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A Raw Deal: At San Francisco's Organica Restaurant, dining is au natural because nothing is cooked -- no rice, no tea, no burgers

By Alison Roberts Bee Staff Writer Published Jan. 27, 1999

You probably thought you were pretty groovy back in the '70s when you gave up red meat. By the '80s, if you were at all hip, you gave up meat altogether.

By the early '90s, the alterna-diet standard got tougher: If you were at all cutting edge, you had to go vegan. No animal-derived food of any kind, no eggs, no dairy.

All that is a piece of carrot cake compared to the latest.

Now, as the century draws to a close, it's clean-plate time: To achieve real status in the diet wars, you have to give up cooking altogether.

Welcome to the age of raw. In the no-no'90s when dietary denial and enlightenment have become one and the same, this no-cooking, all-plant food movement is the logical next step.

Raw means no tea, lentil soup, not even a little tempeh scramble, and no dairy or animal, either. Sounds like no fun. But even a burger lover can take a tasty detour to the land of no-cooking.

On a busy block of Ninth Avenue in the Sunset District of San Francisco, a small, hand-painted sign that says "Organica -- The Living Cuisine" points the way to the far frontiers of food.

Go inside, and you'll see what's not cooking. Namely, everything.

A cabbage leaf becomes the "tortilla" for a burrito, milled turnip becomes the "rice" in sushi, shredded daikon becomes "pasta" and dried sprouted buckwheat becomes pizza "crust." There are lots of quotation marks in the land of faux food.

The restaurant is a mecca for those on the dietary cutting edge. As banana as it may sound (and bananas are allowed), this raw business is a bona-fide trend. Celebrities including Woody Harrelson, Demi Moore and Robin Williams have eaten here. (Harrelson recently opened an "oxygen bar" called O2 in Los Angeles where oxygen-enriched air can be breathed in, and where a raw chef will uncook your order.)

Organica, at 1224 Ninth Ave., opened in 1995 under the more telling name of Raw. The chef-proprietor was a colorful, charismatic, uni-named, self-appointed food god, Juliano. He is a flashy evangelist who says things like, "I'm like the messiah to bring in the new world" (in a profile in the current issue of Spin magazine). He's also been covered by the New York Time and People magazine. He recently moved to Santa Monica to open a restaurant. His un-cookbook, "Raw: The Uncook Book," will be published in April (1999).

Brian Lucas, 27, is the current owner and chef of Organica. His is a prodigal vegetarian story. He was raised in a meat-free Seventh-day Adventist family in Southern California.

"When I was about 13, I rebelled; I went meat-eater," he says. He didn't find true health and happiness until he went raw about three years ago when he met Juliano.

People call me Basil Lotus," says Lucas, who on this Friday evening wears a retro hippie shirt of crushed velvet in a sun-dried tomato color. He doesn't dish out the same appetizingly outre sound bites as Juliano -- but his food is just as exotic, and the experience of eating here is as surreal as ever.

Alot of what is served here, by chefs and customers, is a fervent belief, so thick you could slice it with a knife. Picaresque tales of detoxing and dietary redemption are a staple of dinner-table talk. A woman comes in and tells one of the cooks she has a cold; he looks at her and says simply, "ginger." But then, diet is always the answer here. Lucas says without qualification that eating raw cures cancer, AIDS, diabetes and anything else that ails you.

"Raw is the only way," says Josh Friedman. The 29-year-old from Santa Cruz stops in for an early dinner. With his sun-bleached, shoulder-length hair, he is a vision of good health. He wears a smile of beatific enlightenment when he talks about eating uncooked food.

"It opens up the chi, the current for energy," he says.

For Butch Berry, eating was believing. The 29-year-old lives in the neighborhood, and came in to try it out about eight months ago. Now, he's 100 percent raw.

"You don't get sick at all if you're 100 percent," he says with perfect faith.

Cathy Norton, like most mere mortals, says living 100 percent raw would be pretty tough. But she likes the idea and is a regular customer.

"Usually, I try to be vegan but lately I've been cheating," she says. "I'd like to become more raw."

The 29-year-old Norton even brought her parents here. She says they didn't freak out and actually enjoyed the food.

Maybe that's because it's delicious. Even for nonbelievers, we're happy to report that Organica offers an utterly fun dinner experience in a pleasant setting. Pillows fill a raised dais by the front window for those who like to sit on the floor at low tables. For those who prefer more conventional postures, glass-topped tables with dolphin-shaped bases line a wall covered with white curtains and colorful paintings.

On a recent Friday evening, entrees included "raw-violi" (daikon rounds stuffed with blended nuts), mushroom stroganoff, Mongolian stuffed portobello mushrooms with a ginger sauce, nut loaf, pasta marinara and sushi. For desserts, there are carrot cake and a couple of nut-fruit tortes.

Entrees run in the $9 to $12 neighborhood; desserts are $5.

(Do note: You may bring wine, but other alcohol is not allowed and none is served.)

The closest thing to cooking that happens here (and there are the sun-dry-or-deny purists out there who disapprove) is in dehydrators. Lucas defends their use. They only heat up to 105 degrees, about 10 degrees shy of the point at which the life-giving enzymes that are at the heart of the raw-food belief system start being knocked off. The dehydrators today hold several "breads" and "pizza crusts" made of mashed chick peas or sprouted buckwheat.

The food preparation area centers around a long counter facing a bank of about 50 deli-type metal containers that hold all sorts of magical ingredients. Several juicers, grinders and dehydrators sit on another counter.

Among the three or four chefs this Friday is Whitney McKinney, 33, Lucas' life and restaurant partner. The couple have two children, 6 and 2. Their household is totally vegan but not entirely raw. McKinney says she's about 85 percent raw.

"It's kind of like the new frontier," she says.

She sees raw as salvation, but there's nothing pompous about her evangelism. Her manner is fun, from her plaid skirt in a nuclear shade of pink to a stick-on plastic-jewel bindi on her forehead.

During a break, she presents a uniquely Promethean vision of the fall of man: In Eden, Adam and Eve thrived on a raw diet. The apple of the usual story is really a symbol for another red and dangerous object -- fire. And that led to the true original sin -- cooking.

This is heady stuff, but then talking to raw believers is a metaphysical experience. Here, the godhead is gastrointestinal.

Like all spiritual communities, this one has its doctrinal differences, so there's lots of quibbling along with the nibbling.

Rawer-than-thou debates rage over whether it's kosher to use dehydrators and maple syrup. And there are the "living food" adherents who say raw is not enough -- if it doesn't sprout you should throw it out.

We've come a long way since the term vegetarian was coined in Britain in the mid-1800s. The raw idea has its roots in the late '50s and the ideas of the late Dr. Ann Wigmore, founder of the Natural Hygienics movement. The basic idea is that there are enzymes that confer extraordinary benefits in raw fruits and vegetables.

Several Web sites are devoted to raw food, including All Raw Times (www.rawtimes.com), which includes recipes and food suppliers. There are dozens of raw-food cookbooks. There's a magazine, Living Nutrition, published in Sebastopol. The San Francisco Living Foods Enthusiasts group even has an event "Sproutline" (415) 751-2806.

It's hard to imagine more dietary denial than living raw. But there are those who claim to go further. A woman with a single name, Jasmuheen, who lives in Australia (so we can't check her garbage for Twix wrappers), claims to be a "breatharian," who does not need to eat anything. She exists on light, nourished from the god force within.

It makes living raw seem like a piece of cake.

Maybe we should learn to like it: It may be all we'll get if McKinney has her way, with visions of drive-through establishments (McRawnalds?) in a brave, uncooked world.

"We're trying to make it a raw millennium," she says.

 

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