Article by Liam McLean
Photos Courtesy of Gorilla Food
In March, I had the pleasure of meeting with Aaron Ash at Gorilla Food’s new location on Hastings Street. Gorilla Food is a Vancouver-based raw vegan restaurant that Aaron began in 2005, although the idea for the restaurant and his experience making raw vegan food started many years prior. Before beginning the interview, I had the opportunity to sample some of Aaron’s food and ordered a Main St. Monkey sandwich and a side of bean soup. I was quite curious about how much work went into preparing and creating raw vegan food while also ensuring it had great nutritional value and flavour. As someone who has never eaten raw vegan before, I was very impressed with the food I ate at Gorilla Food and the combination of raw vegetable ingredients used to make it. The food is a definite reflection of Aaron’s life principles that promote sustainability, community, and the protection of the environment. Through his various interactions with food, customers, employees, and the environment, Aaron practices the holistic message he wishes to teach.
The idea behind Gorilla Food as a vegan restaurant began 20 years ago, during the time Aaron was first becoming a vegetarian. “At the time, I guess I was 19 or so and I was just becoming a vegetarian, getting really interested in organic food and realizing what was happening in our food system,” said Aaron about his teenage years in Saskatchewan, “and bringing all this life experience I had at that point from growing up around farms and agriculture communities. And to realize that they are really flying with planes and spraying all this stuff all over the ground. No wonder people are sick.” As he grew up, Aaron began to discover the negative impact that industrialized food had on the environment, especially its tendency to use harmful chemicals, genetic modification, and its cruel mistreatment of agricultural animals. A significant turning point that lead Aaron to become a vegetarian occurred in high school. “I took this day job one time working at this chicken farm,” said Aaron.
“I know that that was really impactful, looking back at it. I saw them rounding up thousands of chickens and I couldn’t even do it. It made me a little bit ill actually.”
Eventually, all the information Aaron encountered about animal rights and violence towards animals coalesced in his decision to become a vegetarian in his late teens. “Through that whole process, I realized that there aren’t really places to get vegetarian food,” Aaron said, “so, I set out on a mission to create, I guess, a food juice place that served organic vegetarian food.” The idea behind Gorilla Food had begun.
On the culinary side, Aaron’s path to becoming a vegan chef and owning a restaurant also started at a young age and continued throughout his teenage years. Food has always played a prominent role in his life; his first job at the age of 11 was to pick vegetables from a market garden. In high school, he began to work regularly at an Italian restaurant and became interested about the restaurant and food culture, as well as the close community space that seemed to circulate around the kitchen. “It was through them that I learned a lot about food ingredients,” said Aaron about the Italian restaurant, “and I learned that there were different kinds of tomatoes for different uses or there’s different kinds of meat or cheeses, like different qualities and different standards.” Originally, Aaron wanted to go to chef school to pursue his passion for food, even attempting to convince his mom to let him drop out of school. However, when he became a vegetarian, the idea of going to a traditional chef school no longer interested him and he began the preliminary plans for opening a juice bar in Regina. In the city, Aaron became great friends with Rick, the owner of a vegetarian restaurant called the Heliotrope, who would be a significant mentor figure in his life and open his eyes to vegetarian food. “I spent a lot of time eating there. He was a bit older than me, travelled the world a lot, and kind of inspired me to learn about different food cultures,” said Aaron. “He travelled through south-east Asia, India, northern Africa, so he brought a lot of interesting food fusions together.” With Rick’s help, Aaron became more knowledgeable about vegetarian food and how to make it. He also started to explore the different kinds of raw vegan food that interested him.
Aaron’s path towards owning a restaurant would take a few detours before being fully realized. Before he could achieve his goal of opening a juice bar, Aaron met a woman and moved to L.A. “She was for me one of the greatest teachers in my life in that she really encouraged me to find my passion and really follow what I want to do,” said Aaron.
“I was really coming to realize that all these passions of mine did all fit together.”
He continued to make veggie meals in L.A. and his friend Rick would often visit and work in the kitchen with him. L.A. was also the beginning of his professional food making career since he started making food privately for a musician friend and his wife. However, music was always a big passion in Aaron’s life and he moved to Vancouver after a few years to get more involved in the audio and film industry, though his love for vegan food would never go away. “I did a little bit of film work and realized that all the food that I was having to eat on those trucks, and stuff like that, wasn’t really what I wanted to be eating or anything,” said Aaron about coming to Vancouver. “I remember the day I was in this workshop and we had to write down on these cards exactly what we were trying to create in that moment. […] And so, I wrote down on this piece of paper that I’m looking for an affordable commercial kitchen space preferably in East Vancouver.” In 2004, Aaron and his friend Mark opened the first organic raw vegan café in Vancouver called The Living Source Café on Commercial Drive. After 9 months, he was forced to move due to rising rent and opened a place called The Rooted Café in the back of a grocery store with another friend. Although this café would eventually close as well, Aaron’s path towards the realization of Gorilla Food had begun.
During the time period after leaving Commercial Drive, Aaron came up with the name Gorilla Food as he continued to make vegan food for people privately. While making food at his house, Aaron was concerned that he was taking up too much space in the fridge that he shared with his roommates. “I rented a little kitchen on the ground level of a house that was a few blocks from our house. And that was where the Guerilla [Gorilla] Kitchen name started,” said Aaron about this new space. “So, that was kind of a little joke that it was the ‘illegal kitchen’ that I was running an organic food business out of.” One day, a lady called based on a recommendation that he made raw foods for people. In her message, she voiced her concern about what kind of energy he put into his work, whether he meant the gorilla animal or guerilla soldier. “And I was like ‘Ding!’ Amazing! The animal, it was a raw foodist and a vegan,” said Aaron about the message, “and I read this study how, if given the chance, they could tell which were the organic bananas versus the inorganic bananas and would go to those every time. And that was the start of Gorilla Food.”
After The Rooted Café closed down, Aaron was contacted by an acquaintance that knew of a little space in Downtown Vancouver. In 2005, the first Gorilla Food opened in a small takeaway window space at Richards and Hastings. He was there for 9 months and had noticed a downstairs space a few doors down from him used by his landlord to store equipment. “I was thinking ‘This place is working out, there’s people standing in line at the takeaway window, maybe if I can get this space down here it would be a good opportunity,’” said Aaron. “And, it happened, so I built out a kitchen and space that is still there now. Yeah, so that happened for 8 years, 2006 to 2014 at the downstairs space.” This space would become the first Gorilla Food restaurant where customers could sit down and enjoy their food. In 2012, Aaron would expand to a second location that was a bigger space. Unfortunately, this new restaurant would turn not to be in the right location and the equipment he had could not fit back into his original restaurant. “I was kind of faced with this decision of keeping one or the other, so in the end I chose to reform,” said Aaron about condensing Gorilla Food.
“So, that’s this space now. We’ve been here for just a couple months.”
Now located by Princess and Hastings, Aaron has been hard at work setting up the current Gorilla Food in a spacious new restaurant space.
Aaron believes that the restaurant is meant to be a positive community space that is meant to bring people together while also serving high quality food. “I feel like I am a meeting ground here for all kinds of classes and cultures and demographics, in a certain way,” Aaron said. “I feel like organic food and veggie food in general really has such a diverse array of people that are interested in it and are practicing it. And they are all coming for different reasons, whether it be for health or animal rights or for the environment.” Aaron is highly appreciative of the customers who have supported him over the years, as well as the authentic and organic community that has developed around Gorilla Food. Inside the restaurant, Aaron fosters a fair and supportive internal community among his employees. “I know I’m always enthused by other mostly younger people who it’s like, ‘Oh wow, there’s a place I can work and make my living by doing good in the world,’” said Aaron about his staff, “and not sort of having to make compromises selling pesticide laden food or something like that.” Aaron tries hard to adopt a progressive and compassionate attitude towards the employees he hires, recognizing that the food industry is generally an underpaid and underappreciated industry. “I just try to convey how much I wish to pay them as much as possible, and I wish to be a fundraiser for all of us so that we can take that out into the world and we can do good with it,” said Aaron about his relationship with his employees. “I just really try to get them to believe in me in a certain way. That I’m not just going to run away with the proceeds.” It is important for Aaron that his life aligns with his beliefs and practices, and he is proud of the organic community that has grown around his restaurant.
Gorilla Food is also a community space for the art and music that satisfies Aaron’s desire for creativity. “I try to think of every moment as an artistic expression,” said Aaron, “or bringing art into our whole lives in every experience.” Music is still a big part of Aaron’s life and he plays guitar and his new trumpet in his spare time. He recounts the time in his life when he was unsure whether to pursue music or food. “I decided instead of pushing that [music] as a commercial interest or whatever, that I thought that food is something that is beyond the money system, and is something that we would be trading amongst community with or without the money system,” said Aaron. “And I do realize that our food system here in Canada is super fragile, in that we don’t really have that much food here for most of the year and that we ship it all here. I just realized at that time that food was more important for the world than my music.” Although Aaron chose to focus on food, his restaurant is a creative outlet for him and acts as an intersection for many forms of art. “Through the restaurant, I get to share art on the walls from different local artists that have had shows on, kind of like, a changing monthly rotation,” said Aaron about his restaurant’s art.
“I get to select the music all the time and create the vibe of music. I guess music for me is a conscious decision to share music that is uplifting and shares a message of hope.”
Aaron feels like he gravitates towards artists and has an appreciation for visual art. Although painting is not an activity he practices himself, he has explored many creative and artistic mediums over his lifetime. As a raw vegan chef, the creation and arrangement of the food he makes at Gorilla Food is a form of visual expression itself.
Outside of Gorilla Food, Aaron is incredibly interested in urban farming and permaculture. “We used to host a permaculture meetup group. […] I guess it is something I try to be surrounded by as much as I can,” Aaron said. “I get inspired by the garden and inspired by people growing food. So naturally, I guess, if I have free time that’s where I spend my time.” Over the years, he has been amazed by how far urban farming has grown in Vancouver. He tries to get involved with his friends as much as possible in the urban farms of Vancouver and also tends to his own small container garden at his place. “Permaculture is definitely a big part of my interest and exploration,” said Aaron. “I’ve travelled to all kinds of different places in the world with that in mind, in a way, to go explore examples of communities: intentional communities, eco-communities, ashrams, monasteries. Where food is a core of their community.” Aaron’s dream is to form a sustainable closed loop with his restaurant, where local farms grow the organic food he uses and the compost he creates goes back into the farms. “That’s kind of my dream, in a way, to live on land that grows food and then it gets utilized within Gorilla Food,” said Aaron.
Aside from growing Gorilla Food, Aaron does have some dreams and ideas for the future. For one, Aaron could see himself becoming a teacher to those interested in making raw vegan food and its lifestyle. “I find a lot of joy in it, too, as well. Sometimes I’ve hosted classes, or I’ve gone to different classes, and I make food at yoga retreats often,” said Aaron about the possibility of teaching.
“Yeah, there’s just a beautiful thing about seeing people become empowered by this thing that is so basic.”
He appreciates his ability to possibly inspire others and share stories that can influence people onto a beneficial and environmentally sustainable life path. In the far future, Aaron has dreams of becoming more involved in farming and has mentioned the possible goal of owning a tropical farm in Costa Rica.
For the present, Aaron is optimistic about the growth and acceptance of veganism inside and outside Vancouver. “The awareness, the consciousness of eating clean food, the connection of food and our health. I don’t know if it’s at an all time high, but it sure feels like it is fairly common knowledge now, whereas I feel like, when growing up, it wasn’t that way for me,” said Aaron. “I’m finding that this past couple of years I’d say more so.” He tells me about how there were extremely limited vegan options when he first arrived in Vancouver and how he notices that food options at non-vegan restaurants have become more accommodating and creative. “When I first moved here, there was one vegan kitchen in all of Vancouver,” said Aaron. “There’s quite a lot of different food businesses [now], not even just restaurants. I feel like, compared to 10 years ago, 20 years ago, there’s more reason to have hope. There’s more reason to feel good about things.”
Aaron looks forward to helping strengthen the vegan community in Vancouver and promote a more sustainable and environmentally conscious lifestyle. If you are interested in trying Aaron’s raw vegan food, Gorilla Food is located at 637 E Hastings St, Vancouver. Try it out, it’s worth it!