year’s Body and Soul Festival. He was shouting from Natasha’s Living Food tent, which staged over 20 acts during the three-day festival and convinced the thousands that wandered into the tent that raw food could be delicious. Raw – quite literally – rocked.
Natasha is very fond of the festival catering side of her business, and quite rightly proud of the place it has in Body and Soul and Electric Picnic.
“My vision is always that the music, the lifestyle, the joy of the music and the food are all aligned together. So I program all the music myself. The energy of the musicians that play in my tent have to mirror what’s happening in the food, so the energy all goes together.”
This energy and lifestyle has been part of her for 23 years, since she discovered raw food in East Germany.
“I was 20, living in a community north of Berlin; the wall had just come down. One of the guys there was into foraging. So I started foraging, and learned a lot about plants and herbs. I read Leslie Kenton’s book Raw Power, and I just thought ‘this makes total sense’.”
Natasha was raised vegetarian and was vegan when she discovered raw food. She feels lucky that she didn’t come to living food from illness, as a lot of people do.
“It really suited me. I was living in nature, I was making a lot of herbal essences tinctures. I came to it because, I really understood about taking the livingness of your food in your body.”
Her products are free of flour, refined sugar, dairy, wheat, eggs, meat and fish, and organic where possible. Ingredients are not heated above 40°C to preserve enzymes, nutrients, minerals, amino acids and vitamins. You won’t find a microwave or oven in her factory in Parkwest, just food processors, blenders and dehydrators. Everything is made by hand.
Coeliacs, type 2 diabetics, and allergy sufferers love her products, though she says not everyone who eats her food has allergies or illness. She reckons the main reason is that it’s simply full of flavour, and not tasteless like most other snacking foods. Living foods also make you fuller for longer, “because your body’s really taking up the nutrition in your food”. There’s no better endorsement of their nutrition than athletes knocking on her factory door.
“Athletes are turning to plant-based foods, and living food is a component of that. Because it’s a real quality product, they get a lot out of it in terms of their performance. Deirdre Ryan, Irish Olympic athlete, eats my food. I feed the Olympic sailing team. So there’s a lot of cyclists, endurance cyclists, ultra marathon runners, people who are really, really conscious about what’s going in their body, they come to my factory.”
Besides Olympians though, she notices that people are getting fitter and choosing her food as a result. Her products are stocked in bicycle shops, and she’s been asked to sell at triathlons.
Cooking is in her blood; her family tree branched out to family-owned restaurants and cafés before she started her own veggie café and bus for festivals. She loves cooking for other people, and has an incredible affinity with food, claiming “I could make recipes up and taste them all out in my mind without making anything.”
“Living food has different kinds of flavours because they’re fresher, they’re brighter, they can be more intense. With living foods, you have this subtle blending, and the flavors are quite strong. You can’t add loads of flavour, so it’s a different way of making food, but people think ‘Oh my God, there’s so much prep’, but actually, it’s really easy.”
You might be forgiven for thinking that someone with two decades of catering experience might lose sight of what’s ‘easy’ for us mere mortals. But she insists it is.
“Take tomato soup; get a blender, chuck some tomatoes in there, some basil, a bit of miso, lemon, a bit of salt, a bit of olive oil. And just blend. It’s just getting to know your ingredients.”
She believes the increasing amount of processed food on the market takes away people’s strength and their ability to understand how to make food for themselves. For those taking baby steps to a raw diet, she recommends starting with the types of food you like, and discovering how to make them in more of a raw way.
“Start simple. Don’t set yourself up to be complete raw food straight away and then have the meltdown. Introduce stuff into your diet, enjoy it, try some recipes that you like. There’s heaps of information on the internet.”
You can make an Alfredo pasta or tomato pasta raw, she points out. Cashew nuts can make a ‘white wine’ sauce. Amazing raw food cheeses don’t need lots of equipment; just nuts, water, olive oil, lemon juice and a food processor. One of her favourite recipes is taking greens, lemon juice, garlic, cashew or walnuts, and hey presto – vegan pesto! Tamari is her secret ingredient. She says lemon juice and a really good sea salt are essential in a raw kitchen.
“You can marinate with lemon juice, you can bring out loads of flavor in lemon. It helps break down the cellular wall of your veg. I always have loads of greens. At the moment, I have rainbow chards, dinosaur kale, mixed leaves, spinach. And tomatoes, broccoli. And Spanish extra virgin olive oil, cold-pressed.”
Sourcing local ingredients is important for the quality, and for supporting Irish businesses.
“I’ve got someone in Mayo with ten acres who grows the kale for me now. She’s more expensive, but it supports her on her farm. And I’ll write that on my new packaging; ‘kale supplied by Anne Walsh, County Mayo, grown on her farm’ with a little picture of Ann.”
Living food is about conscious decisions, she explains. Consciously supporting local and ethical businesses, as well as being more conscious of your health and what you put into your body.
Which brings me to the subject of her own (glowing) health. When I remind her a blogger recently described her as looking 25, she laughs and replies that she is currently four months pregnant at the age of 42. Motherhood will not slow down this shrewd businesswoman though. The next step for her company is exporting.
“There’s a big market for it. It’s just getting the production right. Trying to get machines and moving to a bigger factory. And getting an investor.”
With rock stars in her festival tent and Olympians in her factory, we’re guessing a venture capitalist ready to invest in her business can’t be too far behind.
This article first appeared in the Irish Vegetarian Magazine