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Chef Akasha, the rage of Hollywood in preparing original dishes for celebrities, says: 'I try to make my cooking exciting and tasty. . . . It should be delicious and not like medicine.' : Meatless Magic

May 22, 1986|BABA S. KHALSA | Khalsa is a free-lance writer in Los Angeles

What do Michael Jackson, Rick Springfield, Richard Simmons, Dick Clark and Carrie Fisher have in common? They've all eaten from the kitchen of Akasha. But before you comb the streets of West Hollywood looking for this secret cafe where you hope to dine on the latest trend in California cuisine, forget it. Akasha isn't a restaurant, she's a person. And you don't go to her. She comes to you. Akasha is a Hollywood gourmet vegetarian chef.

Hollywood has always been waistline conscious. But many of today's stellar performers are throwing over the old style of binge and fast for a more sensible way of eating that becomes a way of life. However, since stardom is synonymous with enjoying the better things in life, Hollywood's finest could never settle for a steady diet of heaping platters of steamed vegetables. So if Akasha hadn't come along with her creative way of making light food taste marvelous, Hollywood would have created her. She was an idea whose time had come.

With Akasha, you not only eat sensibly, you can eat superbly. Imagine you've walked into Spago or Michael's and found they had become vegetarian restaurants. Same exciting cuisine, same zinging flavors and colorful presentations, but with the conspicuous absence of meat, fish, fowl and eggs. Akasha's cooking has achieved that level.

To be sure, eschewing meat and eggs with their high fat and calorie content helps measurably in keeping trim. But can the remaining food groups--vegetables, grains, dairy products, nuts and fruits--really be made exciting enough to eat as a steady diet? A piece of meat takes up a lot of space on the plate. What do you replace it with?

Try fresh vegetable pie with mashed potatoes and country gravy. Or how about roasted eggplant-red pepper lasagna. Another stick-to-your-ribs dish is Akasha's fresh artichoke-mushroom-Fontina-mozzarella tart topped with Reggiano Parmesan cheese.

Akasha is a tall, striking woman set off by all white attire, including a turban as is the custom for a Sikh woman. An American, born in Miami, she adopted her faith six years ago. During the interview she steered the conversation away from my interest in who she cooked for toward her interest in what she cooked. However, Akasha confessed that she has cooked for some of the biggest names from the Golden Age of Hollywood. While she's certainly in awe of these personalities, it is her cooking that is the center of her life.

Akasha became a vegetarian 10 years ago as an extension of a lifelong commitment to eating light, low-calorie food. But she experienced most vegetarian cooking as heavy, greasy or tasteless. There was nothing wrong with the raw materials. There was everything wrong with the preparation. She realized that it took a great chef, not necessarily a vegetarian chef, to make great vegetarian meals. So she set about the task of becoming a great vegetarian chef.

Since cooking had been Akasha's hobby for 18 years, she began her experiment by making her old favorites meatless. When she exhausted those possibilities she turned to reading and travel. She devoured cookbooks and traveled through Italy, France and India, and a sense of her unique cuisine began to develop. Back home she took cooking classes at Montana Mercantile and from Pino Pasqualato of La Bruschetta, who then cooked at Valentino. And she delved into American regional cooking of the Deep South, Southwest and Midwest.

But the real breakthrough came when Akasha got to know some of the great chefs of California, notably Wolfgang Puck, whom she describes as "my inspiration."

The result is a cuisine Akasha can truly call her own. She never uses anyone else's recipes, preferring to develop her own from scratch. Her concept is quite simple: Create dishes made to order from the best possible ingredients--dishes that you will thoroughly enjoy and that will make you feel good after you eat.

Akasha learned from Puck to start with the freshest, youngest produce and herbs from small farms in Southern California (like Puck's personal favorite Chino's Ranch in North San Diego County). She cooks with little oil or salt, preferring to season with sauces of intensely flavored vegetable reductions punched up by the use of herbs and spices. She bakes with whole-grain and unbleached flours instead of all-purpose, maple syrup instead of granulated sugar, sour cream or yogurt instead of eggs, and about half the normal amount of butter. The results are lighter, less saccharine, but in some ways more satisfying renditions of familiar desserts.

"I use ingredients that taste good and are good for you--like garlic, ginger and onions. They help the digestion," she said. Her food, which can be spicy, is not incendiary. Just reassuringly warm on the tongue and in the stomach.

"I know that when people get old their doctors tell them 'cut this out, restrict that,' and eating's no fun anymore. I try to make my cooking exciting and tasty, yet something you can eat till the day you die," she said.

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