Danielle de Picciotto & Friends in Conversation – Linnea Hellström

Linnea Hellström: “The main reason to be strong is to protect those who are weaker”

In 2016 I was invited to perform in Iceland with my band hackedepicciotto. Our host was Krummi Bjorgvinsson, member of the legendary Icelandic hardcore band Mínus. Krummi also books shows at Gaukurinn, a beautiful, Twin Peeks look alike, local venue when he is not touring.
My husband Alexander Hacke and I have been traveling nomads since 2010, touring the world in search of new horizons and on the lookout for interesting people and places. Our stay in Iceland is one of the top 5 most inspiring experiences. Not only the many alternative start up projects, cultural spaces, venues, theaters, record stores or restaurants were impressive. The overall social, ecological and alternative consciousness this country has built up since their economic crash in 2008 is remarkable. This is a country that has learned from its mistakes and is trying hard to make things better.

An interesting fact is that Iceland’s population is fairly young. That could be the reason why there is such a strong environmental awareness. Lately, to my mortification, I have noticed that the new generations have become much more active in trying to lessen and solve our environmental problems. People above forty seem to deny the terrible state of our world, maybe because they think that the apocalypse will happen after their own demise. Their kids in comparison know that they will have to face the catastrophe and are trying to change as much as possible already now.

So when Krummi invited us to have dinner in a vegan restaurant before our show, we were not surprised. I have been vegan for five years now because of health issues. When my doctor told me in 2012 I would have a heart attack within five months if I did not change my diet I felt I had no choice but to become vegan. Taking away meat, fish and milk products from my diet, on top of sugar and alcohol, was terrifying. I cried for a week and then decided to tackle the challenge. Now after five years it has become my natural state of being and my health has completely recovered. I do not miss anything, get all the vitamins I need and not only have all of my allergies vanished, my chronic sinus infection has disappeared as well.

Back to Iceland: At the vegan dinner Rummi introduced us to his girlfriend and band mate, the stunning and charismatic bassist Linnea Hellström whom I liked immediately. During dinner we spoke about the many themes and issues Island is working on and it turned out that she is much more than just a bassist. Linnea has been working in the field of nutrition for years and was currently working on making her greatest dream come true: to open up “Veganæs” a cruelty free comfort food diner located inside the dive bar and live event venue Gaukurinn. We spoke about the recipes she was experimenting with, the herbs and spices, the different ingredients she had tried out and her enthusiasm and dedication were not only extraordinary but also incredibly exciting.

The great thing about people like Lineea is how they demonstrate that being environmentally active and conscious does not mean being tediously dull or agonizingly politically correct. She is a fascinating, dynamic, gorgeous young woman, tattooed up to her neck, dating a wild, proud musician, listening to heavy music, wearing hip, organic clothes and has founded an empire of absolutely delicious vegan food. Courageous women like this are true heroes and I am deeply grateful every time I have the luck to meet one because their idealism and integrity are so positive and hopeful they radiate optimism and encouragement, something we all need in these trying times. They are doing everything they can to help rescue our planet, our health, our fellow creatures and society and have a ton of fun at the same time. Please let me introduce to you the amazing Linnea Hellström.

Danielle de Picciotto: Have you always been interested in food/nutrition? Why?
Linnea Hallström: Yes I have or maybe it was the fact that I gradually realized everyone else wasn´t. I grew up in a tiny village in the forest of Sweden where we grew a lot of vegetables, but also kept animals, as livestock, to eat eventually, but also as pets. We would get meat from people that hunted and did some fishing ourselves. My sisters and I were aware of and involved in all stages of how our food came to be from an early age on, and I think that knowledge will definitely sway a person in either direction. In my case it´s why I stopped wanting to eat animals quite early on in life. It just didn´t make sense to love, respect and care for all animals as we did and to chop one up to put in the freezer around Christmas time and to bury the other one in the backyard pet cemetery after dying of old age. As they were both edible and we did not need to eat either I decided I´d rather enjoy the company of both dog and pig and grow more vegetables to eat instead. My upbringing caused my natural transcendence into veganism, because the straightforward way me and my sisters were included in everyday chores, rather than being overprotected from reality, meant that we didn´t have to make those connections ourselves later on in life.

Were your parents traditionally oriented food-wise?
Depends on the tradition, I mean we did eat traditional Scandinavian food growing up, but Mom was always interested in other customs and enjoyed trying out something new. Swedish everyday food means a lot of meat and potato dishes but I have always enjoyed the “old – school” customs stemming from the necessity of preserving food by pickling, fermenting, drying, smoking and canning. My mom is a self-sufficient, multi talented hippie at heart who knows a little about almost everything. She worked as a teacher all my life and only recently retired, to work on even more things. She has taught me much of what I know and shaped my way of thinking immensely. Growing up in our forest surroundings influenced our life and my mother often looked up traditional ways of working with natural resources, which really inspired me. Picking mushrooms, berries and herbs in the woods and experiencing wild animals that get to live freely helped me understand that this was so much more natural than disrupting a symbiosis that´s been functioning for much longer than our society of carnivores, hunters or worst of all industrialists and capitalists. Learning about a natural balance and what´s edible, poisonous or medicinal in the forest, as well as what we can grow ourselves or how to prepare and preserve is what had me thinking of food as something pretty magical.

As far as I understand you have been creating vegan recipes now for some time and have just opened your own vegan restaurant and company veganaes.com? Could you tell me how it came about that you were interested in the vegan world and how your career developed.
Growing up in a creative and quite political family I was raised to believe that one of the most important parts of life is creating more of what we want the world to be made of. Standing up for equality and speaking out against injustice. The main reason to be strong is to protect those who are weaker, aspire to be powerful only when powers can be used for good, and while nobody can do everything everyone can do something. I always had access to making art and music and the artists in my family supported my lifelong love of drawing and painting, assuming I would end up like some of them, rather than doing sports for example. I was into theatre, photography, writing and food naturally developed into yet another media in which I could make edible art.

As a teenager I was an angry punk with a lot of passion for changing the world and so I got involved with various human and animal rights related activism. Not much has changed since then except maybe learning how to channel my passions toward positivity and thus making me less angry. Being an over-thinker however is probably incurable. At the time getting to meet likeminded people, was crucial for my development, even more so, than feeling that I could make a difference. But no matter how important being vegan was to me, I couldn´t seem to be able to convince anyone to join my cause, neither through action nor discussion, which got to be a little depressing.
People did seem to like my vegan cooking though, even if they disagreed with my opinions. I had a feel for flavors and realized I could use my cooking as a constructive way of activism. Rather than spending my energy disagreeing with what´s wrong I needed to offer solutions. It is still activism but in a manner that enables me to affect more people in a positive and practical manner.

Conventional culinary school without plant based options of education was not a possibility to learn something unconventional so I decided that a more hands on approach would be better for me. After a few years of living in Stockholm, with studying and working experiences in the service field, it was only when I left Sweden for Spain that my life took a tastier turn.
In Barcelona I was able to study under accomplished vegan chefs, which hugely developed my palette and appetite to learn more. I spent a couple of years learning the Spanish language and their cuisine, working my way through the existing plant based food places at the time, was able to take part in starting a few new ones and ran a small bicycle delivery vegan lunch catering operation out of my workplace. I still really enjoyed working with the local animal rights scene, doing demonstrations and street activism, but was simultaneously learning how to reach out to different kinds of people through their taste buds.

The concept of Veganæs was already forming back then, the name refers to the Icelandic word for veganizing, taking something traditionally non-vegan and making it into a vegan dish. The more I learned about foreign culinary culture, the more patterns and parallels emerged, leading me to the conclusion that everything can be veganæsed. Finding the core of what makes anything good and then figuring out how to remove the cruelty without losing any of the goodness can be applied to anything. So I set out to learn as many different cooking cultures, techniques, skills of seasoning and preparation as possible to broaden my own skillset. I suspect this is a lifelong commitment, but it is a very enjoyable one (if anyone is considering to follow this path). I believe traditions are always meant to be developed further and think it´s beautiful to take something I love, study its inner mechanisms and then recreate it in my own way, thus making something new while paying respect to the origins.

I spent a few years traveling the US and Mexico working with sustainable housing constructions, agriculture and all kinds of unconventional cooking methods. This eventually inspired my move to Iceland where I have enjoyed living ever since and now consider my home. Iceland is both old school and progressive in a pretty unique way, and I knew this was where I wanted to invest my talents into creating a positive change. Iceland was where I wanted to open my own restaurant. This arctic rock between the Americas and Europe was the ideal place to generate something great.

It has never intimidated me make something happen even if it is something new. Sometimes it just takes the passion and willpower to do the necessary work and getting things started, this then opens the energy field for others to join in with their dreams.
Meanwhile the time was ripe and I set out to veganæs Iceland in every small way I could, relentlessly spreading the word by adding vegan menu options to the local restaurants where ever I was welcome and then some more, offering consultations to non vegan chefs and teaching a bunch of cooking classes through out my tenacious kitchen tour of Reykjavík.
I also made food for local music festivals and pop up markets, ran a Mexican food truck for a summer, did collaborations on vegan products and promoted plant based cooking with Krónan, which is a chain of supermarkets, I regularly share vegan recipes though local media, and host a Cruelty free Christmas market every year since 2013.

Veganuary is a global effort encouraging people to try out veganism for the first month of every year, and with the Icelandic equivalent Veganúar catching on more over the last few years it kept getting easier to reach a broader spectrum of people.
In 2016 I took on a newly opened record shop and café with a meat based and somewhat vegetarian menu as a Veganúar project, mainly as a consultant but thanks to the folks at Kaffi Vinyl that allowed me to do what I wanted I was able to found the first ever all vegan kitchen in Iceland. Back then I worked a lot with a Swedish soybean based product called Oumph!, using it in my Vínyl menu and trying to help spread the word since it was new on the market. Through my cooking at Kaffi Vínyl I met the owners of Oumph! who invited me to come work with them, catapulting me into about a year of large-scale product development. It was an intense, educational and exciting time allowing me to travel a lot, meeting innovators in many fields previously unavailable to me.
Our collaboration resulted in four new flavors for Oumph!, lots of new knowledge for me, and a solidifying feeling that I needed to get back to my own mission; creating a cruelty free comfort zone in Iceland.
I was looking for an affordable place to make my kitchen magic happen, and for various reasons Gaukurinn turned out to be the ideal place.
By Icelandic standards it´s an old space, one of the first bars to serve beer after the prohibition was lifted in 1989, a music venue housing everything from rock- and metal shows, weekly comedy- and karaoke nights, bi-monthly drag shows, and everything else in between. My partner Krummi was working as the event booker, and since the owners who are dear friends of ours went vegan themselves it kind of all came together through us talking more on the subject. Gaukurinn is a very happening event venue by night, but it is pretty calm during the daytime. So we all feel it´s a win/win combination to let the house come alive in the afternoons with a feast of flavors meant to attract eclectic crowds passing through Gaukurinn for the different events, and at the same time introducing vegan food to audiences of cultural events where they would have otherwise not been represented.
Even though it´s not common in Iceland I believe there are many mutually beneficial reasons to be a Diner within a venue, to generate a wonderful collaboration is the key.
After a successful crowd funding campaign collecting enough capital to get started and about a year of stretching that money and building a cruelty free kitchen from scratch, Veganæs has now been open for about three months. It´s a lot of work developing something from scratch but extremely gratifying. Even though I probably need to catch up on some sleep I wake up every morning energized by the fact that I have managed to create a zone of freedom in which I can create my food without compromising, and even though there is still a lot of work yet to be done I´m endlessly excited to keep expanding from here.

How is it working in the chefs’ world as a woman?
As with most things and at least from a Western privileged perspective, I guess I would say it depends on the woman. Personally I enjoy working with people and their gender is irrelevant compared to their ethics, personality and skillset. What I mean to say is, of course I have experienced sexism in this profession, as I expect I would have in any other line of work. It is a dark part of the society we have created, but I don´t believe in creating additional divides between any of us. I´ve worked under and above both great and terrible men and women in many kitchens in various countries over the years, and ultimately learned a lot from all categories.

Is Iceland a country, which supports new projects/experiments? Have you received grants/subsidies/awards for your research?
I have always felt supported with my work in Iceland. When my Icelandic partner Krummi and I met he wasn´t vegan but he supported me in everything I was doing concerning veganism. We spoke a lot about the subject and made food together, but it was only after he saw a report on the news showing Icelandic slaughterhouses that there was no other option for him but to also go vegan. Since then we have collaborated a lot and although he is a musician, he moves effortlessly from the stage or studio to a kitchen setting. Thankfully he also has a talent for bookkeeping in comparison to me. We are now running Veganæs together and if we can get any additional support or attention through the fact that he is a public person, we are happy to use it to our best advantage.
When I first decided I needed to start my own thing I took business start up seminars and classes that were pretty cheap and very helpful. Thanks to this I was put into touch with the Karolina Fund, a local crowd funding Campaign Company that helped me launch a campaign to fund building Veganæs. So thanks to 260 people, many of whom are Icelanders who support new projects/experiments, Veganæs now exists.

Is being vegan political for you?
Definitely. Even though I know being vegan is currently a trend with a lot of misconstrued labeling and stigmas, for me, it´s just what being like me happens to be called. Veganism is more than what we eat, buy, wear, support or boycott. It´s a whole way of thinking, feeling and living, just like any other moral code and in this sense can almost be compared to a religious or political identity.
I assume everyone else who is convinced they know what could make the world better would do everything in their power to make it more so, be it in everyday life or politically.

Have you experienced antagonism in the food industry concerning veganism? In normal life? Does it differ in different countries?
Of course, and I think it will always persist in some shape or form, even if veganism becomes the norm. But it has never made me doubt my convictions instead it strengthens them. Even though it´s not always positive, cultural differences are partly what makes traveling and living in different countries interesting to me. When I was in Mexico building earthships for example as a non-married non-Catholic woman who´s into hardcore physical labor and a vegan, I was something that they had never experienced before. But it all worked out and again I think we all learned from each other, there might have been some cultural confusion but no ill will either way. As for working in the food industry as a vegan, it keeps getting better. It´s worth keeping in mind that food is a monetary driven industry, so ever since vegan products started picking up in popularity it has become more accepted. The more popular veganism gets, the more profitable it will be considered by the food industry, and less likely to be frowned upon.
Not everyone has that opportunity but I tend to only work in the vegan area. It´s what makes me happy and it is the easiest way to avoid basic conflicts both with others and even more so, with myself. To some point we can choose our surroundings, and the more people choose awareness, kindness and realism, the more we will have an mindful, generous and authentic world.

Danielle: What are you working on momentarily?
Right now my whole world is just getting Veganæs up and running. Once it´s stable and staffed up enough I can start adding to the menu and incorporating the venue in more veganæs ways. The local culinary and vegan activism scenes are growing a lot at the moment and it´s an exciting time to be part of making kindness a cool thing.

What are your future plans?
I want to keep on creating and learning endlessly, within the food world and in life in general.
Veganæs is a cruelty free comfort food diner located within Gaukurinn, which is a bar & live event venue and is run with a lot of love. Combining these worlds I think we can do a lot for human and other animal´s rights in a light hearted, fun way. Our collaboration is meant to benefit both worlds and make the whole house a cozy comfort zone. I look forward to seeing how successful it can become and then: Veganæsland 🙂
I hope to afford moving out eventually into my very own place, but everything leads to the next thing. I´m not in any hurry and am enjoying where I´m at, grateful for all that has brought me here. Without looking back we can´t look clearly ahead, so answering these questions at this moment in time has been therapeutic in its own way. Thanks!

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