Saying no to the idea of a traditional career path with an office-based full-time job takes guts, but for 28-year-old pastry cook Michelle Harvey, it's paying off. "My life feels like one big side hustle; however, food and health are the focus of all [of my] ventures," she says. During half the week, Michelle works as a pastry cook at Eat Well Restaurant. In her spare time, she handles recipe development for a vegan snack start-up, and occasionally teaches bookbinding. She's also had a considerable amount of interest in creating starter kits for people trying to learn how to make their own DIY versions of some of the health-focused food and beverage specialities she's become known for personally.
Michelle, whose parents are Zimbabwean, grew up in Dubai and considers it home. "I think growing up somewhere creates a strong affinity to that place," she says, continuing: "I [lived] in Dubai [until I was] 18. Since then, I have dipped in and out. However, being back this time, I feel more settled and ready to stay. [It's] a relatively young city - this means that there is still capacity to be somewhat pioneering in what you do here. This is exciting for anyone who wants to start their own venture and take advantage of a space to do so." And pioneering she is: Anyone who has ever tried one of Michelle's healthy treats - which are usually vegan, and sugar-, gluten- and dairy-free - will attest to the fact that the unique dishes she creates are probably combinations and recipes that they've never tried before. Oh yeah, and they're utterly delicious (trust us, we've tried them extensively - call it research).
Michelle didn't always plan on being a professional foodie, though - she went to university to study design, and after that worked as a designer for a few years - but as she says, "food and health were always prevalent in my life during those years and retrospectively, often took precedence over design. There was a point when doing graphic design just felt very empty and just about making things 'look nice'. " She continues: "The transition into working with food was hard because when you shift career path you spend a lot of time feeling 'behind' your peer group. As time goes on, I feel less of that, partly because I've let go of the notion of these things being a race. However, more importantly [it's] because I genuinely love what I do. When I hear friends talking about how they can't wait for the weekend or for the workday to be over, it's something I can't relate to at all. I enjoy it every day, so the idea of being 'behind' is somewhat diminished by that."
This passion for her work is built from the fact that Michelle's interest in food and health stemmed from her own changes to her diet and lifestyle about five years ago, which she says really changed her life both physically and psychologically. "I want to be able to share that with others. That sounds so platitudinous but it's the reality!" Michelle says. When she's not working, Michelle likes to stay active with a focus on play and movement research. "Since the beginning of this year I've been doing Contact Improvisation, which is a movement form based on yoga, gymnastics, aikido, and dance. These elements make it accessible and full of somatic information that can improve body awareness in oneself and others. I would say this hobby has been the most enriching of any other. It's a sort of visual language for a lot of my ideals. Contact Improv, Acro yoga, walking, surfing and just playing with your own body weight are amazing ways to make moving something to look forward to rather than dread at the end of the day," she says.
Nutrition-wise, asking a professional health- and wellness-focused food and recipe developer isn't an easy question - after all, in Michelle's case in particular, it's something she has built her life around - but if she had to sum it up, she'd say she's all about "eating real food rather than processed food, and focusing on quality rather than food type. For example, I don't think you can say all bread is bad; there is a huge difference between Wonder Bread and a home-made sourdough." Read on for her answers to our questions in the hot seat...
Who inspires you?
The first people who come to mind are Nick Kowalski and Adriana M Rivera, whom I follow on Instagram! Haha, is that horribly millennial of me? They expel such wisdom and coherency in all that they do.
What's the best lesson your parents ever taught you?
Be honest at all times.
If you could give one piece of advice to our readers that will inspire them personally or professionally, what would it be?
I've noticed that there is an optimal point of effort that can be met with all things personal and professional. Trying too hard is as detrimental as trying too little.
What might surprise people about you?
I feel all the feels! (Generally I can come across as quite cold)
Do you have any hidden talents?
I'm a pretty good horse rider, although I'm not sure that's hidden but rather just unused.
If you could pick any superpower in the world, what would it be and why?
I'm totally stumped on this one. I don't know!
What's your favorite dish to cook if you want to impress someone? And what could someone cook to impress you?
1. I'm quite a good pizza maker as I used to make a lot of it when worked on a farm kitchen in Argentina.
2. Anything that's really healthy and really tasty will impress me.
What's your favorite city in the world and why?
NYC because you can unashamedly be yourself and people embrace it. You can also get Kombucha at corner stores and the inspiration feels endless.
What's your go-to shower song?
I think it would be whatever I'm listening to at the time.
When was the last time you were scared, and why?
Probably surfing in Sri Lanka! The powers of nature are overwhelming and when you're stuck under a big wave that's really apparent.
What's the best gift that anyone's ever bought you?
I think utility is something I really value in a gift. For example, if someone notices you have run out of hair ties and buys new ones. Those small yet thoughtful gifts are most appreciated.
What do you think is your best and worst quality, and why?
Best: seeing people's good qualities and potential. People have told me this helps to inspire them further!
Worst: stubbornness. I find it hard to let things go quickly!
What's the best way to make up after a fight?
Admit the areas you were in the wrong. Perhaps try to figure out why it happened.
What's your guilty pleasure?
Hunters Mixed Veg chips on road trips.
What's the best compliment you've ever had?
Any compliment that is sincere and thoughtful rather than just flippant.
If you could have dinner with any one person of your choice whether living or dead, who would it be and why?
Joseph Campbell, because his philosophies are pretty much what I live by.
What's your biggest regret?
Going to art school! Or perhaps just going to university in general before I really knew what I wanted to do.
If you could give one key piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?
Try and be more true to yourself and make choices in direct relation to this rather than in relation to the influence of people and institutions around you.
What are your hopes and dreams for the future?
To get my Nutritional Therapy Consultant certification. I feel this will compliment what I do now immensely. I see a lot of avenues still unexplored in my food/cooking practice that I would like to tackle. However, the main goal is to improve at all the things I do simultaneously and sustainably.
What's one thing you'd never give up for anyone else, even the love of your life?
Anything that I believe helps define who I am.
If your life were a movie or reality TV show, what would it be called and why?
Wild Incompatibilities. I feel my life is plagued by this haha.
Of all of your life accomplishments so far, what are you most proud of?
I lived on a farm in Argentina for a year. There was no wifi, we had to light fires every day for heat and we slaughtered our own cows for meat. That year really helped me to reset and reprioritise what is important.
Three key items on your bucket list?
1. A masters
2. A PhD
3. To live closer to nature
What are the first three things you notice in a person?
1. Tone and intonation of their voice.
2. The first questions they ask.
3. Their ability to be candid.
What are some of your biggest pet peeves?
I think the biggest one is intellectual inconsistencies. For example, choosing to not eat animal products but being completely indifferent to other more covert ways we perpetuate damage to ourselves and the environment, such as supporting industrially farmed crops, unsustainable fashion, cleaning or beauty products.
What are three of the most attractive qualities in another person, to you?
1. Intellectual consistency
3. Some drive for self improvement in any way
What's the secret to finding happiness, in your opinion?
To quote Joseph Campbell: "People say that what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think that what we're seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive."
What's one of your best childhood memories?
All the ones with horses and mountains in them!
If you knew you had one year left to live, what would you change about the way you're living right now and why?
I often put this question to myself. Also the question, 'what would you do if you had unlimited money?'. I think if the answer is: "I would keep doing what I'm doing now", then you're probably on the right track. This is something I strive for and realign myself with when the answer is deviating from that.
How do you get through life's challenges when things get tough - any particular mindset or mantras that you rely on as a go-to?
Moving to new countries, not knowing a single person and starting over! I'm pretty sure this isn't a recommended or healthy way to deal with it. I definitely need to start developing some better tactics!
Want to know more about Michelle (and stalk her work so you can try some of her delicious creations)? Find her on Instagram at @chelle.i.cook, or visit her website at chelleicook.com