When Natasha Kyssa, co-owner of Ottawa’s SimplyRaw Express restaurant, first considered a raw-food lifestyle, she had been travelling the world for eight years as a fashion model and subsisting on tobacco, caffeine and processed foods. Her turning point came in 1990 when, at age 29, exhausted, depressed and battling weight fluctuations, she began shifting her diet to simple, unprocessed, plant-based meals.
“Not surprisingly, my health took a dramatic turn for the better,” says Kyssa. “My depression diminished, I had more energy, my weight normalized, my complexion improved, my hair got shinier and most rewarding of all, I was able to resolve many of the personal issues that had caused me to make poor food choices in the first place. The closer I ate to nature, the better I felt. It was that simple.”
The changes were, in part, a return to her roots — and those of her Austrian-born mother and Moldavian father, who had immigrated to Canada in 1951 and raised her on home cooking and unrefined foods.
Kyssa’s traditional Eastern European family was noticeably different from others in her neighbourhood; her parents spoke Russian and German at home, listened and danced to Turkish folk music in front of an open fire, and meals were always prepared by her mother using fresh, natural ingredients.
In 1975 her mother Ilse opened The Pantry, a vegetarian tea house in Ottawa, where she used local, organic ingredients. Ilse did the shopping by bicycle and took the kitchen scraps home to her garden compost. For her environmental efforts, in 1994 she received the Whitton Award, named after the City of Ottawa’s first female mayor.
Inspired by her mother, Kyssa opened SimplyRaw Express in 2012. Kyssa has studied natural health and foods at many places, including the esteemed Living Light Culinary Arts Institute in California. Today she lectures, leads raw-food workshops, and runs a busy cafe.
Her most recent book, The SimplyRaw Kitchen, was co-authored with her mother. It contains contemporary versions of traditional Eastern-European comfort food — both raw and cooked. While she advocates the healing and nutritional power of raw foods, Kyssa also understands the challenges of fully integrating a diet like that. The book offers guidance and tips on making the transition.
What is her advice for those who want to incorporate more raw food into their diets?
“I always recommend making gradual changes — starting with just adding a few side dishes or extra salad with meals,” she states. “Smoothies are one of the easiest and quickest ways to expose family members to healthier eating. Starting with fruit-only smoothies makes them sweet, delicious and appealing in colour. Gradually adding a few light greens will change the colour and be intimidating at first, but is an easy enough barrier to overcome.
“I also recommend not announcing that it’s raw or vegan — just make it and serve it with a smile. Get the family involved in the kitchen and make it super tasty and fun, without the focus on it being different or healthy.”