By Wayne Jebian
11:45 AM EDT, June 25, 2013
"Raw" is not about sashimi, carpaccio or Ethiopian kitfo; it's a veggie thing — all about sprouting, sunshine and summertime. Nutritionists and physicians since Dr. Dolittle have known about the benefits of an uncooked vegan diet and have touted it as a cure for everything from migraines to cancer. The missing piece was only recently uncovered, and the "miracle" only realized, in the past couple of decades when the quest for the perfect diet adopted a radical new ethos heretofore unknown in the world of health food: It should taste good.
This is not your mama's hippie food. It is a labor- and technology-intensive art form pioneered by chef Juliano Brotman, who opened his restaurant, "Raw" in 1994 in San Francisco and went on to publish Raw: The Uncook Book: New Vegetarian Food for Life. Health-conscious diners would make pilgrimages to Brotman's haven of elaborate slaws, "pizzas" with dehydrated flaxseed crusts, and "sushi" devoid of cooked rice, boasting bad-hair-day tufts of sprouts jutting out of nut paste wrapped in seaweed. After gorging on these barely-recognizable dishes that had never been near an oven, and washing them down with green juice that made the lips tingle, satisfied customers would swoon out onto the sidewalk feeling totally high. But it was the haute-cuisine quality — complete with dipping areas and fancily streaked sauces — that struck diners as a novel experience, even more so to San Franciscans than the getting high part.
Connecticut now has a handful of raw cuisine strongholds and a growing raw DIY scene beneath the surface. The place to experience raw in its most upscale manifestation is G-Zen in Branford, where chef Mark Shadle and his business partner, Ami Beach, offer a menu that is mostly cooked healthy cuisine, but which also includes as many raw menu items as the market will bear. The elaborateness of the craft becomes apparent when she describes that most basic of dishes, the raw "taco."
"The shell itself is basically just lettuce," said Beach. "We fill it with spiced taco 'meat', which is sprouted walnuts with Mexican spices — about 15 different herbs to give it that tangy Mexican flavoring. Then on top of that we do a fresh guacamole, which is organic avocados, lime sea salt, chopped vegetables, anything that you would normally make guacamole with, then we make a sprouted cashew cheese. We make sour cream out of sprouted cashews, lemon and sea salt. You pick it up just like you would a taco, and people don't even get that it's raw."
Even more impressive are the desserts, which can look and taste like a mousse cake or cheesecake, but leave diners completely free of any heavy, guilty feelings. However, if a sense of dietary satisfaction were the only benefit, people wouldn't be going to all the trouble it takes to prepare the stuff. The food is too outside the mainstream to be hugely profitable, yet health-conscious restaurateurs insist upon proselytizing raw living, entering people's consciousness through their palates. For example, Six Main, an upscale restaurant in Chester, always has at least one raw-cuisine item on the menu. These chefs do it because they're true believers, convinced by their own radical health transformations and those they have witnessed in friends, family members and customers.
"I was inspired by a friend of mine who healed her cancer about 20 years ago now," said Lisa Wilson, a nutrition counselor who founded the Raw Food Institute. Wilson had been working in Washington D.C., where doctors would send her patients who were the "sickest of the sick" to see if raw food could do what medical science couldn't. "I have six people who have completely healed their cancer with no surgery, no chemotherapy and no radiation," she said. Wilson recently packed up her whole operation and moved it to Simsbury, where she now holds quarterly retreats that bring in clients from around the globe. They spend a week at a local bed and breakfast to cleanse, eat and learn about grub that's good for what ails them.
Not far away, in Windsor, is Raw Food Central, where for the past 12 years, Curtis Griffing has been teaching people how to change their eating habits over to a raw food diet. As the Hartford area has no raw food restaurants since the closure of the Alchemy Juice Bar Cafe, Raw Food Central is the next best thing. "You have to call in about an hour or two earlier, depending on what you're looking for, so we can prepare it ahead of time," he advised. "We don't have a walk-in type thing where we have things already set. We kind of make 'em as you go."
An early convert to raw living, Griffing started 30 years ago in an effort to cure severe, crippling rheumatoid arthritis. "I kind of stumbled upon it, and it just made so much sense to me," he said. "There weren't many people doing raw back then. It was difficult, but eventually it just kind of grew and grew. I had to stay with it to get well, and I did."
Many of those who swear by a raw diet today found the changeover as tough in the beginning as you might expect. Glen Colello just wanted to play basketball, looking forward to the University of Bridgeport alumni game every year until he was sidelined by back pain in 2002. Chiropractic wasn't doing the whole job, so finally his doctor told him, "You're exercising a lot; you're staying fit, but your diet is just a standard American diet. Your pastas, your meats, your breads, your milks; you're doing everything that, from a nutritional standpoint, I would recommend that people kind of look at and possibly alter."
"At that point I was ready to listen," recalled the 43-year-old Fairfield resident. The first thing to go was processed dairy products, then meat, then sugar. "That was a tough one for me because I learned not only was it in the desserts and cakes and sweets and breads and stuff like that, but it was also part of the casual night out with the couple of beers here and there. That was all translating into sugar in your body from the alcohol." This process, a six-month dietary purge, evolved into an educational odyssey that had Colello attending New York's Institute of Integrative Nutrition and sampling the fruits of Manhattan's budding raw restaurant scene.
| Places to Try Raw Food |
Catch a Heathy Habit Cafe
39 Unquowa Road, Fairfield, (203) 292-8190, catchahealthyhabit.com
2 E Main St., Branford, (203) 208-0443, g-zen.com
1 Main St., Chester, (203) 218-3701, gojustfood.com
Raw Food Central
446 Broad St., Windsor, (860) 925-6869, rawfoodcentral.com
Raw Food Institute
730 Hopmeadow St. Ste. 1S, Simsbury, (860) 255-4325, therawfoodinstitute.com
6 Main St., Chester, (860) 322-4212, sixmain.com
The Stand Juice Company
87 Mill Plain Road, Fairfield, (203) 873-0414; 31 Wall St., Norwalk, (203) 956-5670, thestandjuice.com
Finally, just after Thanksgiving in 2009, Colello opened Catch a Healthy Habit Cafe in Fairfield, which is quite possibly Connecticut's purest example of a raw establishment. It boasts a raw-only menu with the heart of a juice-and-smoothie bar, only without the higher-end aspirations and prices of some of the part-time raw places. Colello has clearly been an inspiration to the local scene, which has seen the sprouting of such establishments as The Stand Juice Company in Fairfield and Norwalk. The raw cred of this local mini-chain is sealed by the fact that all of their sandwiches come with a collard-wrap option. For purists, eating raw vegetables served on actual bread is like taking two steps forward and one step back.
Fairfield native Lisa Sobolewski found Catch a Healthy Habit Cafe to be a transformative stop on her journey from health-hungry caterpillar to raw food monarch. "That's where I got connected," she said, "and it provided a platform and a community for people to explore raw food together and be each other's support. It was a huge resource for me." Last year Sobolewski opened her own juice and smoothie bar, JustFood, inside The Local Beet Co-op, an organic market in Chester.
Her labor of love, however, has been making raw chocolate — made from uncooked cacao beans sweetened with honey — which was her personal gateway drug into the raw food world. A friend gave her a bar of raw chocolate a few years back, and Sobolewski, who had been struggling with a collapse of her heath, saw the light in the dark chocolate: "Once I had this chocolate bar, it was really profound, because I knew I could have something sweet and have a nice treat...something really healthy and pure."
Given that people right here in Connecticut have been claiming that a raw diet has fixed their back, cured their acne, and saved their lives, one might expect debunkers and detractors to be popping up, particularly since the diet is also making its proponents maddeningly skinny. Actually, there was a study, and its findings were published in 2005 under the title "Low Bone Mass in Subjects on a Long-term Raw Vegetarian Diet" in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine. Then there was another article reporting on the same study published under the title "Raw vegetable diet not necessarily bad for bone health."
Naturopath Ather Ali, a specialist in integrative medicine at the Yale Stress Center, says that while vegan diets can be much more health-promoting than your cheeseburger-intensive American diet, "There is a risk of nutritional deficiencies of key nutrients such as vitamin D, omega-3 fatty acids, selenium, zinc, and iron," adding that extra caution should be taken with children on these diets. "I don't think (unsupplemented) vegan diets are appropriate for young children, where the potential for harm is much greater than in adults."
However, science has yet to find a holistic index to measure aliveness. A freshly picked vegetable or ripening piece of fruit is most definitely alive in a way that something cooked is not. Does it have more vitamins? Some say the health benefits of raw food come from living enzymes. Sobolewski has her own theory: "That mango has collected nine months or more of sunshine." She believes that we have lost our connection to the sun, which is why she leads an annual winter retreat to Costa Rica to use sunlight as a therapeutic complement to raw dining. "Everything grows so that it can collect sunshine," she says, "so you're eating an incredible amount of sunshine, which is a lot of energy."
Catch a Healthy Habit Cafe's raw-food nori roll. (Jeff Skeirik photo)
A raw-food veggie burger. (Jeff Skeirik photo)
Slurp a rainbow!: raw-food smoothies. (Jeff Skeirik photo)
Picturesque raw food from Catch a Healthy Habit. (Jeff Skeirik photo)
Tomavo, from Catch a Healthy Habit. (Jeff Skeirik photo)
Raw food roll. (Jeff Skeirik photo)