Bolivian Story: Pablo Santa Cruz

Posted on 05 February 2014

We first met Pablo in his restaurant, Red Monkey. Within weeks of it opening we were there – eager to try some healthy, vegan food in this city of meat and fries! Looking down the menu I was impressed to see kombucha listed and gave a little shriek. I thought we were the only ones in La Paz to be making kombucha :).  Pablo came over to our table, curious about my enthusiasm, and before long I was sharing our culinary images from Making Sense Of Things and Pablo had invited me to do a ‘guest chef’ evening there. Whilst I haven’t had the confidence to take up his offer, I did start volunteering regularly in their kitchen, learning from them and sharing my recipes too (my sourdough bread has been particularly popular!). I remember my first day there I felt like a ball of stress as I made my first ever vegan cakes. Pablo detected this and explained that none of it mattered if I can’t be present. I was so grateful for that reminder. As someone who practices gratitude and ‘being present’, in that moment I had become disconnected from reality and was in my head full of self doubt, insecurity and worry, but Pablo had reminded me and brought me back to how I want to be. This post is all about our friend, Pablo… enjoy his perspectives. 🙂

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How did Red Monkey start?

Red Monkey is a dream come true for me. It’s also very meaningful for me because during high school and undergrad studies I had no idea what I wanted to do in life, what my purpose was and my talents were. I took some vocational tests to see what I could do best but they always ended up saying “pretty smart person, you could do whatever you want”… but I didn’t know what I wanted to do. Through a special coincidence I was led to have dinner at Café Gratitude in San Francisco which is an all vegan raw restaurant. I thought I was going to have the most boring, tasteless dinner of the year but instead I had the most tasteful and meaningful meal of my life! As I ate that raw pizza I knew I wanted to direct my life towards something simple yet profound in using ingredients in a way to offer an experience like this to everyone I knew. I believe everyone should have this opportunity – to have this experience at least once – to try this food and then decide for themselves how they’d like to eat. So it became my dream to offer an alternative option to eat healthy and delicious using the best organic produce available as an option to reconnect people with nature. A few years later I was working for restaurants, going to culinary school and eventually building up my own restaurant… and that’s how Red Monkey was born!

I guess from the outside, as other people see me, I look like this very very lucky guy who gets what he wants all the time and that almost at the last minute things just happen for me. In that sense, I guess they are right and I would agree… except that I don’t believe in luck. For me and how Red Monkey came to be, all these coincidences are related to a re-connection that happened to me. Probably at the time when I had that life changing experience at Café Gratitude I realised that being true to myself, paying less attention to what is the norm and how business should be run, focusing on the positive in my life, being grateful, making it my everyday intention to look for what brings joy to my life and noticing the details, the more they seem to show up in my life. The more I see them, the  more there is to see. Opportunities coincidentally opening up for the right person to come in to my life, with the right ideas and suggestions means things ‘luckily’ happen every day.

This is a very big message behind Red Monkey because we decided to make a business almost outside of town where no one in their right mind would invest to make a business… we opened a restaurant at a time where restaurants are opening and closing all the time because they can’t make enough money… we opened a vegan restaurant in a town where everyone basically eats just meat… and the list just keeps going about what we shouldn’t have done but we did anyway and we are still doing better than most restaurants, and growing. This is the big message – things can be done differently – it takes the courage to listen to yourself, your heart, realise that there are ways to improve, not just how you do things, but to inspire the world to do the same. Too often we feel too small and powerless against this huge machine that seems to have taken control of the world, telling us how things should be done.

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Where does the name Red Monkey come from?

The easy answer I give out when people ask is that monkeys are the closest link we humans have to nature, to feeling wild… and one of the most important things I wanted to offer through my restaurant is reconnecting to nature any way I could. Humanity in general needs to take nature into account so that our future as a whole can be sustained.

Also, nobody has ever seen a red monkey… it sounds like a mythical, magical creature… and there’s this side of who I am and what Red Monkey is as a business… this experience that is so unlike what anyone has had before that it takes them out of their everyday life.

If you’d like to hear where the name actually comes from… Several years ago I had this lucid dream, which is something I don’t often have, and in this dream I was flying. It was the first time I had had that type of dream. It was a beautiful and magnificent experience to be aware that you are dreaming and able to do anything you want as dream reality is at your command. However, I soon found myself drowning in some type of quick sand where being aware of dreaming wasn’t helping me out. I became anxious, desperate and mostly angry at myself and life for having this happen to me. Soon this small red haired monkey came over and just started laughing at me, mocking me even. While at first I was even angrier at this creature for mocking my situation I couldn’t help but find its joy contagious and I started laughing at myself. It was a very profound experience, realising that through laughing at my problems I became lighter and was able to come out of the sand. A friend of mine at the time said that a red monkey might be my totem, or power animal as Native Americans like to call them, and that these creatures usually have a message for you. That message was powerful and one that I have taken on seriously throughout my life – to laugh at problems and take life with joy.

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Why were you in San Francisco?

I was there because I had just finished my undergrad studies in Business Administration in Rochester, New York, and my student visa allowed me to stay for a further year to legally work in the US.  A really good friend of mine was living in San Francisco and when I went to visit him I fell in love with the city. In a strange way I felt really connected to that place – things just happened easily, many coincidences and everyone was friendly! As soon as I could I packed my bags and moved there looking for a job.

Looking back, from who I am today, I’d say San Francisco was very meaningful to my life in the sense that I needed a place and environment to be where nobody knew me or my past. This became a place for me that offered a clean start in a friendly environment at a time that I was getting to know myself. I was accepted in any way I wanted to recreate myself.

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You said that Café Gratitude influenced you greatly … how exactly?

Café Gratitude impacted on my life in several ways. I fell in love with everything they were doing at the time – organic farming, local ingredients, introducing a raw food diet, offering information about it, teaching people the great advantages of eating mostly raw and the impact it could have on your life, not just nutritionally but also emotionally, and just balancing your life as a whole, starting with your diet. But also they were really involved with how they handled their staff. When I got a job there it was very surprising to me how they spent thousands of dollars a year towards sitting down with their staff to discuss their day, their feelings, their emotions, what inspires them, what they love and most importantly, what they are grateful for…

All this was aimed towards having us be present and therefore be able to provide the most truthful and sincere service we could give.  Being present means you give the best that you have. It was proven to me that the restaurant business can actually be a place of joy, inspiration and service. Most of us chefs are really into being generous and providing for people and this is what subconsciously inspires us but in reality most restaurants in the world are really stressful places with long hours and being yelled at all day long. So for me Café Gratitude was proof of how things can be done differently – how you can break the norm, throw yourself out there into something you believe in and still make profit and be successful at it. That’s what we do at Red Monkey also. We take time to share ourselves, to connect and use different strategies to make people feel at home. The food is prepared with love and we let customers see the difference.

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What you are doing is very different here in La Paz… What do you think of Bolivian cuisine and how are people reacting to your restaurant?

Bolivian cuisine is like this two faced coin in my eyes… on one side I admire the many colours and flavours that are used all over the country and it’s actually quite an adventure to see how every city and region has a different culinary culture. However, on the other side of the coin you see an over consumption of meat and chicken and people disregard the immense variety of ingredients the country has to offer. The most used ingredients here are actually introduced… even carrots are not local to our environment while things like quinoa, amaranth and a huge list of amazing native ingredients are not even known by most Bolivians. Many of these ingredients are hard to find and aren’t even at the markets. So for me, Bolivia is like this unexplored territory which is perfect for culinary artists to grab their hands on to make something new. I was worried at the beginning because people were saying Bolivians are scared of new things and will not consider going to a vegan restaurant because a meal isn’t complete without the meat. However, I stood to my beliefs, opened Red Monkey and to the surprise of most people, people don’t just love the experience but come back with their friends… their eyes are being opened to eating healthy and delicious on a plant based diet where they will not miss their everyday style of eating.

After living in the US for 7 years, returning to Bolivia was a big cultural shock for me – how Bolivia is and how things are done compared to how they are done up north. In many ways it would seem Bolivia is some 50 years behind. Too often you see people frustrated about this fact because they see the rest of the world advancing rapidly, especially in industry and professionalism at work while in Bolivia you can’t count on anything being done when you want, how you want and the way you want it. And while many people may see this as a great disadvantage in a globalised world, to my eyes Bolivia is paradise exactly for this reason. Because you can’t just go to a store and buy what you need, you end up making things yourself – it takes a lot of time, dedication and you end up becoming a designer, architect, manager, constructor and getting your hands on everything that needs to be done for your actual business to happen and therein lies the beauty. When you do it yourself, you get things custom made and unique to your needs. From my perspective, in the last 50 years of technological advances in the world nature was never taken into account as a cost of production and we can all see the impact that that has had on the climate and environment everywhere. So to me, Bolivia is this opportunity to start over… to use technology to improve our quality of life but learn from other countries that nature needs to be taken in to account,  that nature needs to be preserved as our ally and our mother, even.

So here we are inspiring people to produce their own food as we showcase one of the first urban gardens in the city offering beautiful produce that most people haven’t even heard about and showing them it can be done – that there are agricultural technologies for produce to be grown at this altitude successfully while most people think it can’t be done. Just like San Francisco was the perfect environment for the beginning of my growth to happen several years ago, Bolivia is now this perfect environment to allow myself to open up fully to live my passions and to inspire.

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I know your family have been very supportive and close with your project and recently you have become a father yourself. Family is strong for Bolivians… can you reflect on how this has impacted you?

I guess culturally speaking, for Bolivians, it is almost a norm that your family is always there for you – you are always close to your relatives and count on your family as your closest support for anything you are doing. And while that is romantic, in most ways, it is also our greatest challenge because family can be most difficult as they bring out sides of you that no one else could ever show. Now, as a father myself I am experiencing things I couldn’t even imagine before – how holding this little creature in your arms can almost magically make you forget about anything and everything else you gave importance to. It’s as if suddenly nothing else matters. I just feel as if I am melting in the most profound and present moment and beginning to understand life. I had never before realised how important it is just to be there for somebody else – that your very presence can make such an enormous difference, probably much more than actually doing something – just being there, being yourself. As a Bolivian, I am so lucky to have my family there all the time. Every one of them, regardless of how close we are, they are always there no matter what. I guess never feeling alone in this world completely changes the attitude with which you look at life.

In regards to my daughter… the way I see it, I’m not going to pretend there aren’t all these issues going on in the world and from many perspectives it may seem humanity doesn’t have much of a future but I’m hopeful, perhaps without much evidence. I find myself faithfully focusing on this hope which is something I love – this positive perspective brings ‘luck’ to my life and I believe the same can happen, not just for my daughter, but for anyone. I don’t believe we are doomed, we just need to change our perspectives and remember our true power as people who actually can make a difference through every decision we take. So, focus on that and start on the little things. I have seen several people change things in their life by learning to listen to themselves, discovering their true essence and perhaps their inner child. What I want for my daughter is to have the environment and space to be true to herself – to feel free to make her own choices.

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What are your dreams for the future?

I like to put it this way… I am a dreamer… and I would say most of my day is spent dreaming about what I would like to happen next for myself and those around me. But if I was sincere about what I want for the future, I want to be open for whatever comes. I want to continue to grow in the sense of being more and more aware of the possibilities that life has to offer regardless of where it will take me. It doesn’t matter if my business flourishes or I become a millionaire or I am broke and living off food I harvest… in the future I want to embrace life as it comes.

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