I’m please to post my interview with Ashley Neese – please read on! She’s a vegan chef and wellness coach based in LA, and the first person featured through the Friends of Mine Project.
Sunday, January 20, 2013: Los Angeles, CA
I adore Ashley Neese. We first met sometime in late 2003 or early 2004 in San Francisco. She and I were part of the same circle of friends at the time, and she and my then roommate were close. After I moved to New York City in 2006, Ashley became one of those rare friends with whom I maintained contact. Ashley inspired me by sending photo postcards every month or so for my first couple of years in NYC. A small action, but it meant a lot to me—that a friend would care enough to take the time to send little pieces of art and updates the analog way, during a time when the seismic shift to all thing digital and social media was in full swing.
Over the years, I have watched Ashley transform her life and those around her. When we first met, she attended grad school at California College of the Arts. I watched her take a major step forward in life by moving to Portland in 2007 and at the same time zip around the world for her art career. She visited me twice in NYC, once in 2006 and again in 2007. She always impressed me with her focus and dedication. Then, in 2010, after moving back to the States from Berlin, Ashley made the decision to become a vegan chef and attended a culinary program in Fort Bragg, CA. Last year, she moved to Los Angeles to launch her practice.
We spent time together on the eve of her 33rd birthday—her Christ year. The Christ year is supposedly one of great changes for an individual, with themes of death and re-birth. I found it to be no coincidence that Ashley had started doing A Course in Miracles a few weeks earlier. Thematically, it made sense.
What are you currently working on?
“I’m currently getting ready to launch my first eBook. I’m doing a series of four—one for every season. It’s all gluten-free, vegan recipes I’ve created here in Los Angeles. For me, it’s an integration of my art and design background while working with wellness, health, and natural foods. It’s a culmination of all of my passions in one form.
“I also have a new Web site launching today: ashelyneese.com. It’s my business and services site, along with my journey to healthy living. My blog is going to be hosted there as well as other resources. I’m also a certified yoga instructor—I have 200-hour Hatha yoga certification. This will allow me to teach.”
Tell me your story.
”I was born in Wisconsin and moved to Atlanta, GA at 3 years old. My Mom’s family is Jewish, and I grew up with that sort of Jewish family. My grandmother and aunts cooked a lot. I grew up having a lot of family dinners around the Jewish holidays. To this day, my aunt has Sunday night dinner at her house. It’s a big part of my upbringing. My parents split up as I moved into high school, and I ate out a lot during this time.
“My journey toward healthy living started when I got sober. As a kid, before I hit my teenage years, I did ballet and danced every day after school. That was my life until I hit 8th grade. I was hoping to be part of this junior ballet company, and things just fell apart. I started acting out like teens do. Looking back at the time, I’m glad I had ballet as a young person, because it gave me a community and something to be part of. I love dancing—it’s so beautiful—and it’s helped with yoga, allowing me to move my body in certain ways. I’m not a naturally flexible person. Ballet training as a kid has given me an advantage to move more gracefully and with more balance, while knowing it’s going to be physically challenging. Ballet was a good way for me to focus and be really present—you have to be super present when dancing. Yoga is similar to dancing with the memorization of how to hold poses and move your body in certain ways.
“I wasn’t super healthy in high school and didn’t do sports after I quit ballet. I became really involved with art, and it became my main thing. My teachers supported and encouraged me. I did pre-college programs in Italy and Atlanta. I was always encouraged to do art, even by my parents. Art school seemed like the best decision for college. I went off to Parsons in New York City. As one of the youngest people in my class, I got accepted into the photo department. Most people in my class already had a Bachelor’s degree—a big gap. I lived in this cool dorm where everyone was in their mid-20s. I couldn’t appreciate how really awesome of an opportunity it was because of how insecure and freaked out I was.
“Moving from Atlanta to NYC was a really big deal. I had always wanted to live in NYC. The classes were really hard, and I cried a lot. Teachers were brutal; it was a professional program and I was not a professional student. I took the approach of ‘OMG I’m in New York’—and I partied a lot. I just felt like I didn’t belong, and at the time it seemed easier to leave. I completed one semester before moving back to Atlanta.
“Once back home, I enrolled in the Atlanta College of Art—a local art school in downtown Atlanta. Disappointment set in. To this day, I still regret not staying in NYC and going for it. I didn’t have the self-esteem or focus. I went from being the best in high school to not being the best anymore in college. You go to NYC and everyone is better and has more experience than you. So I went back to Atlanta and finished college there.
“Two years after moving back to Atlanta, I got sober. I dropped out of school. That’s when everything changed. I had been using drugs and alcohol since high school. Things got out of hand. I knew I needed to stop but didn’t know how. My parents did an intervention and gave me the opportunity to go to rehab—so I went.
“That was the beginning of my health journey. It started in a mental institution—you start where you start. It was the first point in my life in a long time that I felt that I could change – and that I had the desire to live a different life. I knew I was self-destructive and I didn’t really care. I also knew that this wasn’t my life in a certain way. I constantly had an out-of-body experience, where I told myself that I’m destined for something else, but I didn’t know how to stop.
“How did I stop the cycle? Rehab introduced me to people and concepts that helped me. I had this moment in rehab where I told myself: ‘OK, I don’t have to live like that anymore.’ I became so motivated and spent three months total in rehab—one month in-patient and two months out-patient. I returned to school the next month and finished two years later.
“I got involved in school and became super focused, immersed, distracted, and really insecure. Those feelings didn’t go away overnight. I started to build self-esteem through showing up, taking care of myself, making friends at school, and living the life I wanted to live. I applied to really competitive graduate schools, and had a lot of support from my teachers. I got into an awesome school in San Francisco.
“I moved to SF in 2003 at the age of 23 to get my Masters, and things just started shifting. I found myself in a really awesome city for art. I wasn’t the best any more, but it was OK. I liked having to work really hard and be challenged all the time, and I met really amazing people. That’s when things started shifting with my food. None of my friends in SF ate fast food every day. I would have the occasional In & Out burger, but that’s it. People just didn’t eat how I ate in Atlanta. I started cooking more at home. Step-by-step I started switching what I ate—less fast food and more whole food. My grandmother and mom taught me how to cook. As a child, I loved to hang out in the kitchen with Grandma while she cooked. We had special days where I would go over there and we would make truffles, etc. It was already in me, and it just became a matter of accessing it.
“I started cooking and learning about the bulk bins—all of these things I had no idea about. I started to practice Bikram yoga and bike. I was just overall meeting people who were living in a different way than I had been living in Atlanta, and things just slowly progressed.
“I met someone and moved to Portland in summer 2007, which become another big step forward with healthy living. I lived with this guy who was a cook. He taught me about kale. Five nights a week for a year, we had black beans, brown rice, kale, and tamari sesame oil or spicy peanut sauce for dinner. I had never had such simple, wholesome food—and it changed my life.
“I started cooking a lot more and learning from him. I got in to vegan baking and slowly changed my diet, did yoga, went to the gym—I started living an active life. At this time, I also traveled a lot for my art career. I lived in different cities for short stints of time. Somewhere around 2009, I started getting really sick. I would get sick a couple of times a year, having taken anti-biotics once or twice a year from 14 to 29. I never thought anything of it because I had bad sinus problems. At the time, I had seven or eight sinus infections, did a CT scan, and learned I had fluid behind one of my eyes. I could not get well. I also had a lot of stress. I started seeing a naturopath and for the first time, someone asked me to keep a food log.
“It turns out that although I was eating healthier, I still ate a lot of dairy and other things. The naturopath encouraged me to stop eating dairy, and I went on a three-week cleanse to eliminate dairy and gluten. That was in the beginning of 2010, and I haven’t had a sinus infection since. I also haven’t taken antibiotics since. That cleanse was another pivotal moment—a clear indication that I had too much stress in my life. Even though I had learned to meditate and had a practice, I still had too much stress in my diet. I have wheat sometimes now, but I don’t eat bread for breakfast every day. At the time, my breakfast was a bagel and cream cheese every day. I grew up Jewish, and it’s what you eat for breakfast: bagels and cream cheese. I didn’t want kale for breakfast, so I was just getting a new idea about what I could eat.
“In 2010, I also went to Berlin for 6 months. I planned to stay in Berlin, but came back to the States. I had some amazing experiences over there where I saw an opening and a path to follow that I hadn’t seen before. I went there to de-stress and to get away from my art career and life, to go somewhere that I had always wanted to live and see what I would be like. Going just to go and explore became my main focus. I went to Berlin to “find myself.” I felt really confused about where I wanted to position myself in the art world. The way I had been living wasn’t bringing me the satisfaction I hoped it would. I wasn’t feeding my soul the way I wanted it to be fed. I found being in Berlin really challenging at first. It became hard to not make art. It felt foreign to be still and just ride my bike, go to yoga, and cook. Things really started shifting.
“I found I’m really passionate about food, so I started a Tumblr and hosting vegan dinners with friends I had made. I lived a very different life. I didn’t have to make money while I lived there—I had set it up that way. I just wanted to go and spend some time with myself and see what I was drawn to without having to be forced to do something for money. It turns out what I was drawn to was the food—to just make healthy recipes and go to the farmer’s market every day. And that’s what I did.
“I got granted this visa to stay for a year, but toward the end of 6 months, I realized I wanted to go back to America and be a chef. Everyone though it made sense; no one was surprised. I thought from the time I was six that I would always be an artist in the traditional sense. I had a lot of my ego wrapped up in my art career. Letting go of that was scary – who am I now? A friend said to me: ‘What you’re doing is only an extension of your art practice. It’s all related.’ My art was all about healing and personal growth and relationships, and it’s what my current life is about. My motivation is essentially the same. Hearing someone say that gave me the permission to let that go and do what I wanted to do.
“I came back to the States. I had one last big teaching job in Canada at this prestigious residency. It felt like a good place to step down and transition. I had set out to achieve what I wanted to create: a community of like-minded people. After that, I went to culinary school and enrolled in a nutrition program. I moved to Northern California for the school – Living Light – in Fort Bragg.
“Then in January 2012 I moved to Los Angeles, and am currently building my practice as a vegan chef, wellness coach, and certified Hatha yoga instructor.”
Talk to me about your relationship to inspiration. What inspires you?
“I’m constantly inspired by people in my life. They’re the driving force behind my inspiration. I have a lot of friends I really admire who go after what they want and are really driven. It has inspired me to keep focus and to keep going. I’m also really inspired by people who are amazing in the way they can talk and connect with people. This Buddhist teacher I’ve gone on retreats with—Thich Nhat Hanh—is one of the most inspirational people with whom I’ve meditated. He’s so present and able to communicate in such an effective and simple way. He’s very direct. He gets to the heart of the matter. People who have the ability to have that much compassion and directness just floor me.”
What motivates and drives you?
“The desire to be useful. I really just want to be useful to other people in some way.”
How have you transformed your own life?
“By continuing to show up and face myself. That’s something that in the past was hard. Transformation for me starts from within, from being willing to look at myself and all the facets that I have.”
Who can you cite as a source of inspiration?
“My brother. We grew up in the same environment, and the way he chose to rise above our circumstances and go after what he wanted at such a young age is really powerful to me. I’m also inspired by the way he continues to be so motivated, determined, and fearless. He just goes after it, and it doesn’t matter how big of a dream it is. If he’s scared, you would never know.
“He had a career as a Marine Corps officer and saw a lot of stuff that most of us will never see. Now that he’s going to grad school and wants to be of service to this country in a different aspect is profound. He’s getting his Master’s degree in global affairs. He wants to continue to work for the government in some capacity—in a different way than being at war.”
“Josef my ex-boyfriend. When we met, he worked in a restaurant and had a business building bikes. In his mid-20s, he took one class at community college and did so well. Now he’s getting his PhD at UC Irvine—a full ride—and is getting all these grants. His story is inspirational to me. I was ready to go to school really young. Watching someone who’s older go to school and start from one class at a community college is amazing.”
What do you identify as your own values?
“Honesty. Willingness. Personal integrity. The ability to be diplomatic and respectful to other people. I try not to take myself so seriously. I was a very serious kid. If I was doing something, especially art related, I would always say, ‘No Mom, I’m busy, I have to finish my project.’
“I practice those as often as I can every day. It starts from within. First thing in the morning, I start taking care of myself. I do my meditation, some readings, yoga, some mantra chants—and that sets the foundation for the day—to be receptive. I do my best to be aware in each moment. I try to be as kind as I can. In this day and age, a little kindness goes really far. When I make a mistake, I correct it and catch it. If other people call me out, I admit to it. I try to correct myself as much as possible, and try to have fun. All the self-care stuff can seem so serious, but it’s important to have fun and laugh at ourselves. Otherwise, OMG, who wants to be that rigid, you know?”
What role, if any, does God or spirituality play in your work and your life?
“To me, it’s integrated. I don’t see it as something separate. It’s part of everything I do and how I live.”
What is your life’s mission?
“To be useful, to support people in whatever capacity to live the fullest, richest, and healthiest life possible. To be a source of inspiration to people they can relate to AND identify with.”
How do you stay inspired?
“Readings and the spiritual life I have keep me inspired. I inspire myself a lot just by making changes and being willing to try new things. My yoga practice and my cooking keep me inspired on a pretty regular basis. There is something super rad about creating things in the kitchen and continuing to show up on my yoga mat and push myself. As with anything, there’s always something else. After working on it for a year, two weeks ago I was able to do a handstand. There are so many levels to go on to now after that point. I’m never finished. There’s always something to always push toward and work toward. Cooking is also endless. There are endless possibilities with recipe development.”
What would you tell the you from five years ago? 10?
“That you’re OK. I spent so much of my life feeling less than and not feeling OK. You’re not broken. There’s nothing wrong with you.”
What do you think the you from 30 years from now would say to you?
“Keep showing up and keep being willing to put yourself out there. Keep moving forward. Live the biggest life possible.”
Ashley Neese lives in Los Angeles, CA. You can find out more about her wellness coaching and vegan chef services at www.ashleyneese.com. She also has a rad cat named Falcore. For lessons learned from my time with Ashley, please visit this blog post.