Veganism once was a dirty word. In the past, should you dare tell someone you were vegan or plant-based, you’d receive a lecture on why humans need meat. Or the essential nutrients you were missing out on for not eating animals. Or be asked myriad questions such as “where do you get your protein? What do you do for iron? and so on.
However, in recent years, the perception of veganism and a plant-based lifestyle has been changing, thanks to documentaries like James Cameron’s Game Changers, delicious plant-based home delivery meal services such as Thank Fork, and plant-based entrepreneurs like Heaven Leigh.
Heaven Leigh (yes, that is her real name, and it suits her to a T), is a third generation restaurateur and owner/operator of Bodhi Vegan Restaurant and Bar in Sydney, NSW.
Running the country’s longest-established vegan restaurant, Bodhi Restaurant Bar, for more than 20 years, Heaven is one of the most experienced plant-based business owners in Australia. Outside the restaurant, she is also a plant-based entrepreneur, business owner, mentor, content producer and mum of two beautiful children.
The minute I met Heaven, I knew I’d met a lifelong friend. She’s smart as a whip, as kind as Mother Theresa and a wonderfully soft place to land if you’re ever feeling stressed out or sad. Little wonder her staff turnover is so low and the people she works with have been with her for many, many years.
Heaven is also doing her utmost bolster plant-based businesses within Australia and internationally. She regularly consults and invests in businesses that she sees as forward thinking and valuable to the future of our plant.
I sat down with her, over a delicious Yum Cha meal at Bodhi of course, to discuss all things vegan. Here’s how our conversation unfolded!
You have pioneered Australia’s vegan scene since opening Bodhi in 2000. What was your vision when first opening?
That’s very flattering, but I couldn’t say I single-handedly pioneered the vegan scene. My mother was the one with the original vision to create a safe place where people could learn about and enjoy great vegan food. She actually opened Bodhi back in 1988, in another location from where it is now.
However, I am proud of how I’ve contributed to the vegan scene and have grown Bodhi since taking over the mantle in 2000.
It was a challenge taking something that had already seen some success for 12 years and help it flourish for a further 20 years. There was a lot of pressure coming from my family, and also from myself.
Having witnessed how my family had operated the original Bodhi group of businesses (which included several restaurants, cafes and a vegan pie manufacturing business), I had the benefit of hindsight, and was able to see where the gaps and challenges were.
I come from a long line of ‘I think I can do this better’ kind of people. So when I took over Bodhi, my vision was to take it to the next level.
Definitely one of the areas that was underperforming was dinner. Yum cha was always unique and successful for lunch, so the challenge was not only how could I take something good and make it better, but also how could I put my unique spin and identity into it, and create something customers would still love.
So I set out to innovate and modernise Bodhi to make it relevant to my generation of diners (and the generations to follow).
Plant Powered Strategy wasn’t even a thing 20 years ago. How did you break through Veganism barriers and become as successful as you are?
As any business owner will, tell you, the journey is tough. especially at the beginning with Veganism. There are a lot of sacrifices along the way. It’s a real rollercoaster of a ride. I was lucky that Bodhi wasn’t my first rodeo. I had taken some time to hone my craft and learn the trade from others who were successful in the hospitality industry during the late 90s and the mid 2000s when I worked in London.
At one stage, the family almost lost Bodhi entirely. The economy and restaurants were suffering so there were some really hard lessons learnt. But I think resilience, knowing when to make tough decisions, cut losses, change tactics and a personal belief that most things have a solution and I can get through almost anything helps.
In terms of the success of Veganism and hospitality, we have evolved with our customers. As consumers’ tastes have changed and people become more educated about what they eat and where their food comes from, so have we. We’ve always aimed to keep Bodhi fresh.
We are now in the process of preparing to undergo a major renovation which will allow us to reimagine Bodhi for the next generation of diners.
We are also looking at expanding into other areas of the wellness industry which is incredibly exciting and will bring a breath of fresh air into what is effectively a 33 year old legacy brand.
Veganism aside, what values and vision does your restaurant align with?
Some have changed from generation to generation. However the core value of having a successful, thriving business and community that has a ‘do no harm’ philosophy and a ‘tread lightly’ approach has always remained the same, and is at the heart of everything we do in the business.
I’m incredibly proud to have a long standing business that has caused as little suffering in its pursuit of success. I have two small children aged five and seven. One day if they ask me, “when you knew the world was in trouble, what role did you play?” or “what did you do to make a difference when it comes to environmental issues, industrial farming practices and animal welfare?”, I feel I have a good answer. Call me idealistic but it’s important to me that I’m not just a taker but a contributor in society. I want to try and leave the world in a better place than I found it.
You invest in other vegan brands … what attracts you to these brands? What does a brand based on veganism brand need to have for complete credibility?
I think the desire to invest in vegan brands goes back to wanting to make the world a better place, while also tapping into my ‘how can we do this better’ mentality.
You have to be able to compete with other mainstream brands – veganism shouldn’t mean compromise. It’s important that vegan brands are authentic but it’s also important to understand that you can’t always be idealistic at the expense of your business. I know at least a dozen of wonderful, idealistic vegan restaurants that are no longer in operation or have gone bankrupt because they haven’t got the fundamentals right or because they couldn’t adapt or wouldn’t compromise. There’s no perfect plant-based business. You just have to always do the best you can and then try to be better.
You also support a lot of brands through collaboration and/ or hosting events on their behalf at your restaurant. What are some of the stand out events you’ve had in the past?
I’m a huge believer in collaborating with like-minded brands or networks, particularly in today’s veganism market. My favourite partnerships or events are ones that I feel make a difference either to raise awareness or funds for an issue, topic or cause. Our annual Nup To The Cup event supports Horse Rescue Australia. I also really enjoyed the collaboration we did with Gelatissimo where everyone brought their dog to Bodhi for vegan ice cream. It was literally puppy love and cuteness all day long.
What is your favourite dish at Bodhi?
Definitely the shiitake mushroom dumplings with asparagus and truffle oil for lunch and the finger eggplant with chili, black rice vinegar, coriander, crushed peanuts and caramel sauce for dinner, as well as the zucchini flower with rendang brown rice on a bed of mango quinoa.
And What’s Your Favourite Dessert?
Lavender cake with yuzu panna cotta, white chocolate sauce, pistachio and cardamom!
I’m absolutely loving Mukti’s range of cruelty-free skincare products that I’m trying right now, as well as Herbivore Botanicals.
What Is Your Favourite Vegan Fashion Brand?
What Vegan Hair Care Brand Do You Consider To be The Best?
There are so many great vegan make-up brands around these days. Which are your preferred buys?
What is Your Fave Vegan Fragrance?
I tend to use pure essential oils instead of perfumes on my skin for fragrance, but I must admit I love the Recreation Bondi Beach range of perfumes.
What advice do you have for those new to a plant based lifestyle?
Listen to your body and don’t start in a way that’s too extreme or your plant-based journey might not last the distance. Make sustainable changes according to your lifestyle and life choices. Be curious. Educate yourself on not just the food, but the impact of products, how they are made and manufactured.
What advice do you have for those who slip up on their plant based journey?
Don’t be too tough on yourself and stop trying to be perfect. Do the best you can, and remember that you can always come back to it.
Top tips for a plant powered life?
Ask a lot of questions about veganism. Experiment with new things. Don’t be too judgmental of yourself or others. The best example you can give others of a vegan lifestyle is to be healthy, happy and successful.
“Just go out, live your best life” is my philosophy. And screw the peanut gallery haha.
About Heaven Leigh
Heaven Leigh is a plant-based business owner and third-generation restaurateur, running Australia’s longest established vegan restaurant, Bodhi Restaurant Bar in Sydney’s Cook+Phillip Park. Heaven has spent much of her career collaborating with like-minded businesses, celebrating her multicultural heritage, advocating for women supporting women in the workplace, and making plant-based food fun and accessible for people to incorporate into their lives. She is also an avid traveller and enjoys writing and filming her journey exploring plant-based cuisine around the globe.