We Like It Raw

Even within the natural food movement's inner core, Raw foodists can’t get no love. Tell most folks you limit your diet to just fresh, uncooked fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds, and responses range from bewildered admiration (“Wow. You do that?!? I could never deal.”) to bemused skepticism (“Uh, whatever floats your boat, I guess.”) to snark bordering on hostility (“What are you, an f'ing rabbit?”). Even the possibility of “increased energy and vitality” — the raw foodie’s beckoning promise — couldn’t persuade most of us to consign to a lifetime of carrots and celery. And so the “Raw Way” has largely remained a path for only the most disciplined zealot and/or narcissistic celebrity with the disposable funds to bankroll a personal chef.

But like any great idea whose time is nigh, raw food is maturing beyond its uncooked beginnings to a lifestyle choice that allows for flexibility, creativity and above all — (dare we say?) great taste. Glossy cookbooks, fresh new restaurants, raw chocolate smoothies and healthy, happy raw enthusiasts — who are anything but cultish or militant — are moving Raw out of the fringe and into the mainstream.

What percent are you?

"The raw food movement is dynamically changing,” observes David Wolfe, author of raw food bibles Naked Chocolate, Eating For Beauty and The Sunfood Diet Success System. With his twinkling eyes, exuberant curls and fondness for embroidered hemp pajamas, Wolfe, a foremost living foods leader, has the Rico Suavocado countenance of a hippie rockstar and the enthusiasm of a five-year-old hopped up on Hawaiian Punch (or, in Wolfe's case, raw cacao beans).

“It is becoming much more sophisticated in its appeal. Not only in the flavor and texture of the food itself, but also in its ability to appeal to different people. The barriers are falling away.”

One of the more insurmountable barriers has been the idea that to “do raw food” you have to go all the way, eating all raw — all the time.

“We have found that you have to eat 70 to 80 percent raw food to really reap the real health benefits,” offers Wolfe, who supports any raw percentage that people commit to — especially in the beginning. This loosening of the reins has opened the door for the raw-curious to commit to a certain percent of uncooked foods in their diet.

“People tap in to the way that feels best to them,” he says, and cites raw chocolate, Spirulina and hemp seeds as great entry foods into the raw diet. 

“They get into juices — celery and apple juice — then boom, the whole thing starts rolling. Before they know it they are eating seaweed and sprouting.”

Raw momentum builds

Recognizing the emerging raw trend, restaurants have started to offer more uncooked options on the menu, with everything from raw appetizers, smoothies and desserts to full tasting menus. After discovering the raw food movement, world-renowned chef Charlie Trotter co-authored the top-selling RAW cookbook with chef Roxanne Klein. He now offers regular raw tasting menus at his five-star, eponymously named Chicago restaurant and foresees big things for raw food’s fine dining future. “I think, in the future, all chefs will need to have an awareness of how to prepare raw food,” Trotter told online gourmet network Epicurious. “It will be just another component of a well-rounded culinary education, like learning about butchering or pastry.”

Chicago-based Lisa Persico, chief mixologist of The Amazing Starr Barr, a raw elixir bar-for-hire, has found her services increasingly requested to replace the usual alcohol cash bars at art galleries, fundraisers and weddings. Using exotic superfoods like maça, goji berries, spirulina and raw cacao, she creates smoothies and cocktails that uplift the spirit without alcohol.

Persico recently spun her craft at a special preview party for the new eco-friendly Butterfly Social Club, the windy city’s first “raw bar” (as in saloon). Nightclub owner and raw enthusiast Mark Kleman opened Butterfly to showcase raw food creations, clean drinks and superfood elixirs, many of his own secret design (hint: he’s all about the maça).

Natalia Rose, author of The Raw Food Detox Diet and a nutritionist in New York, finds more clients interested in raw food from a cosmetic and physical point of view, but also witnesses added benefits. “Some people get into raw food to drop a few pounds or reverse aging, but they come out a better person. They become a more enlightened, conscious person.”

That certainly was the case for Chicago-based Kokopaulli, an energetic raw food activist, who says he experiences a deeper sense of spirituality on the raw food diet. 

“When you eat raw food it’s like standing under the sun and getting everything you need,” he muses. “It is effortless.” Kokopaulli grew up Catholic and began altering his diet by giving up meat for Lent. He shifted from eating vegetarian to vegan and finally landed at living food because he wanted to feel “more vibrant.”

“The world can get more out of me if I eat something vital and alive.”

Weekend “Rawriors”

“Raw food used to be an exotic diet and lifestyle for people really hardcore into health food,” says David Wolfe, who put up the first raw food website in November of ’94. “Now it has opened up and is more accessible.”

The Internet remains a key tool in the development of Raw culture, where raw foodies meet, swap recipes, share tips and offer support through the rough periods.

Still, legions of online Raws cannot match the tangible transformative power of a real face-to-face community, like the one that has grown up around California’s Café Gratitude. Max O’Neil, a regular, expresses sincere gratitude for the sense of connection the café brings. “I go to Cafe Gratitude to be with others who care about the earth and their bodies,” he says warmly.

With four locations in the Bay Area, and plans to open an LA restaurant in the coming year, Café Gratitude welcomes the newbie, the raw-curious and the weekend rawrior with open arms. “We invite people to come in and try [the living foods lifestyle] on,” says Matthew Engelhart, who co-owns the café with his wife Terces. Engelhart believes this can best be accomplished through a “transition diet” into raw, explaining, “if [going raw] is austere and regimented, people are just going to give up and not have the breakthrough.”

Or breakdown... Jennifer Adler, a Washington-based nutritionist, natural foods chef and adjunct faculty at Bastyr University contends that there are very real health reasons for finding your own way — and comfortable percentage — to do the raw food diet. “Any of these extreme diets, whether you are pushing vegetables or protein shakes, is going to affect each body differently,” says Adler. “Many nutrients like protein, biologically available fatty acids and zinc are hard to get while on the raw diet. And some nutrients are better absorbed if they are cooked.” 

Adler cautions emergent Raws to pay close attention to their calorie and nutrient intake. “Especially in a lot of women, there can be an underlying eating disorder,” Adler points out. “The raw food movement can lend a structure to that.”

She relates a story about a client who was very protein deficient. The client discussed the deficiency with Adler and decided to eat raw, organic eggs to get more protein in her diet. 

But she didn’t feel comfortable telling her Raw boyfriend about her decision. “She ended up hiding the eggs,” remembers Adler. “That type of stuff gets to me. But I do think that the movement itself has a lot of very positive components.”

An increased sense of community and support were just a few of the “positive components” that attracted Monika Kinsman, executive director of the Raw Network of Washington, a non-profit clearinghouse. Kinsmen is one of the many raw foodists who came to the movement after a profound health scare — in her case, a weight of 220 pounds and cholesterol level of 300 that convinced her to get serious about her health.

“I had to throw out my pots and pans, and find others on a similar path,” says Kinsman, who attributes her new 160-pound physique and 200 cholesterol level to eating raw. “I had to make a commitment. I needed to find support.”

What began as a quest for community ultimately turned into a mission to spread the Raw gospel. “It’s not enough to just have a restaurant or a store,” Kinsman enthuses. “We want to educate, provide resources and support people through the emotional transition of going raw.” She now assists with Raw NOW’s area potlucks, and has seen a great turnout of people and inspired raw creations like banana crepes, green smoothies and cacao desserts.

“When I was invited to this gathering, I thought there would be a lot of hippies or people I couldn’t relate to,” admits a Raw NOW first-timer. “Now I see that there are all different kinds of people, in a similar place as me.”

Green plate special

That “similar place” in which burgeoning Raws are finding themselves includes the realization that personal health and habits affect the larger world.

Rod Rotondi, owner of LA’s trail-blazing Leaf Cuisine is convinced that raw restaurants are pushing the eco agenda. “Every time you eat something, there’s a whole chain that you’re accessing going back to the farm, says Rotondi, a 13-year raw veteran. “What we eat has a huge environmental influence. As people demand change in what they eat, their dollars will shift the economy, the agricultural market and, ultimately, our environment.”

Leaf features tasty, affordable raw dishes along with to-go materials that are compostable, non-toxic cleaning products and a delivery truck that runs on biodiesel.

While Rotondi adheres to a 100 percent raw diet himself, he meets customers where they are. “I don’t think being tight and strict is healthy, in general,” he says, adding that if you are going to eat a Big Mac, at least be conscious and enjoy yourself while you are doing it.

“As you transition from cooked food to raw food, you’ll be drawn to more and more living foods. You’ll eat that way because you want to, not because you think you want to. The change will just happen. You don’t have to try because it’s not about willpower.”

Rotundi envisions raw restaurants replacing convenience stores. “Where you used to see pickles, ketchup, potato chips, and doughnuts, you’ll see raw foods. Every supermarket will have a large raw foods section.”

He may be on to something.

“One of the things that we are looking at is a more designated section in a higher profile area of the store,” says Justin Jackson, executive coordinator of purchasing for Whole Foods in Northern California, describing the “more dramatic” raw food launch the natural food chain has in the works.

While Jackson couldn’t elaborate in great detail on the new raw products headed to shelves, he did admit Whole Foods plans to introduce some new “raw food concepts” — frozen, refrigerated and room temperature foods — in the very near future, adding that it is the responsibility of businesses like Whole Foods to help people through the challenges of eating raw by providing easy access to a variety of quality products.

“We have recognized that raw foods are something that our customers want,” says Jackson. “And we don’t think [the demand] is going to go away.”

For the true believers, though, raw food’s permanence lies not in motive or market share, but in the simple altruism that good in equals good out.

“There are very few universals out there, but all people respond well to clean air, water, and high nutrient foods,” concludes Butterfly Social Club’s Mark Klemen. “If we, as a people, all ingest more nutritive foods in their cleanest, freshest and most complete form, this entire planet changes for the better. Each individual receives greater health and the benefits of actions that support the good works and practices of many. It’s the ultimate in fair trade.”

Want to explore raw food? Start with these easy appetizer and dessert recipes!

Photo: Nevit Dilmen

Thank you for signing up!

Tell us what you think!
If you'd like to comment on this article, become a member of Gaiam Life.
Click here to create your account.