The first dish that appears is a single spring pea gnocchi dumpling perched in a Japanese soup spoon with a little cloud of horseradish foam. Next out are fried green tomatoes dressed up with black olive crackers and a pistachio dill pesto. The entrée is porcini and ricotta tortellini in a pool of spinach cream, while the finale is a black-walnut-crusted chocolate avocado mousse with a swoosh of raspberry jam.
Sounds like artful haute cuisine that relies on a slew of classic cooking techniques, but here’s the kicker: Every dish is made with only raw ingredients. Nothing was baked, boiled, sautéed, or fried. In fact, not a single item was subjected to heat above 118 degrees, which raw food devotees believe keeps the natural enzymes in produce alive.
The tortellini shells were made with micro-shaved yellow squash, the gnocco was a mash of peas, jicama, and cashews, and the crackers were dehydrated Kalamata olives and buckwheat.
This is a typical Friday night tasting menu dinner at Washington’s premier raw restaurant, Elizabeth’s Gone Raw, which is in a fashionable Federalist townhouse at the heart of downtown. It’s one of a growing number of raw restaurants that have sprouted up across the country, from Planet Raw and Leaf in Los Angeles and Thrive in Seattle to Lifefood Gourmet in Miami.
Now there are several dozen U.S. establishments that offer raw food as a major component of their menus. Usually vegetarian, if not vegan, these restaurants rely on hyper-seasonal ingredients, creative preparations, and a dash of molecular gastronomy to create dishes that often mimic traditional favorites.
New York City’s Pure Food and Wine was at the vanguard of the high-end raw food movement when it opened in New York City’s Gramercy Park neighborhood in 2004. Owner and co-founder Sarma Melngailis was first exposed to raw food a year earlier when she dined at Quintessence in Manhattan’s East Village.
The curious omnivore wasn’t so excited about the prospect of an all-raw meal when she sat down to eat, but she was almost instantly converted.
“What was most noticeable was how different I felt,” she says. “I felt really, really good, like I had just woken up. I was used to the idea that going out to dinner to really nice restaurants was a trade-off, because I’d feel heavy, sluggish, and gross afterward.”
Though she enjoyed the meal, she immediately saw how raw food prepared using a classic culinary foundation could be taken to the next level. The next summer she opened the raw restaurant Pure Food and Wine with her then-partner and chef Matthew Kenney, which quickly earned both critical kudos and a large following.
“The goal wasn’t to create a restaurant for people that already eat this way exclusively,” Melngailis says. “I wanted it be the kind of place that people who eat at other kinds of restaurants could enjoy on a regular basis.”
Melngailis believes that part of her success lies in the fact that the restaurant doesn’t simply target diners who always eat raw food. Instead, she strives to ensure that her uncooked cuisine is accessible to a wide range of customers, many of whom have never eaten a raw meal and normally have a diet that includes meat and dairy products.
Elizabeth Petty, who owns Elizabeth’s Gone Raw, is a big believer in not over-hyping the belief system that inspired the food. “My philosophy is that we don’t proselytize,” she says. “No one is judging anyone for what they eat normally.”
Gearing up to add more raw foods to the menu
Restaurants don’t need to switch their concept to cater to the raw food crowd. However, they will need to invest in some specialty equipment to prepare raw foods. One of the first pieces required is a multi-shelved dehydrator, which is used to create raw breads and crackers, as well as to dry produce of every shape and color.
“They allow for all sorts of recipes to be prepared while still maintaining the raw state of the food and preserving its vital enzymes and nutrients that would otherwise be lost when cooked,” says Elizabeth Yang, who works in international sales and marketing for Tribest, a company that manufactures dehydrators. “Our Sedona dehydrators have an overheat protection system that prevents the temperatures from reaching higher than what has been set by the user,” she says.
The next key item is a high-powered blender, which must meet one strict criterion with raw chefs. “They want to create a fine puree with speed without injecting heat into the mix due to the friction of the blade,” says Mark Fleming, the director of product management at Vitamix. This ensures that the temperature never reaches above 118 degrees, so that the raw ingredients being blended remain uncooked.
Blenders are mostly used to create textures in raw cuisine. “The container design and the blade pitch allow for the right amount of pull through the blades to create the vortex,” Fleming explains. “You affect how your textures develop by varying the time that an ingredient goes through the blade and the speed of the blade under the load. Time gives you particles of the same size, while speed shrinks the size of your particles.”
A variety of juicers are required to handle a wide selection of produce, each presenting a unique challenge. Chef Marcus Guiliano, a longtime raw aficionado, has three on hand at his partially raw restaurant Aroma Thyme Bistro in Ellenville, New York, in the Hudson Valley. “There’s a Champion, which is the masticating kind,” he explains. “Then there’s an auger, which is good for greens like wheatgrass and parsley. And then there’s a centrifuge, which is good for everything from orange juice and apple juice to pineapple juice.”
Since the fresh sprouts and herbs used in many raw food preparations are delicate and best when cut right before use, Yang recommends buying Tribest’s Freshlife Sprouter. “This allows them the convenience and the bragging rights that they’ve cultivated their own sprouts and herbs right in their own restaurant kitchen,” she says.
One last helpful item to have on hand is a Pacojet, which the company says can “ ‘micro-puree’ deep-frozen foods into an ultra-light mousse, cream or sauce without thawing.” This is especially helpful when creating dairy- and soy-free ice creams using ingredients like cashews or bananas as a base.
Keep an eye out for these pitfalls
There are two issues that become more pronounced when working in a raw food environment. “We get pantry pests like there’s no tomorrow,” Guiliano acknowledges.
“But that goes along with working with organic food, because it’s alive. I always tell people to not buy corn unless they see a worm in it, because you want other things to want your food.” If you do find yourself confronted with insects or rodents, make sure you deal with the problem in a chemical-free manner, so that ingredients are not corrupted.
Perishability is a big concern at raw food restaurants. Since raw preparations rely on produce fresh from the garden and the orchard, it has a shorter shelf life. “If you’re going to make something that day, it needs to be consumed that day,” Guiliano says. “So there is a financial burden on products not being used that have to be used immediately.”
Learning how to uncook
“There are about half a dozen techniques you have to master,” says Douglas McNish, a raw chef and author of Eat Raw, Eat Well: 400 Raw, Vegan and Gluten-Free Recipes. “Once you get those under your belt, any classically trained chef can do this cuisine. It’s all about balancing flavors.”
One of these core lessons is spiralizing. “You turn vegetables into al dente pasta,” McNish explains. “So instead of eating cooked pasta, you have leek, zucchini, carrot, or turnip ‘pasta’ instead. For example, you slice red beets paper-thin, marinate them, and suddenly you have a softened pasta shell for ravioli. Once you get that technique down, it really opens the world up into changing your vegetables into textured food.” Spiralizing can be done by hand with a mandoline slicer or with devices such Paderno’s Spiral Vegetable Slicer.
A key skill required to create tasty raw food is figuring out which fat is the best flavor carrier, because raw food is far from fat-free. “We love French food because it’s butter, cream, cheese, and egg yolks,” McNish says. “The fat coats our tongue and the brain releases serotonin, which makes us feel happy. You can do the same thing with raw food. Cashew is a really high source of fat, so you can create a Thai cream sauce. You can use the fat from an avocado to make a chocolate mousse, but you won’t know there’s an avocado in it.”
Raw food chef training can happen in-house or at an accredited institution. Petty recently sent her new executive chef Jonathan Seningen to the Matthew Kenney Academy in Oklahoma. Though Seningen graduated from New York City’s French Culinary Institute earlier in his career and worked under high-profile chefs such as Paul Liebrandt and Terrance Brennan, Petty felt this additional tutelage was necessary for him to master raw preparation techniques. The school offers two levels of chef certification–each of which takes four weeks to complete–“Fundamentals of Raw Cuisine” and “Advanced Raw Cuisine.”
Attending a raw food institution isn’t required, in Melngailis’ opinion. She prefers that all of her chefs be traditionally trained and then learn raw food techniques by working their way up through her kitchen hierarchy. “I’d rather have that any day than somebody who had only been trained in making raw food,” she says.
“There’s more value in taking the knowledge that one would have from working in a traditional restaurant with high-end food and then teaching them how to work with our ingredients and techniques.”
No matter how a chef learns these techniques, they then become part of a growing movement that combines culinary excellence and healthfulness. “There is a lot of research provided on how simply eating raw, unprocessed foods can allow you to prevent and fight diseases caused by unhealthier cooked alternatives,” Yang says.
“Hippocrates’ old saying, ‘Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food,’ is quite revolutionary, because this belief truly resonates with the raw vegan lifestyle.”
Recommended Raw Reading
Juliano Brotman’s Raw: The Uncook Book – The first major raw food book to hit the market, it’s considered a foundational pillar for raw chefs.
Matthew Kenney and Sarma Melngailis’ Raw Food/Real World: 100 Recipes to Get the Glow – Published shortly after the authors opened Pure Food and Wine, the book contains recipes for some of the restaurant’s signature dishes, including Zucchini and Green Zebra Tomato Lasagna, and Golden Squash Pasta with Black Summer Truffles.
Matthew Kenney’s Everyday Raw – From Pad Thai and pizza to decadent desserts like frozen goji berry soufflé and chocolate hazelnut tart, this cookbook focuses on delcious recipes that are easy-to-make for raw food beginners.
Ani Phyo’s Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen: Easy, Delectable Living Food Recipes – An excellent starting point for the uninitiated, the books is filled with great tips on essential tools, key ingredients, and how to stock your pantry, as well as recipes galore.