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Grain of wisdom: Madonna's former personal chef

Mayumi Nishimura talks about her career promoting macrobiotics, and seven years working for a superstar.
Mayumi Nishimura, who believes we should eat whole grains and local vegetables and argues that food should be chewed 30 times, holds up a soba salad.
Mayumi Nishimura, who believes we should eat whole grains and local vegetables and argues that food should be chewed 30 times, holds up a soba salad.

Mayumi Nishimura is the epitome of a perfect Japanese housewife, as she calmly whizzes around her Tokyo kitchen in a neat, checked apron taking firm control of piles of vegetables and simmering pots. But upon further inspection, there are clues that she is no conventional bento box-making Japanese mother: first, are the tattoos on her wrists, peeking cheekily from beneath her pink shirt. And second? The complicated, colourful and artistically arranged dishes that she rustles up with ease.

A world-famous practitioner of macrobiotic cuisine, she was Madonna's personal chef for seven years, cooking for the singer and her family every day as well as providing sustenance during four world tours. The word "macrobiotic" - reflecting a lifestyle diet consisting mainly of whole grains and organic, locally grown and seasonal vegetables - has become synonymous with Madonna's health regime. And Nishimura is now on a mission: to prove to the world that macriobiotic cuisine need not be confined to people who find themselves in the luxurious position of being able to afford a personal chef.

Currently based in Tokyo, Nishimura is already a celebrity chef in her own right in Japan, with four Japanese language cookbooks extolling the virtues of a macrobiotic lifestyle under her apron belt. And this year marks the arrival of her first English language cookbook: Mayumi's Kitchen, published in May in Britain, followed by the US this month. It is just before lunch on a rain-drenched Friday that I meet the friendly, down-to-earth woman who spent seven years successfully catering for an A-list celebrity reputed to inhabit the more demanding end of the employer spectrum.

Tiny and active, with glossy black hair and glowing skin that belie her 53 years, Nishimura chats away as she prepares lunch. "Macrobiotic should always consist of local food - fresh fermented ingredients and vegetables - wherever you are in the world," she says, dashing between kitchen and table. "That is how your body harmonises with where you are living." After bringing out plates of soba salads, vegetables and wraps, topped with artistic streaks of delicious reduced balsamic vinegar, she sits down and starts talking about her unusual journey from remote fishing island to celebrity kitchen.

Following a childhood on Shinojima island in the Aichi Prefecture, she went to high school in the city of Nagoya - and her diet changed dramatically from fish, sea vegetables and white rice to an abundant supply of convenient store sweets and pastries. "Growing up, I had a very traditional Japanese diet," she says. "But this changed when I was 15. I drew the line at hamburgers but I was living with my sister and we ate a lot of junk food, and by the end of high school, I was overweight and suffering from very bad eczema."

It was she was while at college that her boyfriend (and future husband) introduced her to a "hippyish" circle of friends who lent her the 1970s women's classic Our Bodies, Ourselves. "The book had a big impact on me," she says. "It suggests that women have an ocean in their bodies. Because I grew up on an island, it was an easy image for me to connect with. And I suddenly realised that if I did not throw junk food in my body, then my body's ocean would become cleaner."

And so began Nishimura's lifetime preoccupation with the connection between what passes her lips and her physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing. While the book prompted Nishimura to become a vegetarian, it was the further discovery, when she was 21, of the writings of George Ohsawa, dubbed the father of macriobiotic cuisine, that had the biggest impact. "He said very simply that any problem you have - physical or mental or around you - comes from yourself. That stems from what you eat, what you put in your body. And wholegrain and vegetables are the only things that you need. And I just thought wow, I have to try this."

Following a 10-day trial session, Nishimura felt energised, happy, different - and hooked. So it was not long before she was packing her bags to study at the Kushi Institute, a macrobiotic centre in Boston, Massachusetts, where her husband was based at the time. For the following 17 years, in between having two children, Nishimura perfected the art of living a macrobiotic lifestyle, first in Boston, and later in the rural mountains of Becket in Massachusetts, running a Kushi Institute branch.

But her life was to take a sudden twist: it was nine years ago that a macrobiotic friend and colleague called to ask if she wanted to try out as Madonna's personal chef. A trial period turned into a world tour which then continued for seven years as Nishimura became part of the singer's extended family - as shown by the warm letter from her former boss published in the new cookbook. "Not only are you the best chef in the world, you are part of our family," writes Madonna. "In the seven years you lived with us and cooked for us, your amazing food helped me to be a happier, healthier person, balanced in body and mind. I feel better than I did 20 years ago. I am very grateful to you for this."

Nishimura is modest about her celebrity role. "I didn't know too much about Madonna when the job came up, which was probably a good thing, looking back," she laughs. "But my kids knew who she was of course. They had always seen macrobiotic cooking as something weird that their mum did, but when I started working for Madonna, they were like, wow mum, you're doing something really cool!" She adds: "But yes, it was difficult at times. I had to make the decision to leave my kids for long periods. I questioned whether it was the right thing at times. But luckily my children understood that it was a special opportunity that could not be missed."

Despite celebrity associations with macrobiotic cuisine, Nishimura is passionately adamant that it is not a lifestyle that should be restricted to those with abundant time and money. "Green beans and whole grains are not expensive," she exclaims. "Preparing it can be time-consuming but it depends on how you organise your life. People always have time to sit around watching TV or smoking a cigarette. You can always make time to cook a good meal. I don't believe that people don't have time."

In addition to local, organic ingredients, macrobiotic aficionados also adhere to the rules of chewing food at least 30 times, only eating until 80 per cent full and having dinner at least three hours before sleeping. If these rules were followed then not only individuals, but the whole world and all its inhabitants would become much happier, according to Nishimura. "People living in industrialised nations today are just looking for material things and have forgotten where we are from," she says. "People have allergies, they are overweight, they don't cook at home, there are high suicide rates. Society is unhealthy. It may sound like I'm dreaming, but it's time for us to go back to where we came from. We need to think about how our ancestors lived, by eating food in harmony with nature, and focus on where we have gone wrong. That is the macrobiotic life."

And with that, the interview having run over time with some food still left on the table, Nishimura stands up and switches from impassioned, philosophising chef back into Japanese housewife mode. Offering me a glowing smile along with a vegetable dish I had not managed to finish at lunch carefully wrapped in kitchen paper, Japan's earth-loving domestic goddess waves me off. Mayumi's Kitchen is published by Kodansha International.

Updated: June 16, 2010 04:00 AM