By Marcus Antilla
Photography by Aimee Wenske
Most people think of celery, carrot sticks and salad when they hear “raw foods.” But while those foods do fit into the raw category, raw cuisine can be much more complex, interesting and surprisingly diverse. Based on what humans ate prior to the advent of animal husbandry and the chemical adulteration and packaging of food, raw cuisine adheres to a few simple yet powerful principles:
heating food above 104 to 120 degrees degrades or destroys critical enzymes such as amylases, proteases and lipases, which aid in digestion; raw foods retain a higher nutrient value than cooked foods and include bacteria and other microorganisms that may be beneficial to digestion and the immune system (hence the common reference to raw foods as “living foods”); and raw cuisine includes only those oils that are cold extracted and believed to be the most healthful, such as olive, avocado, coconut, walnut, almond, pecan and macadamia.
Advocates say a raw food diet helps boost metabolism and offers a sense of well-being—mental, physical and spiritual. Some have even linked a raw food diet to specific health benefits like clearing up problematic skin and helping beat cancer and other debilitating diseases. In fact, several health-retreat centers across the country—including Austin’s own Optimum Health Institute—base their healing programs around raw foods, greens and green juices.
I was first exposed to the raw food movement approximately two years ago when I took a position at Austin’s first raw foods restaurant, Daily Juice. By working in that environment, and transitioning to a 70 percent raw food diet, I lost 30 pounds in six months. But having worked in a cooked-food world for the preceding 10 years, my taste buds needed retraining. Highly saturated fatty and sugary foods had altered my sense of taste. But once I began eating more fresh, raw foods, my taste receptors changed and my palate was cleansed. I began to experience and appreciate the amazing flavors of nature like never before—watermelon and apples, for instance, were two of the big ones for me; flavors intensified significantly.
Executive chef and owner of Austin’s Yummy Living Foods, Arielle Webb, says she started out as a raw chef in San Francisco and noticed that many of the patrons were simply interested in healthier lifestyles. “Here in Austin,” she notes, “I'm seeing more and more adults and children with gluten intolerance and celiac disease, as well as parents with autistic children needing special diets—no soy, gluten, rice, potato, dairy or sugar—and the garden-variety families wanting to cut down on sugar and unhealthy eating habits. It seems less political here and more about conscious eating.”
Still, getting the average person to simply try raw cuisine can be a challenge. Many believe the food will be bland, boring or too basic. But culinary progress has revolutionized raw cuisine into combinations and recipes that can appeal to even the most demanding palate. With dehydrators now built specifically for raw foods, spiralizers for turning vegetables into noodles, high-powered blenders and access to more powerful super foods like goji berries, raw cacao powder, spirulina and maca, the way we “cook” in the raw food world is full of possibilities.
“People often ask me how I learned to make raw food, but truthfully, a little bit of research and experimentation should reveal that it’s not all that different from conventional cooking,” says Daily Juice’s chef, Dave Myers. “You’re still working with the same basic elements of food preparation—flavor, texture and presentation. Once you’re exposed to a couple of techniques and ideas, you’re right back to pairing ingredients and combining flavors just like any other cook.”
The absence of heat in raw cuisine, though, changes the game profoundly and demands that a chef employs some clever tricks of the trade. “Obtaining desired textures is the biggest challenge in raw food because heat breaks down the cellular structure of food, releases and evaporates liquids and is a vehicle for breaking down and binding different ingredients on a chemical level,” explains Myers. “Raw chefs have to find other ways to tenderize, dry, moisten, stiffen and incorporate ingredients. You can’t make ketchup, for example, with fresh tomatoes; you will end up with nothing but a very watery tomato soup. The solution is to use sun-dried tomatoes and rehydrate them to get the thickness that you want. I do a lot of crushing, massaging, pickling and marinating. And, of course, I get a lot of use out of the blender and the food processor. Even freezing and then thawing produce will sometimes have an effect similar to that of cooking, and doesn’t destroy or kill the enzymes in your food. Also, you can sweat fruits and vegetables by simply cutting them up and adding a little salt, which will draw liquid out, just as it would in a sauté pan. The liquid can then be strained or even squeezed out of the food. The by-product is basically a raw vegetable stock, which can be used in recipes.”
Susan O’Brien, owner of the Texas-based raw food snack-product line Hail Merry, became interested in raw cuisine while vacationing in Maui. “I spent a few days reading my first raw food book,” she says. “What I discovered was that there are a lot of raw foodists who eat for functional reasons only. I was determined to seek out recipes that tasted good, too, and not just like bird food. So I studied the culinary-trained raw foodists like Matthew Kenney, who has inspired me tremendously. I wanted to share this new way of eating with more people than just my friends and family, and since I couldn’t buy this food anywhere in Texas, I set about to create Hail Merry. So into this paradigm shift of how America thinks about food I went! I am now determined more than ever to bring forth more snacking options free of synthetic vitamins, heat-extracted oils, gluten and soy fillers that are found in many so-called health bars and snacks.”
Austin’s raw food entrepreneurs believe in the healing power of living foods—especially those found locally—and are passionate about sharing their knowledge and making the food accessible. But they also know that committing to a raw diet can be intimidating. They suggest taking it slowly; try a few dishes and see how your body reacts.
“[Switching to raw] is scary!” says local raw chef, Torie Wiley. “And not easy—especially when we are all surrounded by fried, fast food on every single corner and in the grocery store. It’s hard to make a healthy conscious choice sometimes in that environment. But be strong and stick to it, because there are some great rewards on the other side waiting for you.”
Kale with Spirulina, Courtesy of Chef Torie Wiley
Vietnamese Vermicelli Bowl, Courtesy of Chef Dave Myers, Daily Juice
Pasta Raw Fredo, Courtesy of Chef Marcus Antilla
Red Bell Pepper and Cashew Queso, Courtesy of Chef Marcus Antilla
Creamy Carrot Coconut Shooters, Courtesy of Chef Susan O’Brien, Hail Merry
Green Smoothie, Courtesy of Chef Marcus Antilla
Live Vegan Whipped Cream, Courtesy of Chef Arielle Webb, Yummy Living Foods