Lou Oates is the head chef at Little Pine, a plant-based restaurant in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. Little Pine is owned by Moby, an electronica icon and a staunch animal rights activist who has been vegan for over 30 years. His dedication is such that he has pledged 100% of his restaurant’s profits to animal rights organizations, so it's no surprise he’d stock his kitchen with like-minded, animal-friendly individuals, Oates among them. Like Moby, she also has roots in the music industry, and still finds ways to meld her diverse interests: plants, wellness, music, and community.
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Alyssa Shapiro: What does it mean to you to live a beautiful life?
Lou Oates: It's always on my mind to be conscious of every action that I take within my life and the impact it has on others and the environment. I think to lead a beautiful life is low-impact life, and sustainable and without excess in a way that you can bring yourself joy, and the others around you. It's a work in process.
I'd say, growing up in the early 2000s, it was very excessive, and we weren't really taught to be conscious all the time of what we were doing. So I've had to reprogram, and every day I'm still doing that, thinking if I really need to have that plastic cup, or that straw, or if I can avoid something. I definitely have detoxed myself and my lifestyle. And I'm still, every day, learning about different things that harm the environment that we live in, and how I can avoid them.
I think we can all create less waste by thinking about it every day, and by having like-minded people around me and my community and seeing their actions on social media helps as a daily reminder to me as well to be conscious of what I'm doing.
Alyssa: Community is so important—through food, I think you bring people together. Can you talk about that connection, between food and community? What happens for you when you bring people together?
Lou: I've always loved cooking for people and community is really important to me, especially having a niche style of cooking. To bring people around a dinner table to share plant-based food, which is really exciting and interesting and challenges you to view your plate differently, is a really good opportunity to help other people change their lifestyle. I've always tried to do that, in my own time and within business. Working at vegan restaurants, I've always tried to feed people to bring them joy and make them happy through plant-based food.
Alyssa: When you really care for someone, what’s the first dish you make for them?
Lou: It’s always tacos. [laughs] When I first met my husband, who's also a chef, the first meal we made together was actually tacos for all of his friends, at a lake house in Virginia, and it was the first time that we’d ever cooked together. So we made 15 separate dishes for people that I’d only just met, and it was quite magical. So that's my favorite food to share with loved ones.
Alyssa: What drew you to work at Little Pine? As someone who is vegan, that must have been an essential element when choosing where to work.
Lou: I’ve been vegan now for just over 15 years, and working in the vegan food industry, there are very few restaurants I think that we aspire to work at, and we all have a list of those top five being chefs, and Little Pine is on that. It was like a weird serendipitous tale though.
Since Little Pine’s opening, I think three years ago, I've followed it on social media and just loved what they were doing. I aspired to work for such cool restaurant. I had opened a restaurant in Austin called The Beer Plant, and as I was ready to move on from that position, I reached out to Little Pine and asked them if they were hiring. And the general manager Leslie replied, Actually, we’re hiring an executive chef. And I said, Oh, I'm an executive chef. And she said, Send me your resume. So I sent my resume, and she sent it to Moby. The following week I interviewed and got the position there. It was a dream come true for me, and I was very grateful to get an opportunity to work there, at a not-for-profit restaurant, with a team like no other. It’s a family. There’s so much care for one another.
Alyssa: Where did your sense of earth and animal consciousness come from?
Lou: I started off my career path in the music industry, and there was a sense of hedonism and definitely a very party-strong ethic. I definitely wasn't looking after myself or eating very well. And throughout my childhood, I have had stomach issues also, which I’d never really attribute it to anything that I was doing, it was just something that happened to me. I went on a vacation to Tunisia and it was at new year, and I just for some reason, started to just tear apart my life. New Year's Eve, I sat and contemplated what I had to do to change to become a better person and to feel good within myself. And I decided that I should become vegan. I didn't really know anything about veganism, I didn't know why that was what I should do, but it felt like a message to me. And from that day forward, that's the choice that I took. Everything else really stemmed from that decision and the work came to me through being a vegan and the people that I met and what they were able to teach me.
Alyssa: Are there rituals or practices, self-care, anything that you do now that helps to ground you?
Lou: I feel like ritual and practice in your life is really important for stability in your life and also for connection. I do try and live consciously and read and have time for myself and be outside. I feel like in Los Angeles, we all struggle with connection to self and the universe. So I try and just take a minute out of the day to find that connection, and that might be walking to work, and it might just be dropping in and being really present in that moment. It might be whilst I'm cutting at work and really focusing on that moment and being present in it. And other study can happen elsewhere and I might join a retreat, and my work through Desert Daze and the Mystic Bazaar helps me stay connected to healers and people working in those mediums. But also a home is a ritual and a practice; having plants and crystals and things around you that are important, they also bring that into my life every day and they might be very happy.
Alyssa: How you get present, especially in your work?
Lou: Working in a kitchen can be a very, very multi-sensory experience. And especially during a very busy dinner service, you have your food runner and your buzzer running and then there's noise from the dishwasher and, then there's the fry cook—just noise and slamming and smashing and occasionally yelling. It's really important to be able to filter everything else out and just see yourself within all the noise and commotion that's happening around you. That practice of just pulling myself out of a situation and seeing myself and seeing how I feel helps me work more effectively. I will do that practice whilst walking to work. It's very busy in Los Angeles, there’s always noise and things happening around you.
It's weird to explain because I've worked in kitchens so long, and tour catering, and concerts. To get to a place of stillness within commotion is just practice. I think anybody who’d rather be on a mountaintop in the middle of nowhere than where they are at that time can bring that mountaintop to them, and they can focus on the stillness.
Alyssa: I know that kitchens can be these very brutal places, sometimes misogynistic. Have you had past experience in kitchens like that before getting to Little Pine? Was it conscious for you to do things differently?
Lou: I'm really fortunate to be a chef in the current day, the culture of kitchens is changing massively. There are so many feel female-led kitchens across the world now and it's just very amazing to feel the shift, I think gone are the days of a yelling, shouting chef that's throwing frying pans and, you know, making people feel very intimidated. I feel like if you need to communicate like that to your team to do their job properly, you're probably failing somewhere within yourself as a person. I consciously try to be a better leader every day, to be more approachable, to listen to people, to be somebody who can be an inspiration and teach. I don't think that's something that just comes naturally; I think you have to practice. And every year that I do this job, I feel like I get better. I'm open. I try to be open, and I ask for feedback from my team. I want to create a safe work environment where anyone can work regardless of where they come from, or what they look like, and be successful.
Alyssa: I know you’re also involved in the music scene; can you talk a little about Desert Daze?
Lou: Desert Daze is a music and arts festival—we refer to it as a ritual. I’ve been with Desert Daze for the past four years, I started off operating a metaphysical activity area in the campgrounds whereby we have sound baths, cacao ceremonies, rituals, yoga—an immersive spiritual experience that any of the attendees can come and take part in. I connected with a healer in Los Angeles called Madre Jaguar, she operates a mystic bazaar within the city and she has connections to all types of practitioners. Last year, I took on the role of assistant festival director, so my reach suddenly went to the whole of the event. And I work very closely with the festival director and his wife to execute everything on a pretty grand scale.
Alyssa: How do food and music run together for you? Even at Little Pine, you’re working at Moby’s restaurant.
Lou: Food and music have always run concurrently for me. I started off in bars and restaurants and then went on to work in clubs and venues and went on to be a tour caterer but then a march person and I always seem to kind of have a restaurant job here and there. And was always very passionate about eating food with people I worked with and sharing amazing meals. When I became a vegan and got more involved in healing modalities, I kind of decided I want to totally change the way that I was going. So I did, and I started just working in restaurants. But there always was a festival, there always was something that I was being involved asked to be involved in. So I stayed very involved. They just seem to be two art forms that really come close to the people, and I wonder sometimes if we see a live musical performance kind of like a dinner service—it’s a similar style of performance. When you present food, it’s kind of like presenting a piece of music; it has thoughts and feelings and flavors, and it gives a message.
Alyssa: What kind of music do you listen to when you’re in the kitchen?
Lou: As I've become older, I think I really enjoy silence a lot! It enables me to concentrate very deeply about what I'm doing and kind of connect with the flavors and the visuals. So I like little distraction. However, if I'm cooking for a dinner party where there's kind of lots of people milling about, I'll listen to so much, the width and breadth of the music that I listened to is huge. I do like music that relaxes, so I might listen to world music. Anything and everything really depending on the mood, but also really enjoying the stillness and the silence of like nothingness.
Alyssa: Do you feel very much a part of the vegan food community on the east side of Los Angeles?
Lou: Yeah. The community of vegan restaurants in Silver Lake and Echo Park is second to none. We have Sage, Floré, Little Pine, Jewel, Counterculture, Moon Juice, Honey Hi, which has a strong vegan menu as well as not vegan—all independent businesses, all brilliant, all making some really strong plant-based food, and I can be part of what they're doing on the daily by going there and getting something delicious to eat or drink.
Alyssa: What do you think is your greatest power?
Lou: It became clear to me when I became a vegan that my trajectory was with plants, whether that be as food or medicine. And since that change in my life, I've kind of delved into plant medicine and functional foods. I believe strongly that being vegan is more than just the food on your plate. It's about the connection to the plants that you're eating and the action and reaction that they can have on you. Each plant brings something else to the table, something for us that can help and strengthen us. They’ve been used by for forever by cultures around the world. And I think that we can tap into that information and all those resources to help heal ourselves and those around us. And if we can start moving away from Big Pharma and our reliance on a broken system to heal us, it can only help better ourselves and our environment.
Photographed and directed by Alex Kenealy