Cherie Soria and Dan Ladermann
Founder and Director of the Living Light Culinary Arts Institute
Interviewed by Laura Bruno
On May 22, 2008, I enjoyed sitting down with Cherie Soria and Dan Ladermann at the Living Light Culinary Institute on Northern California's Mendocino Coast. With graduates from 35 countries, this Fort Bragg-based school attracts 350 students per year for classes ranging from a weekend FUNdamentals of Raw Living Foods course for beginners to the year-long Professional Chef Training program. In addition to the culinary school, Living Light also offers:
- a shop with books, kitchen gadgets and top-of-the-line organic foods and seasonings
- a Café recognized by VegNews as one of the top twenty vegan restaurants in the world
- an eco-travel Inn with organic shower supplies, bedding, and filtered shower and tap water.
They also host the educational Vibrant Living Expo, which attracts national speakers and visitors each August.
Cherie, who has been a raw vegan for nearly 16 years, began her career 38 years ago as a teacher of vegetarian cooking. "Making the switch to vegan was difficult," she admits. "I really missed my eggs and dairy! "When she discovered the concept of raw vegan foods, though, something shifted. "I changed my tastes!" giggles the petite 61 year old, whose looks and energy rival those of people twenty-five years younger.
"Raw food is about abundance. You can eat all the raw fruits and vegetables you want and our job is to show you how to make them taste so good you'll prefer them over foods that are high in fat or lacking in nutrition. We know your comfort foods are important and were not trying to take them away. In fact, we tell people if they just add more raw fruits and vegetables to their diet each day, they will most likely start feeling more energetic right away and the more you eat, the better you feel. Antioxidants and phytonutrients are heat sensitive," Cherie says. "You kill 'em when you cook 'em and these are our first defense against cancer and premature aging. No one argues that, but people don't want to be 'should on. She adds with a mischievous smile, "The thing is, most people eat for flavor, not for heath and we know that. Our belief is that once you've tasted the freshness of gourmet raw vegan foods, you'll want more and more. That's why we have the slogan 'Making Healthy Living Delicious.' We don't just want to create food that's as good. We want to make raw foods taste better than cooked. (Having spent two days sampling treats at the Living Light Café, I'd say they've succeeded!)
Dan, now a 13-year raw vegan, began as an engineer in internet technology and gradually developed a professional interest in the vegan lifestyle. After attending the Hippocrates Institute's Health Educator Program, in 1998 he created the non-profit Institute for Vibrant Living, whose 1999 health expo in San Francisco had 1000 attendees. From there, Dan began attending health retreats in places like Hawaii, Bali, and Jamaica. "I even participated in a raw vegan kayak trip in Alaska!" says Dan. "I began to notice that events coordinated by Living Light really stood out. They were consistently well-organized, had great people, and they offered delicious food! I thought this is the kind of place I'd like to be involved with, so I set my intention to get involved."
At this point, Cherie chimes in: "So, as you can see, Dan's quite effective with his intentions. Now he's the Director of Living Light, we're married, and we have four businesses together!"
They enjoy my jaw-dropping surprise. Cherie and Dan are such dynamic individuals and their skills, experience and interests seem so perfect for business partnership that prior to the interview I had no idea they were married! Indeed, these passionate health advocates actually met through their work. As Dan notes, "We shared our first kiss on camera. It was my first collaboration with Living Light, and at the end of the event, it was my job to deliver flowers to the chef. As I handed Cherie the flowers, I kissed her cheek. Years later we were watching that video at my mother's house and we just looked at each other. Who has their first kiss on videotape? We suddenly realized, 'Wow, that's where it all began!'"
Cherie just released a new book with two other long-term vegetarian activists, the registered dieticians and co-authors, Brenda Davis and Vesanto Melina (The New Becoming Vegetarian and Becoming Vegetarian). In The Raw Revolution Diet, Cherie wanted to offer a raw vegan cookbook with scientifically proven nutrition. "The book is groundbreaking in that it only draws upon peer-reviewed studies. When I initially contacted these dieticians, they were a little skeptical, "she admits. "They warned me they couldn't guarantee that what they'd find would support a raw vegan diet. I believed in the diet, and the official results were amazing! "Her eyes sparkle as she grins: "Now both dieticians follow a high raw diet!"
Davis and Melina studied the nutrients and helped Cherie create a raw book specifically tailored to those wanting to lose weight through vegan foods. The book includes over 150 recipes, as well as a "21-day fast track with real guidelines. "It offers lots of nutritional tables in a user-friendly format. As Cherie says, "It's easy to have an unhealthy vegan diet. Even raw recipes often contain lots of fat. In writing this book, I had 'the sugar police' on one side and 'the fat police' on the other. "Cherie notes that even a raw diet too high in fat can eventually sap one's energy and mental clarity. "I need my energy and clarity! She says, motioning to the nearby classroom, café and store.
According to Cherie, "The book's subtitle says it all, Feast, Lose Weight, Gain Energy, Feel Younger. That's what it's all about. The weight loss is safe and scientifically backed, but this book is really for everyone. Who doesn't want to gain energy and feel and look younger while feasting? Even though the recipes contain only set amounts of "fractional fat per serving," says Cherie, "With our guidelines, we could still create really beautiful satisfying meals. The result is a program that's appropriate for weight loss but also sustainable. The sustainable part is really important, because it's not just about losing the initial weight. It's about finding a lifestyle you can maintain."
When I ask what comes next, Cherie and Dan both share their excitement about this year's Vibrant Living Expo, held August 22-24, 2008 in downtown Fort Bragg. "The Expo is close to both our hearts, "says Dan. "A labor of love, "adds Cherie. They envision this fourth annual event as a gathering and a "bridge for different thoughts around raw foods. Raw food diets are not all the same, but this Expo focuses on the similarities. It's a venue to hear them all."
Both Dan and Cherie serve on the Advisory Committee of Sedona's larger Raw Spirit Festival, but they emphasize the educational aspects of the Expo. "It's all about education, with three lecture venues and one culinary venue every hour on the hour. "The event features raw stalwarts like Gabriel Cousens and Victoria Boutenko, as well as "rising stars" graduates of Living Light who feel ready to teach their very first raw food preparation class.
I leave the interview with a copy of The Raw Revolution Diet and hugs all around. Spending an hour with Dan and Cherie, one can easily understand why Living Light has become such a shining example of what's possible in the ever-changing world of raw foods. Their experience and enthusiasm raise the energy in any room, and their love pulses through my entire two-day stay. From students to employees, everyone seems genuinely kind. Excited about biodegradable utensils, organic produce, and compostable containers, the employees I meet clearly feel thrilled to help people heal themselves and the planet, yet they each share a message of acceptance. They welcome everyone from the local omnivore whose health aide suggested an anti-cancer field trip, to the VegFamily writer enjoying raw vegan ice cream on her birthday. As Cherie says, "We begin with appreciation. That sets the tone. "And so it does!