For Rachel Andrews, it was pasta and breads just about every day. Sure, vegetables took a sliver of space on those meal plates. But her cravings for sweets – brownies sometimes served as breakfast – overpowered those healthful choices.
It wasn’t hard for Andrews to work out the math on why she felt so sluggish and sapped. She read up on health and nutrition and made some changes. Out went the processed foods. In came the fresh vegetables and fruits. And soon Andrews began exploring a diet of vegan raw foods.
But for a fledgling raw foodist in the middle of Connecticut, resources and support were scant.
A dairy- and meat-free diet of fresh, uncooked foods calls for serious planning. It can require obscure ingredients and complex food preparation – to say nothing of the discipline in this get-it-now society of fast-food drive-thrus and pre-packaged foods.
“I had to go to New York if I needed anything,” says Andrews, 24. She eventually orchestrated small monthly raw-food potlucks at her Milford home. But they fizzled once she moved to Newtown.
“It’s difficult to make a drastic change in how you eat without help from other people. And there really wasn’t any big, central meeting place in Connecticut.”
That’s poised to change. On a busy stretch of New Britain Avenue in an unlikely patch of Hartford, a mecca for raw foodists is taking shape at Alchemy Juice Bar Café.
Alchemy plugged in its first juicer and swung its doors open to this Trinity College neighborhood four years ago. And since then, this little-restaurant-that-could has amassed a quiet following of diners seeking organic juices and vegetarian comfort foods.
Now, owners John Zito and Imani are going raw. They’re hoping to ignite a movement that’s gained a foothold in cities like Los Angeles and New York.
“We want to be the source for raw foods in Connecticut,” says Imani, who goes by her first name only. “Eating raw is about consciousness. And people are so out of balance, so out of touch with their bodies and with how they eat.”
To help guide them back, Alchemy is expanding its standard fare of salads and wraps to include a menu of raw soups, pies, cookies and muffins – all made without heating any of the ingredients beyond 118 degrees.
The thinking: Cooking destroys the food’s enzymes, making it harder for the body to digest and tougher to absorb nutrients. Vegetables, fruits and nuts in their natural states carry the highest nutritional value, raw foodists believe, helping the body ward off toxicity and chronic disease.
It’s controversial, to say the least. And the philosophy has its detractors. But in the six years since learning about raw, Imani says she’s read and heard first-hand countless testimonials of devotees’ boosting mood and energy levels, shaking off chronic ailments and even curing disease.
As it gets ready to roll out the raw, Alchemy is planning regular workshops, tastings and lush, gourmet dining events in the coming months.
But the question is: Will Hartford support a raw-foods restaurant? The region has proved to be a good market for organic and vegetarian fare, with a handful of specialty restaurants and the arrival of Whole Foods Market in West Hartford last year.
Still, is the raw philosophy too `out-there’ even for these patrons?
“That’s probably the question, right? That’s the big unknown,” says Imani, 37. But she’s trusting the answer is yes.
Customers have been asking for it. They want more information, she says, more of the raw products she sells in the café shop and through alchemyjuicebar.com. Hartford, she believes is ready.
Another green light? The restaurant’s debut raw dinner event last month sold out, with 30 people paying $50 to sample the colorful feast prepared by Alchemy’s resident raw chef, Erin Schuh.
“I was thinking maybe Oprah did a show on raw foods or something,” jokes Imani. “I was like, where are all these people coming from?”
Something is shifting, says Schuh. People are making the connection that eating just-add-water meals, that unconsciously inhaling 99-cent burgers from behind the steering wheel, can’t translate to healthy bodies and minds.
There’s already a quiet buzz of raw activity in pockets here, from potluck groups like Andrews’ to small markets that have carried raw products for years. And larger chains like Wild Oats and Whole Foods have taken notice, too. They’re stocking their shelves with raw nut butters and crackers; exotic dried fruits like goji berries, said to have therapeutic properties; and date- and nut-based treats that satisfy sweet tooths.
Demand for raw at Whole Foods has been high enough for the store to launch a major product expansion. Two weeks ago, the store went from one small rack of goods to an aisle section – what the store estimates is the largest raw selection of any Whole Foods outside of New York. The store is considering adding gourmet raw dishes to its buffet counter, as have some of the New York locations.
But with their high-quality ingredients and labor-intensive preparation, these foods don’t come cheap. A customer at Alchemy recently did a double-take at the $8 price for a serving of raw pie, Imani says. A 4-ounce bag of goji berries at Whole Foods retails for $4.99. And the One Lucky Duck line of raw snacks sell between $6 and $12 for 4- and 6- ounce bags.
“That does hold some people back,” says Doug Pyne, associate grocer at the West Hartford Whole Foods, where he oversees the raw section. “Hopefully it’s like years ago when organic food used to be so ridiculously expensive and then as more people got into it, the less expensive it got.”
Still, consumers seem willing to pay.
So much so that Sarma Melngailis, president of New York-based One Lucky Duck, sees more business expansion in her future. Online orders for her macaroons, biscotti and ice cream (yes, ice cream!) come from across the country. Her products are in stores along both coasts, including 25 Whole Foods stores. Patrons of Pure Food & Wine, her trendy raw restaurant just off Union Square, run the gamut: Raw foodists and their curious friends, celebrities and local scenesters. (Bill Clinton and daughter Chelsea came in for Father’s Day, she says).
Raw is destined for the mainstream, she believes.
“It’s kind of like the way Whole Foods has seeped into the mainstream and is kind of taking over,” Melngailis says. Raw foodists have earned a cartoonish reputation for their zealous adherence. But for the more generally health-conscious, “it’s not all or nothing. Most of our regular customers are not raw foodists.”
If money is one barrier to raw, misconception is another.
“People think it must be tasteless and not satisfying,” Melngailis says. “Or they’ll go hungry, that they won’t get enough protein or that it’s just not sufficient.”
Her goal with her raw line is two-fold: to bust this myth and to make the lifestyle more accessible to the masses. “It can be challenging if you work in an office building in Cleveland, Ohio, and you work long hours and there’s nothing around,” Melngailis says.
Or if you work in an office building in Hartford, and there’s nothing around.
“This is where people need it. So we’re here in Hartford, in the middle of Connecticut. And we can serve as this little healing mecca,” says Schuh, 24, who just returned from a seven-month stint at a vegan restaurant in Hawaii.
Let’s dispense with further myths of what raw food is and what it isn’t. Yes, it’s uncooked. And yes, its simplest example is a bowl of greens or piece of fresh-picked fruit. But, judging from the spread Schuh laid out at last month’s dinner, it doesn’t have to be so bland and dreary.
Soaking, blending, dehydrating – such culinary tricks yield dishes far more complex in flavor and texture that one might expect.
“My goal is to create raw foods that are appealing to everybody, no matter what their normal diet is,” says Schuh.
It seems she succeeded on the recent Sunday dinner. Diners from across Connecticut – and with different levels of experience with raw food – packed the restaurant’s adjacent yoga studio, transformed with exotic swaths of red fabric. They slurped a tangy, green asparagus soup and nibbled basil- and flax-seed crackers dipped in olive tapenade. They gave high marks to the pad thai, marveled over the inventive peppercorn-crusted macadamia nut cheese and relished the watermelon-rose sorbet – all the while attempting to decipher the techniques and ingredients that went into Schuh’s creations.
And when it came time for the golf-ball-size chocolate dessert truffle, made from raw cacao, few left even a morsel of the rich dessert on their plates.
“It’s so great to see this finally coming to Hartford,” diner Mary Lawrence says. A personal chef who specializes in vegan cuisine, Lawrence, 38, says she’s impressed with the flare and creativity of the menu.
Now, she says, if only the city’s conventional downtown restaurants would incorporate these options into their menus. A city like Hartford, fancying itself as up-and-coming, needs to better cater to the vegetarian and vegan lifestyles, she says.
“I think it’s only a matter of time,” says Leslie Kerz, 37, of Rocky Hill. This, from a raw-food novice having just had her first taste.
How was it?
“Your [tastebuds] have to acclimate to it. But I definitely liked it. I’ll be back.”
And that’s all Imani is hoping – for folks to give it a try.
“It’s baby steps,” she says. “It’s simple things. Even for someone that eats a lot of processed foods, eating a salad a day might make a total shift for them. You can make a simple switch, and the power of that switch can be amazing.”
Alchemy will host a raw-food tasting workshop Friday. Cost is $20. The next raw-food dining event is scheduled for Aug. 20. Call 860-246-5700 for more information.
Joann Klimkiewicz can be reached at email@example.com. Joann Klimkiewicz, The Hartford Courant