In Conversation with Ames Starr
Brisbane-based chef Ames Starr, founder of Raw & Peace, has mastered the art of delicious desserts, sans dairy. We chat to the creative chef about her influences, plant-based living and redefining “raw” food.
Ames, tell us about your journey into the food world. Where did it begin and how?
When I was 20, I was waitressing in a wholefoods cafe in the Blue Mountains. One day, the cook walked out in the middle of a busy lunch shift and I was asked to jump into the kitchen and cook, despite having no commercial cooking experience whatsoever! I somehow managed to nail everything in that lunch rush and was asked to stay in that role instead of waitressing. I loved it! This cafe was really ahead of its time and I learnt a lot there. Everything was made from scratch and it sparked my interest in healthier ways of eating and sustainability. I ended up running this cafe and took these skills with me when I moved to Brisbane, and always cooked in cafes as I put myself through uni.
In a nutshell, what is “raw” food and how can we incorporate more of this style into our everyday diet?
Raw food is all about eating food in as close to its natural state as possible. A decade ago, at the peak of the raw food movement, we were doing a lot of dehydrated dishes. In all honesty, a complete raw diet can be pretty unbalanced for a lot of people. Whenever I see all the hardcore raw foodies I knew 10 years ago, they all have health problems — a lot of autoimmune and gut issues. However, we can definitely benefit from adding more fresh, real food to our diets. Quality produce is at the core of everything I do. Organic cold-pressed juices are an easy way to add more nutrients and we have a lot of ferments — krauts, kefirs and my cashew cheese — that go into many dishes.
You’ve lived in many places, from the Blue Mountains to Bali. How has this nomadic lifestyle contributed to your creative cooking style?
My extensive travels through Asia have certainly influenced my palate. There’s always an abundance of Asian flavours in the lunch cabinet at the cafe — Thai or Indian curries, nasi goreng, spicy salad dressings … and I’m all about eating chilli for breakfast!
Tell us about Raw & Peace. What inspired you to launch this business and what has the journey been like so far?
During a three-month stint in India in 2009, I got typhoid and was really unwell. My plan had been to buy a van and travel around Australia with my daughter Willow for the following year before she started school, but instead we ended up living with friends on beautiful Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island). The intention was to focus on my health and get my strength back post-typhoid, which I did, but because I had nothing to do and I was then eating a full raw vegan diet, I started selling my raw cakes at the local island markets. They were really well received, and then an opportunity came up for me at Northey Street Organic Market in Brisbane, so I decided to move back to Brisbane and make a proper business out of it.
At the time I thought it would be cool to have a job that I could work around Willow’s school hours — I never would’ve thought I’d be doing it this long! We hit the 11-year mark in September and it’s been a pretty wild ride. There have been so many highlights — getting to teach a bunch of Asia-Pacific’s best chefs for Accor Hotels in Singapore is one example — but the biggest has been the amazing community I’ve created at both my market and my cafe. I have the most wonderful people in my life and I’m so grateful for them.
What is one thing in your kitchen or cooking process that you can’t live without?
For the cake side of my business, it’s definitely cashew nuts and my Blendtec commercial blender. I couldn’t make them without these essentials.
What is something that has inspired you lately?
I recently renovated the commercial kitchen in my cafe and I’ve been having so much fun there that I literally have to force myself to go home every night! It’s always organic seasonal produce that gets me excited to create new things though. I see the produce first and that inspires the dish, not vice versa.
What are you enjoying eating, cooking and experimenting with at the moment?
I am often gifted beautiful organic produce from customer friends and farmers at my market. This week I’ll be playing with sweet potato greens — I’m thinking about a coconut and turmeric curry for them. I also have a lot of freshly picked mulberries, so maybe a waffle special with a mulberry sauce, vanilla cashew cream, fresh mulberries and vanilla bean coconut ice cream, which will be topped with freeze-dried raspberry dust and edible flowers. We’re also about to start making plant-based milkshakes at the cafe with house-made cashew milk and organic sugar-free syrups. I am ridiculously excited about this!
What will your festive spread look like this year?
It’s always very colourful and over abundant! I love to start with a plant-based cheeseboard and then we have a few different creative salads, every kind of baked vegetable imaginable, delicious sauces and dressings, and a few different desserts. Last year it was baked passionfruit cheesecake (cashew-based, of course) and my raw vegan pavlova. And loads of summer fruits — lychees and cherries especially! For our market and cafe, we have Christmas treats that are made to order, so I always try to make a few extra raw Christmas puddings and white Christmas bars for us to have at home.
What does the ultimate dining experience look like for you?
It’s actually incredibly simple — a grazing board on a beautiful picnic rug by the beach with my favourite people. My two children and I do this every week or two and they love it as much as I do.
Do you have any tips for those wanting to add more raw, organic and plant-based ingredients and meals to their lifestyle?
- Being organised is key. Try to batch as much of your food prep as you can at the start of the week to make things easier when you’re busy; have your veggies pre-cut in the fridge or a pot of quinoa pre-cooked so you can throw it in a pan, add veggies, fresh herbs and spices for an instant meal.
- Swap out the worst things in your diet for healthier alternatives. For example, a raw treat over a conventional chocolate bar, zucchini noodles or a quality gluten-free pasta over white pasta, cashew cheese over dairy cheese, and kombucha or water kefir over soft drinks or alcohol.
- Shop at your local organic market if you have one. Buy directly from farmers and learn to buy and eat what is in season — this supports local producers and will help cut costs too, so it’s a win-win.