By Laurie Drake
LOS ANGELES -- FIRE, they say, is the enemy. They are a small, but increasingly influential group of culinary zealots (mostly in California, of course, but traveling a lot and proselytizing along the way), who have become so extreme in their vegetarianism that they refuse to eat food touched by heat â€” for fear of destroying the nutrients.
They challenge conventional science with the power of their conviction and a gift for persuading even vegetarians that there is still more wrong with food than anyone might have thought. And their persuasiveness is leading some of the best chefs in the country to turn off their stoves.
As these sophisticated cooks are dragged toward the fringes of food preparation, often complaining bitterly, they are managing to turn raw vegetables into some of the most beguiling creations in the culinary world. We're not talking about cruditÃ©s here; we're talking about true refinement.
In Chicago, Charlie Trotter is producing 10-course raw menus filled with wildly inventive dishes like okra cured in sea salt with Thai squash and pear sauce, and jicama "packages" filled with preserved eggplant, broccoli rape flowers and tiny kohlrabi. Up in the Napa Valley, Thomas Keller sculptures "gnocchi" out of avocados, and down in Miami, Norman Van Aken makes what he calls elephant garlic in vapors, a six-hour production that involves suspending thin shavings of garlic over a pot of barely warm water.
Every element of every dish is raw, organic and vegan â€” no meat, fish, eggs or dairy products. And now, the food is evolving into a cuisine with its own rules (no heat above 118 degrees) and its own equipment (Vita- Mix blender, Green Life juicer, food dehydrator). The philosophy is inspiring new cookbooks and even new restaurants dedicated exclusively to raw food. Mr. Trotter, in fact, is writing a book of 200 "sensually satisfying" raw recipes that is to be published next year.
"My goal is to serve this food to someone and not have her realize it's raw until she's four or five courses into the menu," he said.
It's a challenge.
"To be successful, you obviously need to start with exquisitely fresh, seasonal, organic produce," said Mr. Trotter, who uses fine-cutting techniques to break down fiber and enriches dishes with raw nuts (soaked in water overnight), avocado and olive oil. "There are ways to make this food explode with flavor, using notes from Asian and Indian cooking â€” ginger, galanga, lemon grass â€” along with raw garlic and citrus juice." Other hallmark ingredients are curry spices and the watery milk from baby Thai coconuts (also called "jelly coconuts" because of their soft meat) sold at Asian markets.
To compensate for a raw dish's lack of aroma â€” "one of the things that's so enjoyable about eating," Mr. Trotter said â€” he serves dishes at room temperature (never chilled) on plates that have been warmed in the oven, so that the flavor "blooms a little."
Like other raw cooks, he finds a dehydrator essential to concentrate flavors, and to give the exterior of some foods a crispy "crust." A juicer is essential too, sometimes in unexpected ways like homogenizing nuts and seeds into dough.
A good imagination is also useful: one has to be willing to accept thin-sliced zucchini as sheets of pasta in a "lasagna" or dehydrated carrot cubes as "croutons" on top of a "soup" of purÃ©ed raw tomatoes.
And so is patience. Depending on your point of view, elevating raw vegetables to the level of haute cuisine is a labor of love, or insanity.
"People think raw vegetables are easy," said Mr. Keller, the chef at the French Laundry in Napa Valley. "But when you cook something, the oven does the work for you. With raw food, you're doing all the work. You can't just take a bulb of fennel and put it on a plate and say, `Here, chew on this.' "
No, you have to throw away the outer part and use only the tender center, slice it thin and, to keep it from oxidizing, prepare it la minute. Another of Mr. Keller's raw dishes "vermicelli" of sweet peppers with garden mint, 30-year-old balsamic vinegar, "panzanella" salad and sweet red pepper sorbet â€” is an undertaking that requires 27 ingredients and untold hours.
"There's all this processing, versus just braising or roasting a piece of fennel," Mr. Keller said, with a hint of frustration.
Or as Mr. Van Aken, the creator of the six- hour garlic, put it: "Do you know how long it takes to not cook food?"
Mr. Keller noted that his restaurant is not set up for large-scale raw production. "It's like trying to make Chevrolet cars in a Dodge factory," he said. Mr. Van Aken, the chef and owner of Norman's in Coral Gables, was also quick to point out that his isn't a raw food restaurant.
So why try it? First, there is the creative challenge posed by diners who have gone "raw," but are tired of nuts and berries.
Mr. Trotter, already known for his (cooked) vegetable tasting menu, prepares raw menus for guests like Prince Isiel Ben- Israel, the international ambassador for the African Hebrew Israelites, who lives part time in Chicago, and for Roxanne and Michael Klein, who are among the most outspoken proponents of the diet. The couple first encountered raw cuisine 4 1/2 years ago at a spa in Thailand with their friends Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead and the actor Woody Harrelson, a longtime raw fooder. Michael Klein, 45, former chairman of the Rainforest Action Network, and Roxanne Klein, 37, grow their own produce on their estate in Marin County and have adopted the raw regimen.
The Kleins, perhaps more than anyone else, have made it a mission to introduce great cooks to noncooking. When the couple asked Mr. Van Aken to make dinner for them, he was stumped. "I researched raw- food ingredients on the Internet," he said. He bought kimchi and dehydrated raw-carrot "crackers" from a local grower called Glaser Farms, and devised his vapor technique: "Place thin, translucent slices of garlic on a sheet of plastic wrap on top of a pot of water warmed to 100 degrees. Drizzle them with truffle oil, add another layer of plastic wrap, and let them warm for about six hours. The resulting melted garlic tastes roasted but isn't."
Like other raw advocates, Roxanne Klein believes that heating food above 118 degrees destroys enzymes, the catalysts for all metabolic processes. But unlike most, Ms. Klein is a trained chef. She has worked at restaurants like Stars in San Francisco, and quickly saw culinary potential in raw food. "To be frank, there's lot of raw hippie food out there, oat cakes that taste like hockey pucks," she said.
"I for one have got to enjoy eating." She added, "Michael and I have been vegans for 10 years, but only when we went raw did we gain a lot of energy." She plans to open a raw restaurant in August in Larkspur called Roxanne's, and is collaborating with Mr. Trotter on his book.
A book may be the closest thing to serious raw food that most of the world can afford, since the tasting menus that the Kleins are so fond of can easily cost $200 per person, "and that's not counting the '64 PÃ©trus and the '55 Latour that we order," Ms. Klein said. (The reason, one chef said privately, he was game about a raw menu.)
Or course, there are other ways to experience raw cuisine. One of the most popular in California is the rave-style dinners given by the raw-food guru Juliano, the author of "Raw: The Uncook Book" (ReganBooks, 1999). For the last three months, the blond, tanned 27-year-old has taught "uncooking" classes twice a week in a rented studio on Pico Boulevard in Santa Monica.
Celebrities like Alicia Silverstone, K. D. Lang and Lisa Bonet have chopped veggies at his Wednesday night dinners, which are strictly word of mouth. "We're hard to find and we don't advertise, but we're really busy, because people are sick of that cooked dead stuff out there, all that angry oven food," he said.
On a recent evening, a crowd of 71 stood around the studio waiting to eat the meal the students had prepared: salad with ginger-garlic dressing, nut-loaf burgers on sprouted buckwheat "bread" (dried in the sun for 10 hours) and spread with "mustard" (ground mustard seed and horseradish) and "ketchup" (fresh and sun-dried tomatoes, dates, basil, garlic ginger and onion). For dessert, there were almond-carob-African vanilla bean-date balls. All for $20.
Techno music pounded in the background and chlorophyll scented the air as a man who called himself "the wheat grass messiah" fed parsley, red chard, beets and alfalfa sprouts into a Green Life juice extractor. Still, there weren't many takers for cups of the dark green foamy liquid. In a corner, a fellow punched holes into those young Thai coconuts while volunteer waitresses handed them out with straws.
In about six weeks, Juliano plans to let the public in on the party at Raw L.A., a restaurant he is opening in Santa Monica. If his nut-loaf burger was any indication, there should be a crowd: the patty was a crunchy concoction of chopped sunflower seeds, walnuts and almonds bound with fresh onion, red bell pepper, mushrooms, rosemary and parsley. Layered with lettuce and tomato and spread with the wacky condiments, the "burger" actually did burst with flavor.
But do the raw fooders feel good because what they are eating contains "live" enzymes or because it happens to be fresh, nourishing and expertly spiced?
Dickson Despommier, a professor at the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University, said that "cooking denatures the shape of the enzyme molecule."
"But," he added, "the point is, who cares? Enzymes are proteins that are inactivated the moment they hit your stomach, where powerful acids destroy them and break them down into amino acids. It's ridiculous to say that you don't get the full benefit of enzymes by cooking them."
Still, he found the idea of "good, clean, washed and sanitized vegetables from a recognized source" an appealing one.
The wide variety of foods in the raw vegan diet also passed muster with a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
"Plant-based products like nuts, seeds, beans, grains and vegetables have protein in them, so you can get your protein needs met," said the spokeswoman, Leslie Bonci, who is also the director of sports nutrition for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "The only issue is that with some vegetables, cooking unleashes more of the carotenoids â€” the plant chemicals â€” for the body to absorb. So if you're eating an exclusively raw diet, you're not necessarily getting the full range of nutrients."
Tell that to the raw fooders. A dinner guest of the Kleins, Steve Braman of West Palm Beach, called Norman's the following week to order raw gazpacho and kimchi to go for eight people. (Mr. Van Aken said, "You've got to be kidding," but obliged.)
And Mr. Trotter predicts that, like it or not, chefs will have to get used to it.
"Ten years from now, all competent chefs will offer raw vegetable dishes on the menu," he said, "because more and more people will be eating this way."
- It is true. It did occur and will be even more so. MGW