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September 1, 2002

Totally Uncooked


ichael Klein sits on the garden wall dressed in bicycle shorts and a tie-dyed San Francisco Giants T-shirt, his hair pulled into a ponytail, his expression obscured by mirrored sunglasses. Behind him, rolling along a Northern California hillside, are three terraced acres of organic fig trees, plum trees, pear trees, peach trees, fraises des bois, tomatoes and melons and a bounty of edible flowers. But Klein, 47, is no farmer. A Harvard M.B.A. who made his fortune in data communications before dropping out to hang with the Grateful Dead and become an environmental advocate, he is on the well-heeled vanguard of the hottest (or, in this case, the coolest) dietary trend: raw-foodism.

Cooked food has not passed Klein's lips in five years -- that means not only meat but also vegetarian staples like pasta, rice and beans, which are not tasty in their natural state. Since, like most raw-foodists, he is also vegan, he abstains from dairy and eggs. Even tofu is taboo, because the soybeans it is made from are cooked. ''I've never felt better,'' Klein says. He sleeps less, has more energy. He even eats less. Although he does a two-hour ashtanga yoga workout each morning, he subsists on about 800 calories a day, which most nutritionists would consider starvation level. (The recommended daily allowance for an active adult male is 2,900 calories.) Raw-foodists claim, however, that uncooked calories metabolize more efficiently -- although there is no evidence for this. When I suggest that vegans I've met often look sickly, he shrugs. ''What we perceive as healthy may to a certain extent be socially determined,'' he says. ''They may have been very healthy and just looked weird to you.'' Klein himself is gaunt, though his arms are enviably muscular.

Klein is among a growing number of people who believe that eating uncooked ''living foods'' extends youth and staves off disease -- who, in some cases, consider cooked food tantamount to poison. Heat, they maintain, depletes food's protein and vitamin content and concentrates any pesticides. More important, it destroys a food's natural enzymes, which, enthusiasts claim, facilitate digestion; to absorb cooked food, they say, the body must use up its own limited supply of enzymes. By helping the body retain enzymes, a ''living foods'' diet supposedly delays aging, boosts energy and prevents or cures virtually all life-threatening diseases. ''In nature, all animals eat living foods,'' wrote the raw-foods pioneer T.C. Fry, who died six years ago at a relatively youthful 70. ''Only humans cook their foods, and only humans suffer widespread sicknesses and ailments.'' He also wrote, ''All the diseases of civilization -- cancer, heart disease, diabetes -- are all directly attributable to the consumption of cooked food.''

The raw-foodist subculture is a mix of alternative-health types, spiritual seekers and the aggressively trendy. (Celebrity devotees include Demi Moore and Angela Bassett.) Many people turn to the movement after struggling with chronic illness or obesity. Numerous Web sites peddle juicers, suggest recipes and offer testimonials that read like conversion experiences. ''It was about two years ago, at the height of my suffering from deadly cancer, that I was introduced to the raw-food diet, which completely changed my life,'' proclaims one of the faithful on There are potlucks in Little Rock, festivals in Portland, conferences in Boston, tropical retreats in Bali. A small library's worth of ''uncookbooks'' have been published, and there is a movement afoot to pressure the Food Network into producing a raw-foods show.

It would be easy to dismiss raw cookery as kookery, and many do. But the rise of raw also reflects something about America's current mood. Extreme dietary regimens tend to crop up during times of crisis as a simple fix for society's ills. Amid the wave of social reforms in the 19th century, Sylvester Graham (of cracker fame) linked vegetarianism -- and home-baked bread in particular -- to spiritual salvation. A short time later, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, inventor of cornflakes, promoted a regimen of ''biologic living,'' which, in addition to some visionary ideas about diet and exercise, included five daily enemas and radium therapy.

Living-food gurus similarly promise not only better health but also increased wealth, spiritual enlightenment and inner contentment -- something that, these days, many of us find in short supply. In fact, by serving up equal parts fashion and phobia, raw-foodists may have hit on the ideal cuisine for an anxious time. ''In American life today, there's a lot we can't control,'' says Barbara Haber, author of ''From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals.'' ''But everyone has control over their own intake. We can't control terrorism, but we can make sure we don't eat anything cooked.''

ichael Klein's raw-foods diet is cushier than most. After all, his wife, Roxanne, is a chef. Such a good chef that Michael has personally bankrolled her eponymous restaurant, Roxanne's, an all-raw haute cuisine eatery in Larkspur, Calif. Roxanne's is not the first raw restaurant: there are about 20 in the United States, including three branches of Quintessence in Manhattan. But it is the first to cast raw as a fine-dining trend, and the attendant hype has pushed raw-foodism into the spotlight. Michael Bauer, a San Francisco restaurant critic, wrote that ''Klein may be as revolutionary in vegetarian cuisine as Alice Waters has been in the mainstream.''

Reservations for the 64-seat establishment are snapped up more than a month in advance, with the lucky beneficiaries making the trek into Marin County across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, driving up from Southern California or stopping by in lieu of dining at the French Laundry after a tour of Napa Valley. A prix fixe meal, while not stratospheric, runs about $69 a person, not including wine. (Because it is fermented, wine is kosher for raw-foodists, and the restaurant has an impressive list.)

One afternoon a few hours before the first seating, Roxanne Klein, dressed in chefs' whites, gestures around the exposed-brick restaurant. The appointments -- recycled-glass lamps, chairs draped with indigo hemp, crisp organic linens -- are as elegant as they are relentlessly politically correct. She skims a hand along a countertop that resembles blond wood. ''It's pressed sunflower,'' she says, smiling like a magician.

Klein has been a vegan since 1992, and like her husband she has been raw since 1997. A wisp of a woman, she makes Kate Moss look like Kate Smith. Her blond hair is spun into twin topknots, like furry ears, which, along with her diminutive size and a grace born of thousands of sun salutations, gives her the aura of a forest nymph. ''I haven't been sick in five years,'' she says. ''I feel better now than I have in my whole life.''

We head past the bathrooms (one identified by a drawing of a tomato, the other by a zucchini -- you figure it out) and downstairs to one of the restaurant's two kitchens. Roxanne is fond of saying that eating at her restaurant is like ''visiting another country,'' but truly it's more like a trip to another planet. No odors of grease or seared meat or sweaty chefs permeate the air. There is no heady whiff of caramelizing onions. Without flame and searing hot pans -- without, in fact, ovens or stoves -- the room seems strangely calm, distinctly lacking in macho swagger. A prep cook sets out paper-thin slices of watermelon daikon, which have sunbursts of pink in the center. Layered with handmade cashew cheese and drizzled with basil and tomato pestos, it will become ''raw-violi,'' tonight's amuse bouche.

Roxanne's cuisine may be raw, but it is not unprocessed. One paradox of uncooking is that it is more labor intensive than cooking. And it is heavy on the gear: the must-haves include a hydraulic juicer and colossus-size food processors. A side room holds several convection warmers. (Raw-food rules allow heating to 118 degrees.) Inside one are trays of raw nuts, which have been soaked for 12 hours, supposedly making their enzymes ''more usable.'' Slices of ''cake'' crafted from carrots, almonds and honey are in a second. Flaxseed ''crackers'' dry in a third. ''The sensibility is different with raw foods,'' Roxanne explains. ''You can't just throw in half a cube of butter and make something taste good. You have to think, How do you make something creamy? How do you make a cake in a low-temperature oven?''

Then there are the parsnips, which -- who would guess? -- turn out to be the most versatile of vegetables. Whipped with pine nuts and almond milk, they become ''mashed potatoes.'' Pulsed in a food processor, they become the base for a more-vegetarian-than-thou raw-food ''couscous.''

Roxanne spent most of her career as a pastry assistant at San Francisco institutions like Stars and Square One. (When she became a vegan, she stopped eating her own creations.) Just as she used to love running baking experiments in her oven, inventing raw dishes has a similar ''food science'' appeal. ''Making ice cream was difficult,'' she reports, explaining how she substituted almond milk (squeezed from soaked sprouted nuts) for cow's milk. ''At first it just didn't seem cold enough. And I don't use sugar. I use honey or a tiny bit of maple syrup. The balance between fat content, liquid and sweetness was hard to get.'' She slips a spoonful of chocolate ''ice cream'' into my mouth. It is as smooth, sweet and vivid as one could wish.

Perhaps the ascent of a cuisine as bizarre as this one was inevitable. Fine dining has, of late, lost its spice. Every ethnicity has been celebrated, fused and infused. East has met West; North has met South. Fruits and vegetables have been fetishized, reduced to their purest essences. Entrees have been stacked into architecturally precarious (and cutlery-defying) skyscrapers. Aioli is as ubiquitous as Hellmann's. Emeril Lagasse has -- bam! -- stripped the snobbery from haute cuisine, and Anthony Bourdain has made mincemeat of its mystery. Even nouvelle is old. ''Everyone has been wondering what the next chef trend will be,'' Haber says. ''My guess would have been that chefs would look backward at what people ate a long time ago, but no one knows enough to do that. So instead they're inventing another weird direction.''

When the restaurant opens for the evening, Roxanne takes her post in front of a collection of small cobalt medicine bottles. Some contain original herb-infused oils, which she drizzles on dishes as they leave the kitchen. Others are more exotic. Parsnips may be Roxanne's ''magic thing,'' but they are positively mundane compared with her flower essences. The highly diluted amounts of magnolias and roses are flavorless, but no matter. ''The flower essences just bring in some senses that haven't been defined,'' Roxanne explains. ''They're more . . . vibrational.''

Raw-foodists believe, among other things, that cooking decimates the mineral content of food. Back in the Kleins' lush garden, I am inclined to agree. Under the hot sun, I feel an essential mineral leaching from my own baking flesh: irony. In this rarefied Eden, it is easy to imagine embracing a raw-foods diet. Indeed, it seems like a tragedy to eat any other way.

Of course, this kind of paradise comes at a price, one that includes an electric security gate with an intimidating intercom system. But unlike those of other new-money entrepreneurs who have plundered the Bay Area landscape, the Kleins' dream homestead is beyond reproach. How can you begrudge them their monster mansion when it's made of rammed-earth construction and recycled materials? How can you mock Roxanne's Mercedes convertible (license plate ''Rox[heart]Raw'') when they also own an electric car?

As it turns out, some people have found the couple easy to criticize. Despite Roxanne's culinary pedigree, the Kleins are viewed as dilettantes by the restaurant world. In the gossipy Web zine On the Rail, industry insiders have sniped about Michael's deep pockets and, in particular, the couple's plans to give away to charity any profits the restaurant might make. ''Must be nice,'' one typical posting reads. ''I've worked in restaurants all my life, and we were always too busy struggling to get by to worry about worthy causes. I'd bet, though, that the husband is loving the tax break.'' This angers Klein, who counters, ''I don't recall those sorts of comments when Francis Coppola started a restaurant.''

But Coppola's radical chic is old school. The Kleins, in both wealth and philosophy, represent something new: the nexus, solidified over the last decade, between computer culture and the counterculture. After Klein sold his final high-tech venture in 1994, he became not only chairman of the Rainforest Action Network but also C.E.O. of the ex-Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir's Modulus Guitars. He turned vegan with Weir and Jerry Garcia while touring with the Dead (although picturing Garcia as a vegan is like imagining President Clinton as a celibate). Klein and Roxanne went raw after spending time in Thailand with the actor Woody Harrelson, a veteran raw-foodist and hemp advocate, and spent their first month on the diet relaxing at their Hawaiian hideaway. It may be the correctness of privilege that rankles their critics -- or it may be old-fashioned jealousy.

Scientists, in the meantime, have a bone to pick with raw-foodism itself. ''There's no basis for it,'' says David Klurfeld, a professor of nutrition and food science at Wayne State University in Detroit. ''The whole concept is based on pseudoscience.'' Aside from a slight loss of some vitamins, Klurfeld says, cooking produces no proven detriment and provides plenty of benefits. In addition to making food taste good, cooking sterilizes it. Heat ''denatures'' a food's proteins -- that is, alters their shapes in ways that improve digestibility. (Raw-foodists claim that this process is harmful.) What's more, Klurfeld adds, the enzymes in a raw vegetable are specifically tailored to that food and even left intact rarely assist the human body.

As for cooked food being poison, raw vegetables turn out to be a veritable trove of toxins. Those parsnips Roxanne Klein is so fond of, for instance, naturally contain small amounts of light-activated carcinogens, whereas the cancer-fighting nutrient in tomatoes is released only when cooked. According to one of the few studies available on raw-foodists, the body-mass indices of a quarter of women and a fifth of men who maintained the diet for an average of four years were below normal, and a third of the women had stopped menstruating. In April, a severely malnourished 20-month-old in Queens who had been fed from birth on an all-vegan (though not raw) diet was removed from her home.

None of which is an argument for the standard American diet. ''It's still better than eating at McDonald's,'' says Marion Nestle, a professor of food studies at New York University. ''For most of us to eat like that occasionally would be a great idea. Not as a way of life, though. I'd worry about B12, which is only found in food of animal origin. A deficiency can cause nerve damage. And it looks as if it could be low in protein, though people don't need as much protein as Americans eat.'' She pauses. ''I hate to say anything nasty because the food Roxanne's serves looks really good. And you can certainly enjoy the food without buying the philosophy.''

That's Michael Klein's hope. There is no living-foods proselytizing at Roxanne's, he notes. ''Roxanne's is about having a wonderful dining experience, period,'' he says. ''If you happen to like the way you feel after you eat this meal, and you want to do it more, that's your choice. And if you don't feel any different, that's fine. It's never been about, 'We're going to make the world raw.'''

He gestures to the apiary along one edge of the garden to underscore his point. Vegans typically eschew honey, considering it the product of bee enslavement, but Roxanne uses it freely. She further cheats by using Valrhona chocolate (which is made from roasted cocoa beans). Klein and his wife are not, he insists, fanatics. ''There's nothing worse than religious vegans trying to change the world,'' he says. ''It's a real turnoff.''

In the entryway of Roxanne's, diners wait for their tables, eager and a little nervous over what they're about to experience. None, as far as I can tell, are raw-foodists, although there are a smattering of garden-variety vegetarians. A 60-ish man in a yellow sweater whispers to his wife, ''I'm going to order a steak.'' She elbows him in the ribs. ''What's the problem?'' he says. ''I'll order it rare.''

My first course is ''ratatouille'': tiny pieces of the freshest cauliflower, peas and zucchini sprinkled over a creamy parsnip whip so good (really) that I scrape my plate clean. For ''pad Thai,'' Klein has tossed together thick noodles made of young coconut meat with carrots, cilantro, serrano chilies and spicy cashews, then balanced the lot with creamy almond-chili and sweet tamarind sauces. For dessert, I choose carrot cake. Vegan cakes, which are typically eggless, sugarless and flourless, tend to make excellent grindstones -- but this one is honeyed, dense and delicious. The only dish that misses for me is a room-temperature Thai soup; I simply want it hot.

More than people of any other nationality, Americans consider pleasure and health as oppositional in dining. In a multinational study of food attitudes, for instance, Claude Fischler, a sociologist, and Paul Rozin, a psychologist, asked the French what came to mind when they heard the words ''chocolate cake.'' Their reply: ''Celebration.'' Americans' response? ''Guilt.'' The French associate ''heavy cream'' with ''whipped.'' Americans link it with ''unhealthy.'' That may be the true secret of Roxanne's appeal: it has married the twin American penchants for self-denial and self-indulgence, taking the sin out of food and the penance out of health. What could better suit the country that invented both the Big Gulp and SlimFast, that has managed to gain weight scarfing down low-fat food?

Still, the meal wasn't purely sensuous. It was too odd for that. Did the ''pad Thai'' taste like its namesake? Did I feel any more relaxed after drinking the herbal elixir ''Unwind''? By judicious eavesdropping, I could hear that my fellow diners were also feeling disoriented. (''It really tastes like a crouton!'') It was a shame not to take such a delicious meal on its own terms, yet how to remove the quotation marks from Roxanne's cuisine? The chef wrestles with the problem. ''I'm not making faux food,'' she says. ''This isn't tofurkey. But familiar names like pad Thai help people get used to this new country.''

Leaving Roxanne's, I felt sated (O.K., I had a second dessert, an ice-cream sampler) but still wondered: is raw-foodism just a gimmick? Or will it be the next vegetarianism, which is now so fashionable that, according to a national poll, even meat-eaters adopt the label? It's hard to say. ''People like to be comforted by food, and one of the qualities about comforting food is warmth,'' says Haber, the historian. ''My hunch is, this food doesn't fit that bill. It's O.K. in California, but in New England in the winter, you want something warm.''

Then again, raw foods just may be the next yogurt, the next granola, the next tofu, the next bottled water -- each once ridiculed as California woo-woo but now readily available at a supermarket near you.

Peggy Orenstein, a contributing writer for the magazine, last wrote about pregnancy-loss rituals in Japan.


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