During my winter in Austria, I stumbled upon a picture-perfect oasis of plant-based peace that is nestled in the heart of Salzburg. Internationally renowned as the home of The Sound of Music and the birthplace of Mozart, Salzburg provides an interesting and aesthetically pleasing backdrop for this vegetarian restaurant. In its location about a block away from the filming scene of Julie Andrew’s classic “Do-Re-Mi” song, the café is surrounded by the elegant charm of centuries-old Austrian architecture and musically moving mountains in the distance. Whether we visit in the full bloom of spring or the bitter cold of winter, the hills on the horizon feel alive with stirring beauty. Yet like many stories in food, the tale of this café is not singular. Aesthetics is only one small element of eating, and beauty only runs plate-deep.
The city’s heart-warming sensations remain ever-present upon entering Heart of Joy Café. When I made my visit on a stirring, snowy February weekday for a midday meal, the shining sunlight and its reflection upon the white earth beamed brightly through the big glass windows in the room. The natural light becomes even sunnier against the happy orange walls that are painted with quotes to inspire peace.
Sitting amidst a sunny vibe and creatively emotive words, restaurant-goers consume inspiration while eating their carefully-made meals. Each phrase on the walls is graced with the name of its author, Sri Chimnoy. This influential man’s framed images sit scattered about the brimming library of Nepalese Ayurvedic teas. As I munched on my hand-crafted Heart of Joy Sandwich, complete with the restaurant’s signature tofu-seitan “ham”, smooth extra virgin olive oil, and a pop of Dijon mustard on fresh ciabatta bread, I grew hungry for more information on this man. Who was Sri Chimnoy, and why was the face of this Indian guru’s presence so potent here, amidst the typical Austrian tourist attractions of this town?
I continued eating my scrumptious, organically-cultivated vegan meal as I chewed over these curiosities in my mind. My dessert was delivered with a beaming smile, and my eyes grew wide with expectation of the glowing green slice of cheesecake-esque vegan cake. This Green Cashew Raw Cake, lovingly made from dried fruits, organic wheat grass, spiraling and sprouts, and a touch of agave syrup, tasted tropically tempting. It was paired perfectly with the smooth bitterness of my soya fair trade coffee cappuccino that was elegantly topped with a dainty heart. Nonetheless, a few bites into my creamy cake, my starvation for understanding took over. I whipped out my iPhone and began furiously Googling the guru who smiled in the frame in front of me.
The story goes that before this Austrian café was in existence, its soon-to-be owners learned about the spiritual work of Sri Chimnoy after discovering a newfound passion for meditation. After prospering from the work of his Sri Chimnoy’s disciples, they were inspired to devote their lives to their guru’s message of inner peace and fulfilment by opening their café in his name.
Sri Chimnoy was said to have taught meditation to over 7,000 students in 60 countries globally throughout his life. As an artist, Sri Chimnoy created over 140,000 works of abstract art, including 16 million bird drawings – some of which can be found in their original form in the café. Lastly, as an athlete, he promoted running by initiating the global relay race titled The Peace Run. Sri Chimnoy was praised by worldwide leaders of peace, including Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu for his action toward positive global change.
Despite his international status as a peacemaker and his zealous promotion of a spiritual practice of celibacy, at least 8 disciples have come forward with allegations of sexual abuse since his death in 2007 (5 years after the café’s opening). Upon reading this information, I grew suddenly slightly less comfortable with the guru’s hot glare from his numerous framed faces. It became clear the café exists upon an unacceptable reality of abuses of power that have come to the forefront of social media attention in the #MeToo movement – a call to action against sexual assault and harassment that spread virally in October 2017.
If we dig deeper into the stories surrounding this hashtag, we see that the world of wellness is not immune to its reach. Anywhere that we find structures of authority, we see the individuals acting on impulse to abuse the power that they carve out with their forceful hands. Even spaces of healing – yoga studios, meditation centers, vegan cafés – have closets full of skeletons just waiting to be freed. Brave yoga teachers and practitioners have come forward to join the crusade, creating enough ruckus to call for a “#MeToo and the Yoga of Resilience” panel discussion at last weekend’s Yoga Journal LIVE conference in New York.
Notwithstanding the noise, the more seemingly-sacred the space or the more reputable the person, the harder it becomes to shatter his/her/its pristine image. Our ideals for beauty make us enablers for vicious, unrelenting cycles of covering abuse. Those of us nibbling organic ingredients within our inner circles may turn a blind eye to circumstances that make our privileged guts cry out in discomfort. Are we to blame for enabling? Am I wrong for slurping down $5 soy lattes when hunger persists throughout the globe? Rather than point fingers, it is more effective to raise our voices. We can curl our lips in question, requesting transparency and demanding accountability for our leaders’ actions. We can open our minds to the possibility of shifting the human-made social structures that have been riddled with immorality.
Armed with this knowledge, I savored the remaining morsel of sweetness in my cashew cake and left wanting more. More cake yes, but also greater clarity. It is evident from the attention to environmentally sustainable sourcing, the caring customer service, and the joyous décor that, like many other spaces of healing, this café was founded on a genuine expression of care for the planet and its people. Here and throughout the Western world, we as patrons sip pretty from a place of privilege - and there is nothing inherently wrong with our first-world foodie passions as long as we use them for good.
With power comes inescapable responsibility. We as consumers have the golden opportunity to utilize our purchasing power for equity, for humanity, and for social justice when we equip ourselves with education on our ingredients' origins. And when the stories surrounding foods are murky, we have the capacity to call for clarity. With careful attention to messaging on the many ethical issues that its food intersects, this space in Salzburg, its peaceful people, and all global food lovers alike are positioned to make a positive impact by raising our mugs to healing our world.