Lifestyle

Madonna's former chef follows call to become health guru

by Mai Yoshikawa

Kyodo

Spreading the gospel of macrobiotics has taken on a new fervor for Mayumi Nishimura, Madonna’s former personal chef. And the 59-year-old’s radiant skin is a shining example of the notion that you are what you eat.

The master chef of macrobiotics has turned down offers to cook for other celebrities but still keeps in touch with the American pop star — prepared to work for her when called upon, but even then only for a limited time.

“The reason I left my job with Madonna is because I wanted to reach out to more people and spread macrobiotics. I took a detour to get here, and I’m not going back to working for a single client,” Nishimura says.

Nishimura, who calls herself a migratory bird, is savoring life without a permanent home. Stuffing her belongings in a storage unit, she travels around the world teaching people not how to stay slim and curvy, but how to achieve inner peace through proper eating.

“I’m turning 60 this year, but I never get tired. I do get busy, but not tired or sick,” Nishimura says.

Thanks to Madonna, who helped turn “uncool” into “cool” by going public about her diet based on “Oriental wisdom,” Nishimura feels like her role as an apostle of macrobiotic living is more accepted these days.

“Macrobiotics is not a diet, it’s a way of life,” she says.

Nishimura was born in Shinojima in Aichi Prefecture, an island so small that students have to take a ferry to get to high school.

Today she spends her summers in Alaska’s hippie haven where she hangs out with her “extended family” and for the remainder of the year rents a room in North Carolina, where she rarely stays long enough to finish a book.

The itinerant chef-cum-author keeps life simple. Nishimura needs neither fancy kitchen tools nor expensive ingredients to satisfy empty stomachs, which is why she doesn’t break out into a cold sweat walking into new business venues with empty hands.

“I can do my job as long as there’s a knife. I’m not a French gourmet chef. I don’t need a special utensil or a huge kitchen. I cook with whatever is available where I go. When in Rome, do as the Romans do. That’s the macrobiotic approach,” she says.

It was only natural that Madonna entrusted this ordinary Japanese woman to provide meals for herself, her then-husband Guy Ritchie and her children for seven years. Nishimura exudes extraordinary charm, making it hard not to like her.

Between 2001 and 2008, Nishimura lived with Madonna and went wherever the seven-time Grammy Award winner went. It meant detecting Madonna’s hunger signals and creating no-repeat recipes. It meant controlling Madonna’s body fuel so the singer could focus on strutting her stuff on stage. The job practically fell into her lap.

“I was just subbing for her live-in chef. I became a single mom and had two kids. I had to make money and raise kids. I had to eat anyway, so getting paid to cook was convenient for me,” she says.

Nishimura, who also has a black belt in aikido, has many interests outside of her culinary circle. She learns Tai Chi and Zumba to keep fit, and hopes to live to be 120.

“I want to study religion and philosophy, so I’m hoping to slow down once I reach my 80s. As I get older I want to use my brain and heart more, as opposed to my body,” she says.

In the 1980s when many of her friends adhered to the hippie lifestyle, becoming vegetarian surprised nobody. When a doctor told Nishimura there was no cure for her seasonal skin allergy, she began questioning Western medicine. She removed fish and white sugar from her diet, and the itching stopped.

In 1982, she flew to Massachusetts to study under Michio Kushi, a natural foods pioneer who introduced Americans to macrobiotic principles. Nishimura had planned to take courses at the Kushi Institute for about three years but she ended up staying 18 years as a student-turned-teacher.

She has lived longer in the United States than in Japan, and when she visits her birth country today she worries that there are too many choices, both good and bad, with dining out no longer saved for a special occasion.

Nishimura explains that her intention is not to force people to practice a perfectly cleansing macrobiotic diet which most people interpret as a plate of brown rice and veggies, with dessert being out of the question.

“It’s the thinking process that’s important. If you start thinking about what you put in your mouth, you already have one foot in the door. If you change one unhealthy meal into a healthy meal, that’s one third of your daily food intake. You’ll see a huge difference,” Nishimura says. “Look at the world full of cheap ready-meals and preservatives, and look at how many people are getting sick. What you feed yourself has a direct influence on how you feel about yourself.”

An ideal meal according to Nishimura includes whole grains, seasonal vegetables and seaweeds. Purse strings are worth loosening to get high-quality miso and salt. Refined sugar is a no-no, but treats made of natural sweeteners (including chocolate!) can be a smart alternative.

Nishimura sees future opportunity for trained macrobiotic chefs. More working mothers mean less time spent in the kitchen, and more children with food allergies create the demand for macrobiotic educators.

She herself will continue to enjoy her frequent-flyer perks, with book releases, lectures, teaching events, vegan cruises and more to-dos filling her calendar through 2017. This fall, she will be attending a wedding in New York as the mother of the bride.

She has no plans to hit the brakes just yet, and jokes that she can only come to Japan in the winter time when long sleeves can hide her tattoos from the eyes of the public and her parents. Two of her most apparent tattoos — a peach and another of a cherry — on her wrists mean “long life” and “mission,” she explains.

She says that although food is the foundation, it is only a portion of one’s total life balance.

“You can’t just eat well to have a healthy life. Food is not just what you put in your mouth. What you see with your eyes, hear with your ears, feel with your skin, it’s all food. Financial, emotional and spiritual well-being also promote health,” she says.

And sickness, she insists, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

“At times we are given a chance to reflect on life and change things for the better,” she says. “I’m not saying eating brown rice three times a day will guarantee perfect health as we are all unique and different. People need to realize that balance is the key, and we are only a tiny part of the big universe.”