In conversation with Simone: the founder of Prana Yoga Oxford who brought vegan cooking to the Handle Bar

 
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When Simone spent her twelfth Christmas singlehandedly preparing the Christmas dinner for her entire family in her hometown of California, she was subconsciously making a statement. Her starter — two soups (roasted red pepper and cauliflower) swirled together like a peppermint, with a basil leaf providing the Christmas green — was her way of saying that her new found vegetarianism was not going to be an inconvenience to the rest of the family and actually, vegetarian food can be exciting, innovative and tasty.

‘When my Grandfather — who’s an amazing self-taught chef — was super impressed, I thought to myself, “this is it. I’ve done it,” says Simone, admitting that this anecdote represents so many of the characteristics she still has to this day. ‘I’m ambitious. I generally bite off more than I can chew and in some cases, I’m a bit of a control freak. I did it all myself and it was so much fun. I loved that feeling.’

Simone has been a fixture at the Handle Bar from before it was even a concept, first working with Celine, owner of HB, at the café on Medley Manor farm — essentially just a garden shed with a small cooker for a kitchen and a marquee for the seating area. She had heard about the café through a friend and before going, called ahead to check if there would be a vegan option on the menu. She was met with a characteristically enthusiastic Celine, who prepared a thoughtful and delicious vegan brunch. Simone was hooked.

She and her husband had only recently moved to the city from Australia and her yoga studio was still in its early stages, nowhere near the fifteen member strong operation that Prana Yoga is today. She was captivated by the café, and immediately impressed by Celine’s dedication to sustainable cooking, using produce sourced directly from the farm. She returned to the café to ask for a job, and gifted Celine a small pot of her home-brewed coconut yoghurt as an emblem of what she could bring to the table.

‘I had learned so much from just cooking for myself for so many years and I knew that I could bring this knowledge to the café to make it more vegan friendly, ‘ says Simone. ‘Simple things, like how to turn salads into a hearty meal by adding things like barley and pomegranate seeds. Equally, the Handle Bar taught me so much about cooking and how to build menus and recipes that feed large quantities of people.’

When Celine’s operation moved to St Michael’s Street to become the Handle Bar we know today, her Medley Manor team and sustainable ethos went with her. Every morning, Simone would pick up the produce from the Covered Market — locally sourced to the point of being just a short walk away.

The Handle Bar grew at lightning speed, as did Prana Yoga, and Simone realised that working at the Handle Bar and running ten yoga sessions a week wasn’t going to be possible. She said goodbye to the kitchen (yet still provided the odd batch of coconut yoghurt and sourdough bread) and dived headfirst into making Prana Yoga what it is now — a hugely popular, three location strong studio.

It’s an exciting stage for the business, with the opening of a large studio in Jericho — complete with a line of sustainable yoga gear — just around the corner. ‘It’s going to be fantastic having everything in one place,’ she says, but duly notes her fondness for their current headquarters beneath the Common Ground café in Jericho in a space that was formally the vault of Barclays bank. ‘The space was initially quite intimidating, with a great big vault door which we wouldn’t dare close, but with a bit of creativity we’ve turned it into a lovely place to relax.’ Prana’s classes have proved so popular that space is becoming an issue, hence the move. 
The plan to run Prana Yoga days at the Handle Bar Cafe and Kitchen happened organically, with Simone observing that it would comfortably fit 20 yoga mats. After the sessions, the Handle Bar prepares a relaxing post-yoga dinner to be enjoyed by all of the yogis on a big farm table. Each one has been a huge success, with tickets selling out without fail. This partnership has been extended to Prana’s yoga retreats, with Handle Bar providing all of the cooking. 

Veganism, says Simone, goes hand in hand with the yoga philosophy: eliminating violence, having a connection to what you’re eating, and just generally being healthy. ‘I think that’s why I’ve stayed vegan for so long,’ she says. ‘Because it made me feel so much healthier.’

This being said, Simone is quick to iterate that she isn’t in the business of trying to convert people to veganism. She understands that breaking food habits is extremely difficult, not just from a social perspective, but also because of the physical bonds we have to food, with dependencies and cravings. ‘When people ask for my advice about how to become vegetarian, I tell them, ‘don’t try to be perfect. Start by introducing one meat-free day a week or challenge yourself to a vegan week. And moreover, don’t beat yourself up about not making it all the way through. Even the smallest contribution is a great help to the planet. 

She finds that by staying away from these vegan stereotypes, more people open up and are more interested in having a conversation about veganism — which is the line she takes with her two year old daughter, June. Although she only cooks vegan meals for her family, she has no problem when people introduce June to new and exciting foods. ‘One day, she’ll probably ask me, “hey! Why are you not eating this piece of cheese I’m trying to give you?” And that’s a great conversation to have. 

But it’s not just the meat industry that has a detrimental effect on our planet. Mass production of any food has an equal share in the blame, a sentiment that Simone feels is important to remember when living a vegetarian lifestyle. Like the Handle Bar, she tries to buy local as much as possible and even has her own allotment bursting with lettuce, purple sprouting broccoli, apples, pears, raspberries and more — which means grocery shopping is a rare event during the summer months. 

She notes that she is always inspired by any small contribution people make in reducing their carbon footprint and is especially impressed by the way society has embraced vegetarianism and veganism in the past few years. ‘If someone told me they were thinking about becoming a vegetarian or vegan ten years ago and wanted advice, I would probably have told them to start by asking a vegan or vegetarian person to take them around a grocery store when they were doing their weekly shopping. Now it’s even easier than that. Services that refuse to cater for vegans and vegetarians are a tiny minority. 

‘Being a vegan doesn’t mean that you have to cook gourmet meals with thousands of ingredients. And now, if you don’t want to prepare your lunch, chains like Pret have a huge selection of vegan sandwiches available. You definitely need to get used to having confidence in asking for what you need, but actually you can just say, “can I have that veggie burger without the brie?” You’ll soon realise that people are really used to it.’

If you want to learn more about Prana Yoga, just visit their website at www.pranayogaoxford.com, like them on Facebook and follow them on Instagram. Join them in their launch party for and exciting new studio opening in Jericho, and book yourself in for a day of yoga and celebrations come September!