Lisa Krasnow discovers vegetarian cuisine on Canada's West Coast

Lisa Krasnow's heart may be in B.C. but her home is in Calgary — the place she learned to cook, and to love it, though she didn't know it at the time.

From a 'dips and salads girl' to 'Mama Lisa,' one woman's journey into vegetarian cuisine

Calgarian Lisa Krasnow, aka 'Mama Lisa,' teaches vegan cooking classes, caters, consults and helped redesign the menu at Kawa Espresso Bar. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Lisa Krasnow's heart may be in B.C. but her home is in Calgary — the place she learned to cook, and to love, though she didn't know it at the time. 

"The best cook I know is my mother, Esther," Krasnow said.

"She's an incredible cook, but she's very fussy and particular. When I was growing up, I was never allowed in the kitchen."

When her parents divorced at 16, Krasnow became a vegetarian.

These coriander, beet and almond cakes with saffron aioli are one of Krasno's colourful veggie creations. (Lisa Krasnow/Facebook)

She went away to school at McGill and learned to make staples like pasta, couscous, brown rice, veggies and peanut sauce out of necessity. There weren't many options when it came to dorm food, but she still wasn't that into cooking.

'The dips and salads girl'

When she dropped out of McGill and moved back to Calgary in the late 90s, Krasnow started working for Community Natural Foods.

"I was the dips and salads girl," she said, reminiscing on the patio at Kawa Espresso Bar.

Krasnow spent her days spooning up salads like this one: the arugula, strawberry and avocado combo at Community Natural Foods. (Community Natural Foods/Facebook)

"I had a binder of recipes, and I really loved my job. I made hummus and tofu salads, noodle salads and broccoli salads. And I really got to love vegetarian food. I didn't know it then, but I know it now."

At 19, Lisa and her stepsister borrowed her mom's car and drove across B.C., where she decided that the life she wanted was in the province next door, living off the land.

A short stint in Radium Hot Springs

She perused the paper looking for jobs, and one day while working at the old Bagels & Buns on 17th Avenue by Mount Royal Village, she saw an ad for a job in Radium Hot Springs. 

"I didn't even finish reading the ad," Krasnow said. 

"I picked up the phone and called this character and a half, who I still know and admire, who owned the Old Salzburg Restaurant. He didn't even let me finish my sentence. He told me to go to the bus depot. He'd send me a ticket. I was hired."

The Old Salzburg Restaurant in Radium Hot Springs, B.C. serves up schnitzel, spaetzle and other traditional Austrian fare in a lodge-like space with patio. (Old Salzburg Restaurant/Facebook)

She hopped on the bus and went to live in staff accommodations in Radium.

"After five days he fired his whole kitchen staff: me, his head chef, his dishwasher" she remembered. 

"It was the end of March, and the travel season doesn't start until June."

Becoming 'Mama Lisa'

Needing a new place to stay, she found herself living with a small group of others in the same boat in an idyllic rental house in Invermere.

"It was on 5.2 acres, with four acres of garden space and a creek running through the property," she said.

"I remember writing in my diary, 'I can't believe this is happening. I'm actually getting to live off the land!'

"Eventually there was a guy living in a wigwam on the property, and another guy living in a bus. I was the only girl, and I was very shy. So I kept to myself, but then I'd go into the house at night and I'd start to cook. I'd cook for a couple hours, and make beautiful feasts. I made my peanut soup, and big salads.

Krasnow's love of vegetarian cuisine began at Calgary's Community Natural Foods. (Lisa Krasnow/Facebook)

"That's how I befriended everyone, was by cooking for them. I became Mama Lisa."

Learning from a housemate

She soon discovered that one of her housemates was a red seal chef. 

He took her aside and told her she had a unique talent for vegetarian cooking, and should do something with it.

When the Invermere farmers' market launched a year later in 2001, she was one of their first vendors, selling soups and bars under her new company, Anahata Foods.

She started driving back and forth to Calgary to sell her products and had clients in Canmore en route. 

Krasnow bounced in between Calgary and Invermere, spent some time in India, and sold her bar business.

Lisa Krasnow spent some time in Bangalore and Mysore in India in 2010. (Lisa Krasnow/Facebook)

She decided to settle back in Calgary to be close to her family, and her mom, who she says is her best friend in the world.

These days Krasnow teaches vegan cooking classes, does some catering and consulting, and helped revamp the menu at Kawa. 

There, three days a week, she cooks vegan and vegetarian dishes and desserts, her own soups, tzatziki, a veggie-heavy yogi bowl with peanut sauce, vegan cakes made to pair with coffee, and made-from-scratch pan-fried falafel.

Lisa Krasnow's yogi bowl is veggie heavy and smothered in peanut sauce. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

Shopper, chef, server and cleaner

She also does monthly Global Vegetarian Nights. These pop up dinners are held the first Monday of each month. For each gathering, she shops, cooks, sets the table, serves and does the dishes afterwards.

Each menu has a theme, and Krasnow plays with cuisines from around the world to feed about 30. 

For $30 per person you get three courses: dishes like mushroom and endive salad with walnuts and tahini yogurt or Korean BBQ tofu over rice noodle salad with charred bok choy.

It's a great fit at the small, hip coffee shop and wine bar, where they also have live music, and it's one of Lisa's favourite things to do, offering the opportunity to talk and connect with the people she feeds.

"It's an event. I love it," Krasnow said. "I love people. I love what I do. I really love what I do."

And you can taste it.

About the Author

Julie Van Rosendaal

Calgary Eyeopener's food guide

Julie Van Rosendaal talks about food trends, recipes and cooking tips on the Calgary Eyeopener every Tuesday at 8:20 a.m. MT. The best-selling cookbook author is a contributing food editor for the Globe and Mail, and writes for other publications across Canada.