This little-known dining place is Mysore’s most delicious, healthy secret
You’ve heard about it via the grapevine from your seriously ripped Ashtangi friends while they casually throw their legs over their shoulders. Sting, Madonna and more recently Chris Martin have all stood in line outside this shala to be assisted with their backbends. The guru (or rather grandson of the original guru) is so media shy and secretive that they almost don’t say his name (kind of like Voldemort, but in a good way). I’m talking about KPJAYI (K. Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute), the famed Ashtanga school in Gokulam, Mysore. And Gokulam was where I happened to find myself, not to practice yoga but to do an ayurvedic nutrition course.
Most of the students in the nutrition course were Ashtanga practitioners looking to broaden their culinary and ayurvedic perspective and that’s when I first heard about Saturday Sweets. Like all things in Gokulam, this too was pretty underground. Apparently, the Ashtangi who was whipping up some mean vegan desserts used to be a pastry chef at The Four Seasons in Vancouver and Toronto. The line of yogis outside his teacher’s yoga studio, which is converted into a kitchen and dining area on Saturdays, was so long that usually by 12.30pm everything was sold out. The Facebook group was closed and for members only.
Totally intrigued and also because I was yet to taste a raw or vegan dessert that didn’t taste like cardboard, I asked one of the students if I could come and help with the prep and also meet this mysterious pastry chef, Sam Shem.
As I walked into an unassuming house, I was handed a fork and asked to mash a mountain of bananas for the vegan banana bread. Shem looked totally relaxed and in command of his little troop of yogi workers, some who had been chefs in their previous avatars (one had even worked for Alice Waters!). As we cooked and chatted about yoga, travel and the best way to core cabbage, Sam casually commented, “This is why I stopped being a professional pastry chef.”
Shem, from Vancouver, Canada, the chef behind Saturday Sweets, actually went to art school prior to his adventures in patisserie. Both his parents were chefs and maybe because of that subconsciously all his artwork installations ended up using food materials. He would make sculptures out of cotton candy and fondant icing and use rice and mint for his artwork. It was while he was studying for his Masters in London, that Shem first came across ashtanga yoga, which would later play a very important role in his life.
“Quit your job, buy a ticket.”
Back in Vancouver, he decided to go to pastry school while continuing to teach art part-time at Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design. He worked at fine-dining restaurants, fancy hotels, bakeries and even a stint at Whole Foods for a good ten years till 2010 when he decided to, as the famous Instagram meme goes, “Quit his job, buy a ticket, get a tan, never come back” or in his case, get into supta kurmasana and never come back.
While practicing and later assisting Saraswathi Jois (daughter of Pattabhi Jois), Shem started casually baking and making desserts for friends till the demand got out of control. He then decided to start Saturday Sweets so everyone could get their sweet fix all at once and enjoy their cheat day with some treats (traditionally ashtangis don’t practice on Saturday). Cooking in Mysore meant cooking for people with “all these different requirements, vegan, gluten free etc”. For Shem, this was a really interesting challenge and as someone who loves “problem solving” he decided to dive straight into RnD for this new way of cooking.
“It made me excited about pastry in a totally different way!” says Shem as he explains further, “It was a totally different clientele from my fine-dining days because these people were actually concerned about what they were consuming that made me more aware of how I was cooking and what I was sourcing!”
Today Saturday Sweets is really the stuff of legend. When I went the day after my banana mashing exertions, I saw not only the crazy line of people outside and inside the house but the insane amounts of food that lay on the table (six types of cakes: two raw, two vegan, two “regular”, two types of bread cakes and a lunch of Japanese orientation that looked ridiculously healthy). And I can officially say, once I tried the vegan lemon cheesecake, I will never mock vegan desserts again!
“I have met a lot of interesting people while travelling and in Mysore who have had similar journeys and who are a little tired of the nine-to-five life and that keeps me really inspired,” says Shem, while dishing out slices of his Raw Matcha Cheesecake and Raw Lemon Coconut Dream Bar to blissed out, happy, healthy yogis and I think to myself that this must be some really good karma he is clocking up.
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