White tablecloths, crème sauces and serving celebrities may be the pinnacles of success for many a chef, but not for Chef Lee Gross. Throughout his career he’s eschewed the traditional path to discover a cuisine that deeply reflects his values—macrobiotics.
“The word macrobiotic comes from macro and bio, meaning ‘large or big life,’” Gross explained to Organic Connections. As its name suggests, macrobiotics encompasses more than just food; it encourages a healthy lifestyle that nourishes the planet as well.
The macrobiotic diet itself is based on an understanding of the energy qualities of foods and the balancing of those energies. While the diet is plant based, it can also include limited meat as well. “There is no food that is really out of balance,” Gross continued; “except that when you understand the extreme energetic nature of things like animal food and sugar, you will choose to stay within the more balanced realm if you’re looking to maintain your health.”
Chef Lee Gross co-founded the popular M Café restaurants in Los Angeles as the first eateries dedicated to bringing macrobiotic cuisine to a broad audience—and they have succeeded far beyond anyone’s expectations.
A chef’s macrobiotic journey
Chef Gross didn’t start out with a macrobiotic specialty but was led to it by his conscience.
“I was working my way up the culinary ladder in Napa Valley, California, getting my butt kicked by an amazing French chef,” Gross recalled. “I then had a twenty-something crisis—I was coming into more of a consciousness around what I was doing, where I fit into the world, and the fact that I was cooking rich food for rich people and wasn’t really being of much service. I was beginning to understand how food plays into the bigger scheme of things. There are the political implications of food shortages, as well as social and environmental implications, and I just felt I should be doing more with my time on the earth.”
Gross’s search for a deeper purpose shortly led him to join his girlfriend (today his wife) at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck, New York. “The chef that we worked under that season became a huge influence in my life,” Gross said. “She introduced my girlfriend and me to macrobiotics.”
For Gross, that was where the penny dropped in terms of his life path. “When I began to understand what it was about, I saw it as the perfect way to mesh my training, my talent and my ideals together. We ended up going from the Omega Institute to the Kushi Institute in the Berkshires to intensively study macrobiotics. We studied for three years, in residence.”
The Gwyneth Paltrow Connection
Chef Gross has a maxim he operates by: If a life choice he has made is the right one, everything will fall into place. That was certainly the case as he wrapped up his macrobiotic education.
“While I was at the Kushi Institute, Gwyneth Paltrow’s people contacted them,” Gross related. “She had been coming into her own consciousness—studying yoga and beginning to understand how food affected her. She had learned about macrobiotics through a friend of hers and was looking for someone to cook for her. The Kushi Institute pushed me to go interview because I was the guy with the culinary chops. As it happened, I interviewed on a Friday; on Monday I was cooking lunch for Gwyneth, and by Tuesday I was doing dinner for her and Madonna. That was the next three years of my life.”
Although cooking for a famous actress was certainly a leap forward, it wasn’t Gross’s end goal, and he firmly kept his eye on where he was headed. “During the three years with Gwyneth, I was developing a macrobiotic style that was staying true to its principles,” he said. “But I was making the food a little bit more dynamic—refining flavors while applying my culinary skills and talents to macrobiotic principles and ingredients.”
Once again “fate” intervened. On a trip to Japan, Gross discovered a restaurant that specialized in a French-Japanese macrobiotic hybrid cuisine. The chef at that restaurant was the son of one of Gross’s teachers at the Kushi Institute, and this chef informed Gross that the company that owned the restaurant, Chaya Restaurant Group, was looking to take its concept to the US.
“When I got back to New York, I called the corporate offices of Chaya in Los Angeles,” said Gross. “I told them I’d heard that they were opening a macrobiotic restaurant and asked if I could get on board. As it happens, my chef friend from Japan had mentioned my name to them; and just as I was calling them, their PR person was Google-searching me.” The result was the M Café, which opened not long afterwards.
Gross had no idea if the unique restaurant idea would work in the US. He was to be pleasantly surprised.
“When we opened the doors, all the financial projections were blown away,” Gross said proudly. “There were lines out the door and people just were like, ‘Yes, this is exactly what we want!’ It was amazing that people embraced those foods. We were skeptical ourselves, worried that it would be lost on the public, but it wasn’t.”
Changing with the seasons
M Café utilizes seasonally available fresh ingredients for a good amount of their fare. “One place the seasonal influence really plays a major role is the deli case,” Gross pointed out. “The deli case is a main focus of the M Café menu; from it many customers buy prepared salads, which change seasonally. Our soups change seasonally as well, and certain ingredients on the plates also change. We use steamed vegetables in our tempura bowl, and all those change with the seasons too. Being in Los Angeles and being in Southern California, all the produce is as good as it gets; so we’re blessed to be there.”
Continuing Growth and Mission
Today M Café has opened in a third location, in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood, and it seems there is no end in sight to expansion.
As he did in the beginning, Gross keeps M Café firmly on track with his original vision for it. “M Café’s mission was to bring a macrobiotic cuisine or food that adheres to the principles of macrobiotics to a much wider audience,” Gross concluded. “We’ve definitely succeeded in that. I hope diners take away a feeling of satisfaction but also a lightness, because I think that is the best way to leave a table: to feel like you had a good meal and you’re satisfied but it doesn’t weigh you down. You feel energized and also feel an appreciation of what can be done with these plant-based ingredients, and an appreciation for the creativity and the passion that went into the menu.”
For more information on M Café, please visit www.mcafedechaya.com.