How this chef and cancer survivor mastered a minimalist skincare routine
A recovered beauty addict, Nira Kehar relies on ayurvedic living and pared down beauty rituals for glowing skin
In The Beauty Breakdown ELLE talks to beauty obsessives about their desert-island beauty reccos, the experts on their speed dial, and everything they’ve learnt in their pursuit to achieving happy skin. This edition features Nira Kehar, a chef at Huno Brasserie, at Klintholm Gods Estate in Denmark and the author of Ojas: Modern Recipes and Ancient Wisdom for Everyday Ayurveda
ELLE: How did your formative years influence your beauty routine?
Nira Kehar: I grew up in Montreal with my two sisters and Indian immigrant parents. Despite all their good intentions, we had a troubled environment at home. I didn’t fit in at home or at school, and I definitely didn’t fit into any sort of ideal of beauty. In those days being different wasn’t really celebrated the way it is now. As an ultra shy kid (and a secretly shy adult), my goal was to always hide in the background. The idea of putting on make-up to get noticed was counterproductive. It was my innate obsession with fashion, costume and design that made me curious about lipsticks and colours from a young age. The first time I put on lipstick and a little eyeliner, I realised that the full lips and ‘giant’ eyes, which I was made to feel so insecure about in school were actually something I might be excited about one day.
ELLE: On a scale of wash-my-face-with-just-water to beauty junkie, how do you rate yourself?
NK: I would say I am a recovered junkie with the self-love and confidence that comes with age. Surviving triple-negative breast cancer was like my AA.
ELLE: How did the breast cancer diagnosis and treatment change you?
NK: I discovered my cancer by chance while I was vacation in Delhi in May 2018. I was at the doctor’s for something else and she told me to get a scan, even though I didn’t have any history of cancer or noticeable lumps. I was quite annoyed when she asked me to do it four times, and I finally made it clear that I didn’t need any test. When I went to the radiology department for another scan that was already part of my scheduled check-up, the doctor showed up there, leaving her busy clinic. I decided to listen and take the test—the rest is history.
Some times I feel like my life is playing in reverse to the rest of the world. I spent almost two years in what felt like quarantine, and now when everyone else is quarantined I am busier than ever with work. I had a triple negative tumour and I went through chemo, radiation, fertility treatments, five surgeries and so much more. Throughout my treatments, I supported my body with holistic methods, and went to a therapist weekly. I didn’t want to be irresponsible and feel any form of PTSD following the experience. Cancer has been the most beautiful gift in a very intricate and complicated disguise. I don’t wish it on my worst of enemies, but I would also never wish that it were any different for me. I finished my treatments in January 2019.
I wish breast cancer had a guide book for the millions of women who go through it. I hope I get to work on a book that helps women deal with all three stages of the disease: when you’re diagnosed and need to make so many decisions, the treatment period, and then the aftermath. I’d also add a small chapter for loved ones on how to grieve and deal with someone who has cancer.
ELLE: What’s your philosophy towards beauty now?
NK: R Buckminster Fuller’s quote about ephemeralization perfectly defines my philosophy with all things in life. He said, “More and more with less and less until you can do everything with nothing.” [Over the years] the more I learned to love myself, the less I needed to do in my routine. My beauty goals went from transformation to nourishment and enhancement of what I naturally have.
ELLE: How did your education in ayurveda and sustainability shape your skincare routine?
NK: I got into yoga and ayurveda at the young age of 10, so the natural methods of hair and skincare were always the preferred direction. Back then, there weren’t too many natural products, and the few available smelled terrible. My older sister and I would make our own concoctions from what we could find in books at the library (yes, these were the ancient pre-internet days) and from older women’s advice. We made masks, our own wax for our hairy legs, moisturising oils, and my favourite was a tea tree oil mist with rosewater. As a teenager, I had bad breakouts and because of my interest in ayurveda I traced it to digestive issues. This saved me from a lot of possible scaring and pigmentation in the long run.
Living in Canada, my skin would sometimes get dull because of the cold weather. I love bright skin and always got excited about any scrub, serum, oil, or facial massage that made me glow. The more I got into ayurveda and developed a strong intuition about my own body and nature, I realized that that glow becomes a permanent fixture when it comes from the inside out. It’s defined by your ojas, a by-product of everything you take in through all your senses. It’s not only limited to your food, but your life experiences, relationships, habits, environment…everything. That’s why my Instagram handle @youarewhatyoufeast. Proper consumption at any level isn’t simply a mechanical input, it makes a greater impact when practiced with mindful intention and joy, which to me is the act of feasting.
ELLE: What beauty products do you favour?
NK: My skincare routine includes a serum, cream and oil-based face cleanser by an all-natural Danish beauty brand called Bettes. I recently met the founder who lives on a farm where she grows all her ingredients . It has transformed my skin and I have just ordered their ruby lip tint as well. I also love MILK lip colours—New Whip looks gorgeous on brown skin tone. YSL mascara stays on forever, and somehow is still easy to remove.
ELLE: We love a good beauty DIY, what’s yours favourite?
NK: I have recently been soaking rice in lukewarm water for 30 minutes. After draining the water, I mix it with half the amount of rose water. I spray this on my face after washing and keep it on for 30 minutes to an hour. I swear by it for smooth and even skin.
ELLE: A beauty accident that you learnt from….
NK: I was too busy to do my eyebrows when I was working at my restaurant. When they grew out, I realised Indian eyes look best with thick eyebrows. Now I pluck minimally and hold on to the ones I have, since I lost them twice during my cancer treatments.
ELLE: What’s your secret to great skin (drinking lots of water doesn’t count :p)?
NK: We are bombarded with so much information and product every day. So when it comes to my skincare routine, I stick to what I like to call kaizen ayurveda. Kaizen is a Japanese productivity philosophy which teaches one about constant, continuous improvement done in small, achievable and sustainable amounts at a time. Personally, I am bad at washing my face before bed, so it’s this month’s only beauty goal. I’ll keep at it till it turns into a habit.
ELLE: What’s your hair care routine?
NK: I have been doing the no-poo method for the last five years. I don’t use any shampoo or products on my hair. When I was bald for an entire year during my treatments, I would massage my scalp with almond oil to sooth myself. I don’t have a single white hair and a perfectly pH-balanced scalp with no oiliness or dandruff. Giving up hair products is worth the trouble of dealing with greasy days.
ELLE: How do you begin your day?
NK: I drink 500 ml of celery juice and do 20 minutes of transcendental meditation (TM) with my gorgeous and talented husband Mikkel Hess.
ELLE: What’s a self-care Sunday for you like?
NK: I work on Sunday since I’m a chef, but self-care Mondays involve jumping into the cold Baltic Sea, completely naked, which is just outside my doorstep. The freedom and oneness with nature is so exhilarating and keeps me charged all week.
ELLE: How do you unwind after a long day of chef duties?
NK: I meditate twice a day with my TM practice, every day. My husband and I spend a lot of time in nature, since we live in the country side of Denmark. We obsessively play and talk to our dog, Ojas (named after my cookbook). I also love cooking for my family, they are my favourite mouths to feed.
ELLE: What’s your favourite wellness destination.
NK: My home in Hesnæs, Denmark which is the most incredibly beautiful oasis. I believe after all the craziness that has happened in the world, we have to learn to treat out own environments as a destination. Jumping into the cold sea everyday and practicing Wim Hof’s breathing technique has been incredibly healing and empowering for me.
Photographs: Elizabeth Heltoft, Nira Kehar