Passion Points: Food/Wine
The raw food movement has been around for years—remember the episode in Sex and the City, in which the girls suffer through a meal of wheatgrass shots because Samantha has a crush on the waiter?—but recently, it has morphed into something much more accessible, refined and sophisticated. Restaurateur, chef and entrepreneur Sarma Melngailis has been at the forefront of this shift. At Pure Food & Wine, her raw vegan restaurant in Manhattan’s Gramercy district, the menu abounds with innovative dishes that are as delicious as they are beautifully prepared and the crowd mingling in the chic deep red dining room is a hip mix. “It’s true that more and more people defy the stereotyped look formerly associated with being vegan,” says Melngailis, who began her career in finance but shifted into the culinary world in the late 1990s, by studying at the French Culinary Institute, and has never looked back. “For instance, I know a lot of men who eat raw who are hardly the unshaven, crunchy vegan-looking type, but rather guys in suits.”
To make the kinds of healthy, well-balanced food available to a greater market, Melngailis launched One Lucky Duck (www.oneluckyduck.com), an online source for the raw and organic snacks and ingredients, like fresh bee pollen and flax seeds, as well as organic beauty products. (Many models these days don’t just eat raw; they use all-natural beauty products.) The site also includes Melngailis’ blog, with recipes and loads of tips on how to lead a more balanced lifestyle. “I think if people begin to look at food more as nourishment and fuel, rather than something to alleviate a growling stomach, and learn about the environmental impacts of our food system, then a shift will come naturally,” says Melngailis when asked about how to arrive at a more balanced diet. “With all of the knowledge of where food comes from and what it does to your body, our indulgences naturally are becoming healthier.” Melngailis spoke to Indagare how regular people can go raw in a sensible manner that’s not a “turn-your-life-upside-down and join-a-cult kind of way,” about what she always stocks in her fridge, and which places in New York City and beyond inspire her.
What drew you to the raw food movement?
It was entirely serendipitous. I was—very reluctantly—brought to a small raw food café by a friend who had recently gone raw and explained the whole rationale behind it. I’d never thought about it before—I was used to eating plenty of meat, fish, dairy, and drinking lots of Diet Coke and such. But I was completely intrigued by raw food and tried it for what was meant to be a two-week experiment. After only a few days, I felt amazing. That, coupled with my frenzied research on the topic, made me realize it would be a permanent change.
Did you find the switch challenging at first?
Eating only raw wasn’t very challenging in the beginning, because it was summer. I was in between work projects, and I was in Maine in close proximity to really good ingredients—both a beautiful farmer’s market and a health food co-op. It also helped that my significant other at the time and I were doing it together. We both thought we’d have cravings for hamburgers, crusty French bread and cheese, but were shocked that we didn’t—at all. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend other people go all raw overnight, especially if you’re not already used to eating lots of fresh fruit and vegetables. But it’s much easier than people think. Also while some like to be entirely raw, it’s something you can also ease into over time. I’m not 100 percent raw, but mostly raw, most of the time. I still love beautiful restaurants and trying new things, so I still go out to eat now and then and will certainly try lots of other foods when traveling.
Do you think the perception of raw food has changed?
Since I’ve been involved with it over the last six years, the perception has certainly changed a lot. Far more people know about it, talk about it, eat it! There are raw restaurants and cafes popping up all over. And more people defy the stereotype look often associated with being vegan. You can’t necessarily easily spot people eating only vegan-raw food now like you used to be able to. Lots of women in fashion are raw, and more and more actors and actresses are vegan, and loads of models eat raw.
What do you mean when you say “eat raw”?
I mean that they eat lots of raw food, but not necessarily only raw. I think this is much of what’s changed—the perception is less all-or-nothing, it’s more something people just shift toward. It’s more mainstream now. I hope I’ve had some part in that since that’s entirely our goal. Pure Food & Wine wasn’t created as a restaurant just for raw people, it’s meant for anyone who loves food. Most of our regular restaurant guests and people who frequent our takeaway store around the corner are not entirely raw. We get a lot of famous people at the restaurant regularly, and while some might be vegetarian, most are not—they just like the food. It’s becoming seen as a style of cuisine. People might be deciding should they go to a Mexican restaurant for dinner, for sushi, or to Pure Food & Wine? However, there’s a ways to go. Many people still visualize raw food as just carrot and celery sticks or boring salads.
What inspired you to launch One Lucky Duck?
One Lucky Duck is a brand I created for our packaged snack line and ingredients and also for our online store, which I launched in 2005. As I was working on my first book, I realized the only other online sources were a bit crunchy and definitely not stylish. I felt like there was a need for a fun, colorful, reliable source that didn’t carry an overwhelming selection of products, only the very best that we find in every category. We carry a whole line of our own packaged cookies and snacks, ingredients and supplements in a section called “eat”. Then we also have “glow” for skincare and cosmetics, “read” for books and magazines, “wear” for apparel, and “nest” for kitchen tools, home products, exercise tools, and pet products. The website is a lot of fun—we just updated it to add more informational sections and my blog.
What are some of Pure Food and Wine’s signature dishes?
On the savory side our most classic and popular dish I think will always be the heirloom-tomato-and-zucchini lasagna with pine-nut ricotta, served with sundried tomato sauce and basil-pistachio pesto. This has been on the menu since day one and it’s one of the most accessible dishes. It’s also rich, filling, has familiar flavors, and looks really pretty. I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t love this, in particular men and people who like hearty food. Otherwise I’m pretty proud of everything our chefs create. My favorite dessert right now is easily the chocolate-passion fruit tart. It’s passion fruit curd in a chocolate tart shell with vanilla cream on top, fresh raspberries, and framboise pearls. It’s beautiful and so good. My pastry chef worked previously at Gramercy Tavern, which is known for particularly good desserts. If anyone is skeptical about raw food, they should have our desserts first. We don’t use any soy products, just fresh young coconut and organic nuts. Our signature dessert in the takeaway is probably our almond butter cup ice cream by the pint or the tiramisu. We also have a Mallomar, my personal favorite. It’s a pecan and walnut cookie with a big blob of vanilla cream on it all covered in chocolate.
Organic natural products, slow food, eating local, going green are hot topics at the moment do you think it’s a bit of a fad or are the core principles here to stay?
I don’t think it’s a fad at all: it’s a movement and a necessary one, because of what’s going on around us environmentally. Once people experience how much better it feels to eat natural foods, they tend not to go back to junk food. Plus, there’s more information out there, and movies like Food Inc. and talk about these issues on television, so the public is becoming more educated about food, which helps.
Especially in the U.S., food is oftentimes equated with something bad, ie a “guilty pleasure”, a “sinful indulgence.” How can people embrace what they eat in a more healthy, balanced, positive way? I think if people can begin to look at food more as nourishment and fuel, rather than something just to alleviate a growling stomach, and learn about the environmental impacts of our food system, then that shift will come naturally. So many are so fixated on recycling, driving hybrid cars and being “green” but what they don’t realize is that raising animals for food hugely contributes to global warming. That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t still want to “indulge” in various foods, but with the knowledge of where the food comes from and what it does to your body, the indulgences naturally become healthier.
What do you consider an indulgence?
When I get to go to a beautiful restaurant. I don’t stick to eating only raw or vegan—I’m happy and curious to try most anything. But the indulgence is something to be savored, and hopefully in the form of a really top-quality product. For example, if I’m going to eat any red meat, it’s going to be of the grass-fed variety, and it only happens once in a while. At Pure, we’ve had a classic sundae on our dessert menu and people absolutely love it. It tastes like the old vanilla and chocolate ice cream sundaes, with chocolate sauce, vanilla cream, nuts and. Our version may not be low-calorie, but with all organic, vegan, raw and healthy ingredients (as well as a real cherry instead of one of those alien red-colored preserved versions), it’s no longer sinful. It’s an indulgence, but there’s nothing to feel guilty about.
What do you always stock in your fridge?
Lemons and limes—I drink water with either lemon or lime first thing in the morning. Plus if I’m ever going to prepare anything to eat at home, chances are I’ll want citrus in it. However, I hardly ever prepare anything at home because I live so close to the restaurant. I often bring back our bottled fresh juices to keep in the fridge. I am absolutely hooked on green juices! I also like to have fuji apples on hand and red grapefruits in the winter. I also usually have some assortment of supplements in the fridge, like aloe vera juice or bee pollen. A blue green algae supplement called e3-live, which I love to have with grapefruit juice, is stocked in the freezer, along with bags of frozen cat food. I have two cats and feed them a raw product: organic raw chicken and vegetables. I haven’t brought them to the vet in six years.
Are there any surprises/indulgences?
Though not raw, I always have a lot of beer in my fridge. I don’t drink it often but my boyfriend does, and sometimes I really want it. And I like to offer it to people who come over. You never know when a party will break out. I also always stock at least one bottle of white wine from the restaurant. We have an extensive list of great biodynamic and organic or sustainably produced wines. Finally, I love to also have a bottle of champagne on hand from the restaurant. Again, you never know when it might be time to celebrate.
Read Sarma’s picks on the organic products and wellness- or food-focused travel destinations that inspire her
Read a review of Pure Food & Wine
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