This isn’t the first occasion on which I’ve met husband and wife duo, Roger and Robin Swallow. The first time was about 12 years ago when I was dining with friends at Manna - their restaurant on a leafy side street in Primrose Hill, London - and Roger & Robin were here from their other home in Los Angeles.
Fresh out of college, having studied naturopathic medicine, I was hungry for all foods healthy and wise and dining that day at Manna was to change my food ideal, forever. And so here I am again, having frequented the restau- rant many times in between, but this time I’m here to interview the couple.
Their vegan story begins in the 50s with Roger’s childhood marred by all kinds of serious maladies of which any possible root cause was dismissed by a naive medical profession. Although he grew to be a happy, athletic teenager and after school pursued a successful music career, he gained weight and experienced continuing symptoms of seriously compromised health. “I struggled quietly to maintain any kind of wellness”, he recalls, “and was eventually rescued, during a much-needed break travelling around Europe with a macrobiotic friend, after a particularly busy period in my music career. He was to spur a change in my life that was to be forever. He taught me about the indivisible connection between health and lifestyle and schooled me in the basics of living according to a deep philosophical and holistic understanding of the self. That trip was a real catalyst for change and I’ve never looked back”.
Fast forward a few years and Roger had professionally migrated to Los Angeles and met and married Robin who had moved there from upstate New York. Whilst raising their two sons, Robin became increasingly immersed and skillful in an array of cooking and other disciplines that provided wellness, nourishment and fun for the family. This led, naturally, to using her skills out- side the home and she quickly became a sought after private vegan chef, caterer and ‘pie-maker- in-chief’to many.
Also by then, the couple had met Stephen Hague, an American record producer and band mate of Roger’s, and when Stephen moved back to Lon- don in the 1990s they opened a business office together opposite Manna where they frequently dined when Roger was visiting. When an opportunity arose to buy the restaurant in 1995 they jumped at it and the rest is history!
However, it wasn’t until 2008 that Roger and Robin decided to come to London to oversee the operation themselves for a while. “Even though Manna had been a famous vegetarian restaurant since 1967, now that we were in charge, it had to be vegan!” says Robin.
So, what now of Manna’s committed veganism and heritage? “Simply: a vision to heal and enjoy!” answers Roger. “Since Manna was founded, it’s been largely shaped by the influence of immigrants and their age-old exotic cuisine and wisdom, but with a continual sensibility of modern knowledge sweeping through. We question and learn from anything and everything currently pertinent. What hasn’t changed enough probably is the myth that wellness is a discipline devoid of character and enjoyment, especially when it comes to plant-based cuisine. Nonsense! Our mission continues to be fine dining in the international tradition. The fact that it is vegan is incidental – essential of course, but incidental,” says Roger.
The world is a mess, of course, and we have a long way to go, but responsibly produced alternatives to a world of toxic mass production and gluttony are increasingly becoming mainstream, and it isn’t unusual anymore for all types to enjoy a vegan meal, whether fully committed or not.
“Few people today are unaware of the socio- ecological consequences of a toxic modern world, and a life completely devoid of animal product consumption is sensible in the real meaning of the word. Manna is a major vegan player today, known the world over. Robin and I are ‘Manna Cuisine’ and we are partners with Stephen in the restaurant. We are a first stop for sophisticated international clientele as well as many celebrities, looking for gourmet vegan food, but we’re here for everyone, whatever their conviction”, says Roger.
“The world is a mess, of course, and we have a long way to go, but responsibly produced alternatives to a world of toxic mass production and gluttony are increasingly becoming mainstream, and it isn’t unusual anymore for all types to enjoy a vegan meal, whether fully committed or not. We love to see carnivores enjoy our food; it’s wonderful – and they really appreciate us, especially large parties of all age groups enticed here by the lone vegan in the family!” adds Robin.
So, could it be that we’re in the midst of another profound change just as we were back in the 60s when Manna was founded? “Without doubt, it may not be as sociologically evident, but a huge shift in consciousness is occurring again, right now. It may have been more apparent in the 60s, when everyone hit the streets, made a lot of noise and even dressed differently, but I believe it’s more profound now. Whilst the vegetarian diet was seen as a radical alternative, cultish even, back then, today, a vegan lifestyle is not only essential but a natural choice for everything from philosophical/ sociological to environmental and health reasons. So, if someone says, “Why vegan?” The answer now, has to be: “Why not?” says Roger.
What’s next for Roger and Robin? Well, it’s time for them to move on from London as a base and back to California to be close again to their family. Lovingly always caring for those around her (she’s busily preparing some food for me, even as we talk), Robin plans to share her knowledge and love of creating gourmet vegan food through teaching, books, consulting and private catering again. And, as those including myself who have already attended one of Robin’s sold-out cookery classes will testify, it’s not just the know-how for some original and delicious recipes that you come away with, but Robin’s infectious, energetic personality and love for creative possibilities.
“I’m excited about California for many reasons. Not only will we be back with our family but also there’s so much new energy there, as always it’s at the forefront of change. Not to mention the spectacular produce some of which has never been seen in Europe. We have friends there doing amazing things in its emerging radical food environment. I’m most eager to visit them,” says Robin.
As for Roger, his passion for philosophy, sociology and history has compelled him to continue a series of writings as well as a daily blog, the insight of which I hungrily anticipate, just as I do the food about to appear in front of me at Manna!
And what of the restaurant? “We’ll be looking for a steward to carry on the heritage of what we’ve accomplished, with a depth of understanding to take it to the next exciting level”.
Note to readers:
If you should have any interest in being part of the future of Manna Restaurant, please email: [email protected]