Musician, mum and vegan food entrepreneur Flip Grater shares her journey to creating the tastiest imitation meats in town.
If Flip Grater was an action figure she’d be Vegan Girl, able to leap mountains of chickpeas in a single bound.
The 39-year-old laughs at the description, but it’s true: two years ago, Flip and her husband Youssef Iskrane opened Grater Goods, a vegan delicatessen and café in the Christchurch suburb of Sydenham.
Flip, a bundle of energy in black jeans and T-shirt, started the business to meet a personal need: “Youssef and I like to have a glass of wine and a cheese platter before dinner, but we couldn’t find any decent vegan cheese or chorizo.”
The story, however, really begins with music. You might know singer and guitar player Flip from her four LPs and two EPs, her solo touring and her work with Wellington band Fly My Pretties. In 2006, Flip founded her own music label, Maiden Records.
“I’ve always been independent and wanted to do things my way. I had to learn how a recording studio worked and how to sign artists, but I ended up recording my own and other artists’ work, including with people like Marlon Williams.”
Christened Claire, she earned the nickname Flip as a teenager when she campaigned to save the endangered Hector’s dolphin. “The kids at school started calling me Flipper and it stuck. It also made sense when I became a rafting guide in my twenties.”
However her nickname proved a double-edged sword when she was performing around Europe and promoters thought Flip Grater was a heavy metal band. “Then I would turn up and sing lovely folksy songs!”
Growing up, music was a constant, with Flip’s father teaching the fourth of his five children how to play the guitar. Activism, however, was bigger part of her life. “At college, I got in with a group of animal activists, which really opened my eyes to the shocking amount of animal cruelty that’s out there,” Flip says.
She gravitated towards outdoor activities and after leaving school she worked as a raft guide both here and in Australia.
It’s how she met the Scandinavian bloke she ended up moving to northern Sweden with. “I got a job at the Ice Hotel in Jukkasjärvi, where the temperature often fell to minus 20°C.”
When they broke up, she fled back to New Zealand, heartbroken and unsure what to do next.
“My mother got sick of me moping around the house and said, ‘You used to like music. Why don’t you try that again?’” she recalls.
Flip picked up a guitar and started writing songs, something that proved therapeutic. She toured extensively, combining her love of music and food on the Cookbook Tour. “I’d ask the audience for vegan recipes and compile them in a book. When I couldn’t find a book publisher, I published it myself.”
A few years later she did the same in Europe, this time with a publisher picking up the tab.
In 2012, her French manager encouraged her to move to Paris to be closer to the French and German record labels they were courting.
It didn’t start well. “The first night in Paris, my guitar was stolen. I ended up crowdfunding to buy a new guitar so I could play shows, and then my manager moved to San Francisco.”
It didn’t put her off the French capital and Flip eventually recorded an album with local musicians, and it was through her bass player that she met Youssef, a bar manager of Moroccan descent.
Paris was home for three years, but the couple returned to Christchurch in 2015, to get married at Flip’s dad’s rural property. “Somehow we never went back!”
Later that year, their daughter Anais (now five) was born and the couple settled into life in Aotearoa.
Flip was already well versed in vegan cooking, having given up animal products when she was 15 after a fishing trip that appalled her with its casual cruelty.
But things took a hard left turn when Flip started Yumbo, a food delivery service supplying vegan lunches to Christchurch schools.
“I was shocked at the food available in schools, including really unhealthy things like pies. It was a huge learning curve; I had to learn about food safety and be certified to run a food business from a home kitchen.”
It was going well, but after a year, the practising Buddhist shuttered the business because of a lack of support from schools.
“Many of them didn’t want kids to have healthy lunchboxes. They were a real roadblock and in the end it was too hard to make it work.”
On the flip side, it gave her time to experiment with vegan cooking. “I started playing around with seitan, a wheat protein you can bake, steam or boil.”
After a year’s trail and error, Flip ended up with a vegan chorizo she tested on her two older brothers. “They’re really hardcore, blokey meat eaters,” she laughs. “They said it was as good as real meat and I knew if they liked it, anyone would.”
Ironically, meat is deeply ingrained in the Grater whānau: her grandfather owned a Christchurch butchery and her father was a meat inspector.
“But he eventually went full hippy and is now an organic vegetable grower!”
Planting the vegan flag with Grater Goods is simply a different type of activism.
“There’s no point in trying to save animals if you end up being mean to humans. Activism for me now is about attacking the behaviour, not the person, and offering alternatives. I believe it’s more effective to show people how to incorporate easy and delicious vegan food into their life – it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. Making small changes can be more effective than a huge lifestyle change.”
There’s no point in trying to save animals if you end up being mean to humans. Activism for me now is about attacking the behaviour, not the person
Grater Goods, she admits, isn’t about the money. “I’m a musician, I’ve never had any money. Running this business is about offering great vegan food and doing something as a family.”
Thanks to hours of trial and error, the couple now produce around 20 vegan products, including cashew mozzarella, furkey (a Christmas roast made from wheat gluten with herb stuffing) and Boursin, a creamy, spreadable French cheese.
Music is still very much a part of Flip’s life and as well as recording an EP of lullabies (“I got sick of cheesy lullabies so created my own for Anais”) and doing shows with singer Julia Deans, she performs whenever she can.
“I’m pretty busy with the business and with our daughter, but I do get out the guitar when I can,” she says. “You need idleness to be able to write songs and I don’t have a lot of that at the moment.”