Most people are not immediately intrigued by the idea of "going raw," otherwise known as eating exclusively raw foods. There are however a growing number of individuals out there who are starting to tout the benefits. The theory goes that cooking food depletes the volume of nutrients it contains. As a baseline for what I mean by "cooking," hard core raw foodies will generally not subject anything to more than 118 degrees fahrenheit. We can get very technical with this, but essentially the line of thought goes that one, your body prefers to get its nutrients from a natural source (as opposed to that multi you are taking once per day) and two, the more you heat up what you are about to eat, the more you kill off certain nutrients.
Now I am not going to go into all of the arguments for and against "raw" as a lifestyle choice, like many health fads both the public and professionals in the industry are treating the idea with mixed reviews. But I think that you will be hard-pressed to find someone out there that prefers how they feel after eating a bucket of fried chicken as opposed to a salad (even with all of the toppings).
Recently I spoke with Chef Matthew Kenney, who is making it his mission to help people experience raw foods on a gourmet level. (Gourmet raw dishes? Do tell me more.) As it turns out, you can forget the carrot sticks and plain spinach salad, believe it or not, eating raw can actually be interesting, fun and delicious. Kenney has two restaurants by the name of M.A.K.E. in LA as well as two other venues, The White Lotus in Miami and The Gothic New England in Maine. So if you are lucky enough to live in Maine, Miami or LA you can run right over and check one out.
Fueled by a range of motivations like weight loss, illness or a passion for being healthy, the real reason why "raw foods" are gaining more and more traction simply boils down to people wanting to feel better and Chef Kenney is just like anyone else. "I was interested in health and fitness long before I became a chef, and held onto my passion for that even when learning to prepare gourmet cuisine," Kenney told me, "it took many years, but I slowly transitioned toward a vegetarian diet due to how it made me feel physically and spiritually. When introduced to raw food, I finally embraced what seemed most natural for me."
Do a quick search and you will find blogs featuring recipes and substitutions that you can pepper into your everyday life to cut out foods made with ingredients you can't pronounce. There is a movement going on today that is transitioning away from processed and treated foods, which are thought of by many as responsible for much of the disease, obesity and pollution in the world. This trend is being seen at various levels, from simply buying organic at the grocery store, to shopping at farmer's markets, juicing, eliminating fast food, becoming vegetarian or even vegan.
While some of these lifestyle choices may be intimidating and outright extreme, if trying to work in more raw items is something that appeals to you, the good news is that it is really not as hard as it seems, although a little guidance can go a long way. Kenney advises that he would "...always suggest trying one raw or plant-based meal a day at first, adding a green juice a few times a week and trying to do one full day...that is usually enough to inspire everyone to want more due to how good they'll feel."
Really, this isn't rocket science. Your mom was right, just eat your veggies — and opt for the raw stuff every now and then if you don't already. Nobody is saying to develop a mantra for eating only raw food. In fact, science has proven while cooking vegetables does lower things like levels of vitamin C, the process can also boost important antioxidants like lycopene. "It should be viewed as a component of our lives, much in the way one would view exercise. Simply adding raw plant-based cuisine to our daily or weekly routine will bring positive results to health and well being." Kenney advises. He tells us in his personal life, "I dine out often, focusing on restaurants that have a lot of seasonal plant-based options and when in California, I always eat at M.A.K.E. At home, my diet is quite simple - lots of smoothies and juices, big salads, avocado and sea vegetables and occasionally grains such as quinoa with raw and roasted vegetables. I also love chocolate."
In his restaurants, Chef Kenney's menus feature items like Wild Mushroom Tacos with mole, almond crema, red chili avocado or sweet bites like white chocolate with grapefruit glass, ginger crumble and tarragon. When I asked Kenney what raw dish he liked best to make at home, he told me "That can change from week to week or day to day. Currently, my goji-grapefruit-coconut smoothie is a morning staple. I still enjoy preparing the first raw food dish I ever created, heirloom tomato lasagna." Okay, so clearly raw food is not as boring as we all may have thought and if this is the stuff that Kenney is teaching in his schools, sign us up.
I mentioned earlier that the raw food diet is not without opponents. Like vegetarianism, "People feel that there is no protein and they can't build muscle." Well sure, we all consider meat (usually cooked meat at that) to be our primary source of protein, but "for the truth, they could speak to Mike Tyson or Venus Williams," Kenney said. Both are fans of the raw food diet — and clearly they do not lack the muscle we associate with high-protein intake. Actually, "There are countless celebrities and athletes that incorporate raw food into their diets - Woody Harrelson, Daryl Hannah, Bill Clinton, Anna Paquin, Marisa Tomei...this list is long! Harper's Bazaar recently had a beauty issue which asked women from each generation, 20s to 70s what their diet consisted off. Interestingly, 100% were vegetarian and all but one mentioned juicing."
We have funny terms coming into more common use like flexitarian (mostly vegetarian, but eating meat when you feel like it), pescetarian (vegetarian, but including fish), and ovo-lacto vegetarian (vegetarian, but including dairy and eggs) all probably due to the changing ideas about food and the growing number of people that have embraced research touting the benefits of such diets. What I find interesting is that we are seeing these thoughts, ideas and trends penetrate the restaurant scene all the way up to the fine dining level. Kenney stated that "Technology in general allows us all to have access to ideas, influences and concepts that were unreachable to most just a few years ago. This has greatly enhanced the reach of chefs and restaurants." And it is true. We are seeing technology permeate every part of our lives. Opinionated bloggers have a collective (and loud!) voice, we Instagram our food and Pin great recipes. Thoughts and ideas can spread like wildfire.
"I believe successful chefs will eventually take responsibility not only for producing tasty food, but also promoting health. Those that bridge the current gap between culinary art and nutrition will set the standard for the future," Kenney stated. Personally, I hope he is right.