Sitting down to a lunch of spaghetti, ravioli and meatballs at Raw is not your typical Italian meal. Raw’s “noodles” are actually long strands of uncooked zucchini; the meatballs are not made of beef or pork, but rather consist of carrots and sunflower seeds. And while the sauce, made with tomatoes and basil, is relatively traditional, the ravioli are anything but: the cheesy filling is made out of cashews and the casing made out of turnips. Why would a chef choose to take such a classic dish and turn it on its head? When trying to accommodate a raw diet, sometimes you have to get creative.
A raw food diet is a vegan diet consisting primarily of fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. What makes the raw diet different, however, is the fact that no ingredient can be heated to temperatures above 118 degrees; at that point, the vitamins and minerals in fresh ingredients become denatured, and the food loses its nutritional value.
“The whole thought process is that when you eat living things, they help your immune system and cell growth, and you have more energy, are more sustained, and are not snacking all day long,” said Polly Gaza, co-owner of Raw. The café, located in Chicago French Market on North Clinton Avenue, serves a 100 percent raw menu, featuring a variety of juices, smoothies, and salads, as well as satisfying meals where raw, natural ingredients are transformed into mainstream fare — such as burritos, egg salad, and even classic desserts like apple pie.
Soaking, sprouting and dehydrating ingredients allow a raw chef to manipulate whole foods without actually cooking them. Followers believe that meat, dairy, grains and refined sugars make the body more acidic, which can cause health problems from acne to cancer and other diseases. Eliminating these food groups and focusing on eating living food — particularly dark, leafy greens, antioxidant-rich berries, and nuts and seeds full of healthy fats — will result in optimal health.
But does one need to follow a completely raw diet to reap these benefits? Not necessarily. “I see plenty of healthy people that make a conscious effort of getting more than 60 percent of their diet from produce, nuts, and minimal meats,” said Gaza. “It’s kind of like you take a step and start feeling better and then you take another step.”
Nonetheless, the real question that matters is — does raw food taste good?
Though my spaghetti meal was unconventional, the freshness of the ingredients and bright flavors were immediately noticeable. Though the noodles were obviously non-traditional, the texture and flavor of the raw ravioli was spot-on. In a blind taste test, I would never have known I was eating a vegan “cheese,” and the turnip casing tasted and felt just like real pasta. Gaza’s insistence that cooking vegetables causes them to lose flavor reigned true — the marinara sauce was one of the best I ever had, with strong basil notes and juicy tomatoes. The apple pie was the perfect finish; made with diced Fuji apples, whipped cinnamon cashew cream, and walnuts (no added sugars!), the pie had the perfect amount of sweetness and an irresistible nutty crunch.
What was most striking was how I felt after the meal. With no empty calories in sight, I became full almost instantly and could not finish my dish despite it consisting of mainly vegetables and nuts. I left the table feeling satisfied and not the least bit uncomfortable, which often happens after consuming a big meal. Moreover, I had energy throughout the rest of the day, and did not crash as I would after a carb-heavy lunch. Eating well made me feel well.
The raw diet may be an extreme approach to eating healthy, but the benefits of including more fresh produce in meals are undeniable. Whether you help yourself to a big salad in the dining hall, or stop by RAW. for a unique dining experience, a little fruit and veg goes a long way.
Address: 131 N Clinton Ave., Ste. 7, Chicago IL
Hours of operation: Mon-Fri: 7am to 7:30pm, Sat 8:30am to 5:30pm, Sun: closed