On a recent weeknight, two San Francisco omnivores went on what they proudly referred to as a “healthy date” to Café Gratitude. A raw vegan
restaurant, Café Gratitude serves, with a few exceptions, nothing that has been heated to over 118 degrees Fahrenheit, to keep the food’s vitamins, minerals, and enzymes intact.
The man had “nacho cheese” made of cashews, and the woman had “pizza,” also with nut cheese, and raw vegetables, piled on top of what looked like a big Wasa cracker. For dessert they had a slice of banana cream pie, whose creaminess was the result of coconut milk and coconut butter, sweetened with agave nectar, with a crust made of coconut and dates. There was no doubt in their minds that they were giving their bodies the temple treatment. Imagine their surprise if they were to have learned that, in the eyes of some raw foodists, they were nearly eating the equivalent of McDonald’s.
Raw food has become glamorous. Restaurants like Café Gratitude are opening up around the country—from Present Moment Café in St. Augustine, Florida, to Maggie’s Mercantile in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—and lines of raw packaged foods are hitting the shelves of Whole Foods. You can get raw takeout, like at Pure Food and Wine in New York City, or have it delivered to you from catering companies like Los Angeles’s RAWvolution.
But this commercial success has led to a schism in the raw foods community. A school of purists thinks “gourmet” restaurants like Gratitude are seducing mainstream diners with secretly unhealthy
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food. These traditionalists eat very little refined oil, few processed foods, or things like nut pâtés (an avocado or the occasional handful of nuts is about as caloric as it gets). Dinner, they believe, should be salad, or maybe tomatoes puréed with mango. In their eyes, the gourmet trend is potentially destructive to the raw foods movement because its aim is sales, not maximum health. Some of them feel that diners like the couple at Gratitude are getting hoodwinked into thinking they’re being healthy, when in fact they’re eating a lot of excess fat and calories.
“It’s an unfortunate twist to expose people to what we’re saying is something different, and the world’s most nutritious foods, then giving them raw pizza and raw lasagne,” says Douglas Graham, a raw foods author and endurance athlete. “We miss the opportunity to make use of raw foods for what they are, rather than turn them into a poor excuse of mimicry of something that was never truly, if you will, nutritious in the first place.”
The gourmet raw foodists counter that their pies and pizzas are gateway dishes to eating more raw fruits and vegetables.
“For people who really need comfort foods, they would not be able to start out eating simply,” says Cherie Soria, founder of the Living Light Culinary Arts Institute in Fort Bragg, California, a gourmet raw foods cooking school.
And those in the gourmet camp point out that nut pâté and banana cream pie are still a big step up from trans-fatty fries and hormone-laden burgers. At the raw restaurant Quintessence in New York City, you can get the Big Moc: two “burger” patties with lettuce, tomato, and special sauce.
What both camps share is an almost religious worship of raw fruits and vegetables, and a belief that people should be eating them as much as possible, all day long. It’s the groups’ methods that differ: the pop-lite megachurch version of gourmet raw versus the messianic approach of purists like Graham. The megachurch may get more members, but they may not be well schooled in the particulars.