Two Raw Sisters’ Margo and Rosa Flanagan have planted themselves firmly in the Kiwi cooking scene. They tell Sharon Stephenson how their past struggles with food helped them find their passion.
Pumpkin isn’t usually something that brings on raptures. But roasted with chickpeas, lightly dusted with curry power and smothered with tahini yoghurt and almonds, it’s one of the tastiest things I’ve eaten all year.
Margo and Rosa Flanagan aren’t surprised. It’s a recipe from the Christchurch sisters’ latest cookbook, Salad; a book I’ve only had a week but already its pages are tattooed with turmeric and miso.
“Someone called our books ‘dirty cookbooks’, which we love,” says Rosa, 25, of the third book released under their Two Raw Sisters brand. “It means that people are really using them.”
We’re chatting between the workshops the sisters run at their central Christchurch culinary school. Colourful mountains of carrots and beets await their fate, and Rosa dices piles of glossy aubergines while we talk.
She and Margo, 23, are not trained chefs, but their accessible approach, easy-to-follow recipes and focus on plant-based meals have won them legions of fans across the country.
Their personal journey to wellness is also one their followers (50K across Instagram and Facebook) can relate to: three years ago, the pair were on different unhealthy trajectories.
Rosa was a middle-distance runner who was training for a spot at the Tokyo Olympics while completing a nutrition degree. Her manic schedule led to an eating disorder, starting with bulimia and anorexia and finally manifesting in RED-S (relative energy deficiency in sport).
“I was basically over-training and under-eating,” she says. “I had around 4 percent body fat, which is why I didn’t get my period until I was 20.”
Margo, meanwhile, was suffering with her own health issues. Developing chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) when she was 17 meant she was unable to get out of bed for 18 months.
While googling ways to heal CFS, Margo came across PlantLab, a raw/plant based culinary school in Los Angeles. The focus on gut health and wholefoods to deal with diseases such as CFS appealed, but not everyone was on board. The girls’ parents, who run a real estate business, weren’t too keen on teenage Margo going to LA on her own. “Fortunately, Rosa was going to be training in LA at the same time, so that made our parents happier!”
During the two month course, the pair realised how focusing on gut health could help turn their lives around. “We discovered that if have anything wrong with you, whether a severe illness or you’re stressed and tired, start with the gut!” says Rosa.
Margo tried the body ecology eating programme, which effectively eliminated all carbohydrates and sugar from her diet until her gut was rebalanced. Within three months, her CFS was virtually gone. Rosa learnt “how to get over the hump of putting on body fat” and got her disordered eating and depression under control.
“When we came back to New Zealand, we started telling other people about our experiences and realised how common disordered eating and CFS are,” shares Margo. A family bereavement crystalised their resolve to start a business. “It was one of those life’s-too-short moments where we went, ‘What are we doing with our lives? Here’s a way to help others.’”
Shortly after, they created the Two Raw Sisters brand and opened their Christchurch culinary school, where they hold both demonstrations and workshops on everything from summer entertaining and Christmas recipes to raw and baked desserts.
They also bring their plant-based gospel to the people, doing several sweeps of the country each year, setting up wherever they can for workshops.
Like a soufflé that keeps on rising, so does the sisters’ influence. They’re constantly experimenting with flavours, giving them a stock of recipes for their next cookbook. As well as being simple to execute, their recipes also have to contain easily accessible and inexpensive ingredients.
“We love Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipes and are heavily influenced by him, but sometimes he has a long list of things like spices that you might only use once. Our aim is to use ingredients already in your pantry, but to use them in a different way.”
Margo photographed all the images in the book and the sisters divvied up the recipe development.
“Rosa did the savoury recipes and I took care of the desserts because I’ve got a really sweet tooth!” says Margo.
Ask them what their favourite dishes are in this book and their eyes light up. “Mine is the Caesar salad with roasted cabbage and Brussels sprouts with smoky chickpeas. It’s so good for you,” says Rosa. “And Margo’s is the miso caramel, walnut and chocolate ice cream.”
“We’re on a mission to give people fresh ideas and realise that stuff that comes out of the ground is not only good for you, it’s also exciting and the key to a healthy, sustainable lifestyle.”