Veganism is both the practice of strictly abstaining from the use of all animal products, particularly in diet, and an associated philosophy that rejects the commodity status of animals. The vegan movement is flourishing in Kuwait. This five part series takes a look at the creative Kuwaitis who have adopted the ethical vegan lifestyle and some who have established businesses based on its principles. This is part three.
Juna Taki Alawadhi is an unconventional business owner who lives according to her own set of ideals. For her, individuality is the key, competition is an ugly word, and simple and basic things mean joy. She’s against labels, proud not to be corporate, and feels her main purpose in life is to bring happiness to the world.
Juna’s is the name of her vegan restaurant in the basement of Galleria 2000 in Salmiya. It was initially called Fed By JM. The intimate, cozy premises, with just a few small tables, give no hint that behind the scenes there is a whopping 150 square meter kitchen where delectable delicacies are prepared by a team of cheerful Filipino cooks, all expertly trained by Juna.
Although most of them had never cooked before, they were fast-learners and soon came to be experts and love what they do. Their good nature has infused her kitchen with positive energy, which is just the way she wants it.
“My staff are happy, they’re always singing. That’s the feeling I want in my kitchen; if someone is sad then they shouldn’t be there,” she says.
Juna chose to focus on the quality of the kitchen rather than the décor of the restaurant, she explains. “All our kitchen equipment is high quality and specially imported from abroad. We even have our own brick oven. And everything is made from scratch with fresh ingredients and love. That’s not just the right way to do it, it’s the only way.”
Juna’s policy of cheerfulness even extended to her battle with bureaucracy in order to obtain the necessary permits to open her business. “I spent from 2012 to 2013 doing all the paperwork and getting to understand the system. I did everything by myself, strictly by the book. I used to go to the ministry and I’d find the people there having a horrible day and looking fed up, but I refused to join in their negative mood. I just kept laughing and smiling through the entire process.”
Juna is still smiling and her big brown eyes shine with enthusiasm when she talks about her healthy lifestyle that she’s working to share with others. She has been a vegan since the age of twelve, when most people still didn’t know the meaning of the word, eating only a plant-based diet that also excludes eggs, honey, and dairy products.
“I grew up loving animals. My dad made the effort to have us kids get to know animals, so as a kid I decided I didn’t want to eat them,” she says. “As an adult I think health wise this is the lifestyle for me.”
At first some people made fun of her plant-based restaurant and catering idea. “People would ask, ‘Can’t you have some meat options?’ But since I don’t eat it, how can I cook it? Either you cook with passion or you shouldn’t cook at all,” she states.
When her restaurant opened, Juna didn’t do any marketing. The news of her natural, healthy, and tasty food soon spread through the Kuwaiti grapevine, first among friends and relatives, then among different groups, like body builders looking to cleanse their system, and people suffering from medical conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure and cholesterol, even cancer.
“Many doctors and nutritionists began recommending my meal plans. More and more people got to understand what clean eating and a healthy lifestyle is all about and now we get people of all ages and backgrounds sitting at our tables and joining our meal plans. After all, our food is meant for all happy eaters. Attitudes on food and health are slowly changing and it’s awesome,” she says.
At Juna’s, all the ingredients are fresh and seasonal, there’s nothing commercial, canned, or packaged, and everything is made in-house. That often makes production a long process but for Juna it’s all about making the best quality dish for people to enjoy.
“When we make our bread, for example, even before we start kneading the dough we have already gone through a long natural process. We make our own flour, first by soaking organic grains for at least twelve hours, then sprouting them and afterwards dehydrating them and finally grinding them in an electric stone mill,” she explains. “The real thing simply tastes better, and it also makes you a better human being.”
Juna believes in going back to basics. “In the past, the lifestyle in Kuwait was much simpler. It was about grandma making bread and just about everything else at home. For us, basic and simple is the way to go, and it’s all the simple things that make the restaurant special.”
According to Juna, many people think healthy eating is time-consuming and complicated, but if you know what you’re doing you can make things simple. “I’ve taught people that don’t even know how to make sourdough starter over the phone, and then took them through the whole bread making process step by step, so in the end they had perfect sourdough. I can teach people the basics and they can grow and learn and become a better cook than I am.”
Juna’s cooking classes, occasionally held on a Saturday afternoon, are creative and spontaneous affairs. The aim is to provide inspiration rather than specific instructions on how to prepare plant-based dishes. There are no exact measurements or even mandatory ingredients because it’s all up to the preference and personal choice of the cook.
“My recipes don’t always taste the same; they vary according to my mood and my energy that day. We choose the base of the dish, like quinoa, rice, beans, or potatoes, and then I say, ‘Let’s work.’ We start adding spices and other ingredients and everyone is cooking to their own taste and their own mood,” she says.
“Once we did a class on veggie burgers and people were amazed that we ended up with six different types of burgers. That’s because everyone was cooking according to what they like. Individuality is the key.”
Juna enjoys sharing her tips and techniques and supporting other businesses that promote a healthy and ethical lifestyle. She strongly believes in networking and cooperation rather than competition, which she sees filled with negative energy.
“I’d much rather help people than compete with them,” she says. “For example, if someone asks for one of my recipes, I have no problem sharing it with them. Since I have about 10,000 other ideas in my head, I’m not worried about people stealing my recipes.
“People have this image of vegan food as tasteless, but when they start eating it they can’t believe the amount of flavor,” Juna continues. “Our way of living will inspire others and that’s why we try to share it.”
Juna has developed a very positive working relationship with Artspace Gallery, which just happens to be in the same building. “Artspace is owned by three girls and just after we opened the restaurant, they came and said, ‘How can we help? We’d like to support you.’ They started eating my food and fell in love with it to the point that they asked me to collaborate with them and open a café inside ArtSpace, called Alice & Co, that offers clean eating and has many plant-based options.”
Artspace artists also recycle Juna’s environmentally-friendly food containers for arts and crafts projects, thus supporting the concept of sustainable clean living.
According to Juna, most of those who attend her events are non-vegans who want to know what clean eating is all about. Although she’s happy to provide them with information, rather than having them stress about the technicalities of being vegan, she’d rather just have them focus on a healthy lifestyle. That’s why when she first opened her restaurant she didn’t even mention that it’s vegan.
“I don’t believe in being strict or pushy about anything,” she says. “My husband is a meat-eater but he also loves vegetables and he loves my cooking and so does his family. When we travel we stay in an apartment with a nice kitchen and we enjoy going to farmers markets and buying fresh produce and then preparing it. And he tells me, ‘I’m learning so much from you.’
“We’re completely different but I would never try to force him or anyone else to be a vegan. That’s not love, that’s just a form of bullying. And rather than bullying we should inspire.
“Respect and co-existence is the way to live,” she continues. “I don’t judge people, I don’t put them into categories or give them labels. I don’t believe in labels. Families are all about loving and supporting each other no matter what. If your kid is different you still need to support him. Don’t judge people because they’re different.”
During the course of her own life journey, Juna is fortunate to have been supported by people like her parents and husband who appreciate her creative, unconventional nature. Before opening her restaurant she tried several different career paths, including medical school, health coaching, and a short six months in the corporate world.
“I wanted to be a doctor because when you’re a kid you think the best way to help people is to be a doctor, and helping people is my life purpose. But in college the lifestyle was horrible. It was filled with negative energy and was so toxic that I actually became seriously ill, so I dropped out,” she remarks.
In 2009 Juna went on to study to be a health coach in New York City. “It was hard-core holistic health coaching. I studied with many doctors and gurus and I loved learning about that lifestyle, but it still wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do.”
The corporate world was also not for Juna. She fulfilled a six-month commitment in a corporate job in Kuwait and then happily resigned. Although her restaurant business is going well, with many loyal customers who also subscribe to her weekly meal plans, she is proud of being a small business and not being corporate.
Juna has turned down requests from around the Gulf to set up a franchise. “I can’t physically be in many different locations at once, I don’t need more branches, I’m happy with just one. Having more branches doesn’t mean you’re successful, it just means you’re commercial,” she says.
With her plant-based restaurant, Juna has obviously found her niche. Her ethical business promotes a clean eating lifestyle and protection of animals and the environment, while fulfilling her life goal of making people happy and being happy herself. Reflecting on her success, she remembers a recent comment from one of her customers.
“One guy told me, ‘When I eat your food I feel happiness, like your food is hugging me from inside.’ I said ok, that’s kind of creepy, but thank you!” she laughs.
By Claudia Farkas Al Rashoud – Special to the Arab Times