Eating elementally

Divya Alter: "It's my passion." Photo courtesy of Divya's Kitchen
Chef Divya Alter serves up hearty vegan and vegetarian fare in a tranquil space on the Lower East Side. It’s quintessential Manhattan — though you just might forget you’re in New York


When choosing a delicious tea off the menu, this reporter has never been asked to let her pulse be the deciding factor. But that’s exactly what Divya Alter, owner and culinary mastermind behind Divya’s Kitchen, suggested I do as we sat down at her Lower East Side restaurant. As the owners of New York’s only Ayurvedic restaurant since 2016, Alter and her husband Prentiss are dedicated to serving flavorful vegan and vegetarian foods that aid digestion and balance the body and mind — the philosophy behind Ayurveda. The term combines the Sanskrit words for life (ayur) and science or knowledge (veda). When queried about whether she recommended the spiced chai (with almond milk made in-house) or ginger tea, Alter asked if she could take my pulse. After pressing three fingers into my wrist, she determined I was slightly imbalanced toward vata, the element of air. Go with the chai, she said, which had warming effect. Alter dished on how a modest cooking class spawned her popular cookbook, why food is medicine and medicine is food, and her journey from washing pots at an underground ashram in Communist Bulgaria to India to Manhattan restaurant owner.

How did you decide to open up an Ayurvedic restaurant?

My story is that we’ve had a culinary school here in New York for the past 10 years. It’s called Bhagavat Life, so we’ve been teaching Ayurvedic cooking classes for the past 10 or more years. We were planning to move to another building because the space became too small ... so many people who would come to our classes, and would eat a full meal at the end of the class and say, “Wow, this is so delicious, I feel so amazing, where do you eat like this in the city?” We were like, this is the only place that prepares this food! The space [below the cooking school] opened up at the right time, and we decided to open a restaurant.

Where did you learn to cook in the Ayurvedic tradition?

I’m from Bulgaria, and I was looking to do yoga. At that time, Bulgaria was still a Communist country, so even yoga [studios] were not allowed in the country. So I found an underground yoga ashram, and I became an intern in exchange for learning yoga. This was 1990. My first intern job was helping in the kitchen, washing pots and chopping vegetables. I had no idea how to cook at the time, but this [was] when I fell in love with food and cooking. I became a trained chef at the ashram in the yogic tradition.

What brought you to New York?

The Bhkati Center invited us to teach [in 2009]. We started with a very simple cooking class, which grew into different levels, and now for the fourth year in October we’ll be offering our 250-hour culinary training, which is a program my husband and I developed because it didn’t exist before.

Where do you source your produce and other all-natural ingredients?

I’m very particular about ingredients. I place all the orders myself. For food to be medicinal and really have this medicinal effect on the body, it has to be of very high quality. We are 80 percent organic, and we try to source locally when possible. I work with a company called Local Bushel; they distribute produce from local farms. It’s harvest to order, so I place the order two days ahead of time, they harvest [the produce] and deliver it ... we make fresh cheese, we make our own yogurt [from scratch], we make fresh ghee, like clarified butter, it’s very good for cooking. We also cook in non-toxic pots. It’s all geared toward supporting your health with food. It’s home-like, so it helps you relax and feel the nourishment you would at home. It’s actually hard to find home-like, freshly cooked food in the city, so that’s what we’re trying to create here.

When it comes to food, New York has an embarrassment of riches. How have New Yorkers, with their notoriously refined taste, responded to your restaurant?

[People] come looking for an atmosphere that’s very relaxing and calm, or if they’re looking for food that’s really healthy but also delicious. One thing that people always tell me is they’re surprised when they first eat here. Even if they’re carnivores, they say, “I didn’t miss the meat at all.” One thing with Ayurvedic cuisine, if it’s done properly, you feel full and satisfied after your meal, but you don’t feel lethargic ... my cooking is all geared to support digestion. It’s not just for taste. If certain foods prepared together would impair your digestion, we wouldn’t serve them.

Do you live on the Lower East Side?

I live upstairs! So work never ends ... I know a lot of the neighbors, we know each other by name. It’s very much like a village vibe, which I really love. I love New York because of the people. I don’t like the pollution, I don’t like the noise, but you can be happy anywhere when you have good company. That’s why I’ve been here in New York for already 10 years. That’s what’s keeping me.

Tell me more about your cookbook, “What to Eat for How You Feel: The New Ayurvedic Kitchen.” I love that each recipe has variations that allow you to personalize it, depending on how you tend to experience imbalances.

The cookbook really came from teaching a lot of classes, coming up with a lot of recipes. A lot of my students who come to my class would say I’m just tired of all these handouts, why don’t you just write a book? So I decided to write a book — I wrote it myself, I didn’t have a ghostwriter ... The cookbook teaches you how to cook seasonally; it’s particularly relevant for our hemisphere with the four seasons.

Running a restaurant is a grueling business. How do you managed to stay balanced?

It’s very challenging when you run a business, and sometimes staying up late is a big problem for me. It’s difficult for me to balance, it’s not ideal for my health, but at the same time, what drives me is [that] I feel that I’m aligned with what I’m meant to do in this life, so it’s very fulfilling for me, and it’s my passion. I don’t have to force myself to come into the restaurant every day. But what really inspires me is our interaction with our guests. I like to come and be with the guests as much as possible. We develop such wonderful relationships, and many people, especially people who live in the neighborhood, they’re like, “I’m so glad you exist, my attitude to food changed.”