interview: Sarma Melngailis
Sarma Melngailis is truly one of my idols. I absolutely love her restaurant, Pure Food and Wine! She is a huge inspiration for me to lead this lifestyle, so when XOXO Mag asked me to do an interview with her, well, I couldn’t miss that. Hopefully you will enjoy reading it as well as I enjoy writing it…
I have read that you were in the finance business before, and after trying raw food for a week, you decided to change your lifestyle. Can you give us more details on how you decide on this big change?
Yes, I first worked in investment banking and then in private equity and at both jobs I worked so many hours I didn’t have time to think about (or do). anything else. It wasn’t until I went to work at a hedge fund, where the work was more normal hours that I realized how little passion I felt for that business. My mother was a chef and I always loved food and cooking, so I finally just left and went to culinary school here in New York City. It wasn’t until a few years later that I stumbled on the idea of eating raw vegan. When I heard about it, it made so much sense I decided to try it for two weeks. I thought I would crave meat and cheese and bread, but I didn’t crave any of those things and I felt completely amazing, almost like I’d woken up. I was researching everything I could find on the topic and everything I read made sense to me, it’s so natural. So, it turned from an experiment to a (more or less) permanent way of living for me.
How would you explain someone the raw food lifestyle who had never heard of it?
It’s simply a very natural way of eating. Fresh, organic, fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds (plant foods) that are not cooked at high temperatures. Raw fruits and vegetables that grew in the soil, with the sun’s energy, are full of nutrition and enzymes and everything we need to be healthy. Cooking at high temperatures can destroy a great deal of the enzymes and nutrition. The more processed and “dead” the food, the more work it is for your body to digest. Raw food frees up energy, which is why people feel better and also why it’s so healing. As far as a “lifestyle” it also corresponds with a more natural way of living overall, so there tends to be a shift in other areas. For example, skincare and cosmetics also contribute to your health, so it’s important to use natural products, and it’s why we carry all my favorite of these products on my website.
I can relate to your story as I was also not even vegetarian when I applied to Matthew Kenney Academy. So how was the shift for you, did you struggle with the lifestyle changes in the first years?
Because it started as an experiment there was no struggle, and it turned into something I wanted to do and was excited to do. I only wished I’d learned about it sooner! I would say most of the struggle early on has to do with the availability of food, traveling, and trying to explain to family and friends, who very often didn’t understand. But for me personally it was liberating. I always worried about gaining weight, and now it shifted to being about feeding myself what’s healthy and also about how the choices I make affect the environment and community. And over time it also became about animal rights and welfare as well.
You started the restaurant with Matthew Kenney, Pure Food and Wine, and you both took the ‘raw food’ and turned it to ‘fine dining- gourmet’ experience. It is absolutely my favorite restaurant in NYC, very chic, elegant and has this cool vibe going on. I am wondering how was it like working with him, how did you come up with such concept? Also I am curious how it was back then when raw food was not mainstream.
Of course, having learned about raw food and shifting to this lifestyle, it was immediately clear that the next step would be to open a raw restaurant. Ten years ago, most people didn’t know what “raw food” referred to, they only knew about vegan food and the perception was that it’s not good or exciting and the restaurants are all small, hippie cafes. So, we wanted to change that perception and make it a fine dining restaurant with a sexy atmosphere and high quality food and wine. I really wanted the restaurant to be appealing to everyone, not just people who are already eating raw or vegan, and I think we succeed in that. Matthew and I split during the first year the restaurant opened, so for over nine years now I’ve been on my own.
I definitely think that you brought freshness and coolitude to raw cuisine, when I was reading and analyzing your recipes, I see they are very cleverly constructed. It is quite different to traditional cooking as almost everything is discovered. With raw food, I think there is this huge opportunity of finding something new and fresh. How do you come up with a new recipe? Do you try new techniques, new ingredients all the time?
In the beginning yes it was about trial and experimentation and it took a lot of time, but it was also a lot of fun. After the restaurant opened, the employees became more involved and ended up taking over the creative process. Everyone who is a chef or a sous chef started at the restaurant at the bottom and worked their way up, and so it’s the most talented people who grow and stay with the restaurant. At this point, I don’t call myself chef anymore as I’m spending my time running the business side. People complement me all the time on our creative and always changing menu, and I always tell them I can only take credit for finding and keeping really good and talented people in my restaurant! But yes, they are discovering new techniques as well as new ways to use ingredients all the time. And I get to taste all of their experiments!
You also have a brand One Lucky Duck. I was in NYC last year trying your unbelievable raw desserts, they were definitely the best I have tried. Can you explain the brand and the vision behind it?
Yes, when I decided to build a website store, I needed a name for it, and I wanted it to be something fun and sweet and something people would remember easily. So, I came up with One Lucky Duck, and then once the logo was finalized, I went and got that tattoo. J Just to make clear my commitment. With the brand established, it made sense to also brand all of our packaged cookies and treats that we sell as One Lucky Duck as well as the juice bar/store locations. I think the brands compliment each other. Pure Food and Wine is the fancier upscale restaurant where all the creation happens, and One Lucky Duck is the more accessible brand. Sort of like in fashion how you have Donna Karan, and DKNY, one originates from the other but is more casual and accessible.
As for my vision, I’d like to continue expanding the brand and would like for it to welcome more and more people into a healthier way of living and eating.
You were the executive chef first years in the restaurant, and I am guessing you are more active on the business and branding side now? How is a regular day for you?
These days I spend a lot of time at my desk in my office and working with my employees that work in our “corporate office” — I put that in quotes because we are not very “corporate”—it’s more of a casual environment (and my dog is with us every day). On a good day I take the time to run out to the gym for an hour, but lately things have been busy and I haven’t exercised so much! Often I have meetings, and usually I try to hold those meetings at my restaurant so I can be there as much as I can. Some days I have things to work on and approve, like our newsletters that we send out, or some new designs we’re working on, and it’s always fun when the chefs at the restaurant need me to come and taste a new dish that we’re adding to the menu. I try to go to bed as early as I can, since I like to get up early. Even in bed, I’m still reading emails and Twitter on my phone.
I took my mother to Pure Food and Wine, and she had her first raw food experience there, she was absolutely amazed by it. Probably you have more of a vegan audience, but how is the feedback from non-vegans? What is the most common misconception people have about eating raw?
Our regular customers are, I think, mostly non-vegan. It’s hard to know for sure, but we do have so many regular customers who do not identify as vegan but they like to eat our food, and this is exactly the goal—to draw people in with good food, wine, and a great environment and hope that it will encourage a shift to more plant-based, fresh eating. The way we operate the restaurant is to have created something for everyone, not simply to cater to existing vegans. It’s always so exciting to me when I hear people say they were so happily surprised and that, in some cases, we’ve inspired them with just one dinner to go, or at least try, eating more vegan.
I think people are so surprised because the expectation coming in from people coming for the first time and not knowing much about us, is that raw food is bland, that we only serve salads, and they will leave hungry. Of course, it’s the opposite, and people are so excited to have a new, flavorful, satisfying experience, and the fact that it’s so healthy is just an added bonus!
You have an amazing wine list, and I noticed you used a lot of sake too. Raw food and alcohol is not a regular combo, how do you think they embrace each other?
Yes, our wines are organic (whether certified or not) or biodynamic, or just sustainable. The person who runs the bar, Joey, has been with the restaurant for almost ten years. He puts a lot of time into getting to know our vendors, and when possible, the wine makers themselves. And we try to have wines that are not mainstream, not the big brands. Wine works nicely with raw food, since it’s also raw. There’s not heating in the process. And while sake is not technically raw, compared to other alcohols it’s very clean and pure, and it mixes so well with fresh fruit and other flavors to make our cocktails—I love our cocktails, they’re so good it’s hard not to drink too much!
And of course, as a restaurant where so many people come to celebrate, it’s nice to have wine, champagne, and cocktails.
Did you welcome any famous chefs in the restaurant? I am guessing most of them are not taking vegans and this cuisine seriously and I am curious how was their experience.
Yes, early on one of the most famous chefs in France, Alain Ducasse, came in with 8 of his employees, that was a little scary! But he wrote a lovely letter afterwards saying how much he enjoyed it. It’s always scary when other chefs come in, I worry so much about their food being perfect! It’s also exciting now, one of the best chefs, Jean-George Vongerichten is opening a vegetarian restaurant. And so many of the very fancy restaurants will have a vegan tasting menu available so it’s becoming easier and easier to dine out if you’re strictly vegan.
You also have two books, Raw Food Real World and Living Raw Food. They are absolute classics in my library, I’d like your opinion on how they differ from the other raw food books on the market.
When the first book came out in 2005, there really wasn’t any big, colorful, hardcover raw food book out there, also with a story woven into it. Raw Food Real World, is more of an introduction to raw food. The second, Living Raw Food, I like better. In addition to recipes, it includes a bit more about the restaurant, as well as my perspectives on living raw after I was 5 years into it. And of course the recipes come from our restaurant, so they are very focused on flavor and presentation. I think they’re nice books for people even if they don’t intend to prepare any of the recipes. More than anything I just want people to be inspired to shift towards eating more plants, and more clean food, and to learn what a hugely positive impact it can have.
As a mostly-raw-fooder myself, I can’t help but ask you how is your perspective on nutrition. Do you think we should eat 100% raw all the time? Do you do cleanses? What is balance to you?
I think a shift towards a raw plant-based diet is for everyone, but some people do better going all the way whereas for others that may not work. Certainly everyone would do well to include more fresh, organic fruits and vegetables in their diets. I’m not 100% raw myself… there are a lot of foods I love to eat on occasion, like baked sweet potatoes, or cooked quinoa, or chickpea hummus… all healthy foods but not raw. And now and then I eat some foods that aren’t vegan. For example, once in a while I buy my dog and cat a whole smoked trout from a guy at the greenmarket who fishes them out of his own pond and then smokes them whole. When I’m filleting it for my pets, I end up snacking on it too. So, for this reason, I can’t call myself 100% vegan. I always say I’m mostly vegan, most of the time—and for me this is balance. I do worry about some people who feel too much stress about what they are eating, or about eating 100% raw all the time, for I think the stress can be more harmful than a bit of non-raw food! Overall, I do wish everyone could be more informed about food and where it comes from and have the resources to make optimal choices. There is so much misinformation out there about nutrition, at least in this country, studies from the dairy industry claiming you should drink milk for calcium, which is false. And aside from the science, if you take the perspective of nature, it doesn’t make sense that we would need to drink milk beyond the beginning of our life. No other animal does, and no one would think to drink human breast milk as an adult! So why do the big milk companies say we need to drink milk?
As for cleanses, I don’t do them, since I eat so clean all the time already I just don’t feel it’s necessary. But I think it’s great for some people.
I find it challenging sometimes to trying to turn down the curious chef in me willing to try something different and the healthy living obsessive-self reminding me the dangers of eating such food. Is this familiar with you? I have read in one of your articles that you ate kokorec when you visit Istanbul. So I believe you are more relaxed when it comes to trying to something ‘unclean’ without guilt?
Yes! From the curious chef perspective, I will try many things, usually off of someone else’s plate. And when I’m traveling especially. My last trip to Istanbul, yes I tried kokorec, but just one bite! My hosts were making jokes about it, saying I would never eat it, so I had to take just one bite. The flavor was good, but I felt like I was eating rubber bands. And, as far as the guilt, again I might try a bite of someone’s chicken or fish or something but when dining out I try to keep what I order vegetarian at least. I don’t like to add to the demand for meat products by purchasing them, but if it’s already sitting on someone’s plate, I don’t see the harm in having a small taste! Finally, I think guilt when eating food is not helpful. I can understand the guilt regarding animal lives and suffering, but if it’s guilt because you’re eating cookies when you know they’re unhealthy, the guilt itself is what will cause most harm.
Where do you think raw food movement is going? Most of people I know in this community are starting to complain about the amount of nuts and agave in gourmet raw and I am seeing a lot of raw fooders shifting to fruitarianism and so on. What do you think about that?
I’m not sure what the complaint is about nuts, they’re so healthy! But, I can understand that some raw foods restaurants or brands use far too much nuts and don’t incorporate other things. We use a lot of oat flour, we soak organic oat groats, then dry them, then grind them into flour. Our cookies or crackers made with oat flour are less dense than those made with nuts. There are alternatives, people just need to be creative with it, and focus more on fresh ingredients as well.
I would not ever recommend fruitarianism, at all. Unless maybe for a short cleanse. But natural or not, fruit is full of sugar and if that’s the only food one is eating it’s not healthy. We’re meant to eat leafy greens, nuts, seeds, and other foods. I don’t see the point of these extreme diets, why fruit only? What is the reason? I think overall, the extreme side of raw food will decline, and what will increase is people incorporating more raw foods in their diets. Some people may want to be 100% raw, but I think the fast growth we are starting to see and will see more of is people shifting towards organic vs conventional, towards more plants vs. meat, and toward more raw vs. cooked. So, an overall shift. A good example of this is the huge growth of fresh juices, at least here in New York City and other cities. It’s not that everyone is suddenly eating all raw, but more and more people are learning that adding a fresh, organic green juice to your existing diet is a good thing!
In one of my favorite books, Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer discusses how our choices of being vegetarian or vegan clashes with the cultural habits. Do you think being absolutist is possible? I am living in Turkey and I am sure you noticed it is quite hard to be vegan when you have holidays and things based around traditional food. What is your opinion on this?
Yes, I agree it’s very hard to be absolutist, which is why I don’t hold myself to that standard! And I think over time cultural habits will change, and people will not view meat as the standard. For example, why do all airplane meals include meat? Why not have it all be vegetarian, no one needs to have meat for their meal on an airplane. As it is now, you have to order ahead for a vegetarian or vegan meal. Why not have that be the standard? I think things will shift, so that instead of “chicken or beef” it will be “chicken or vegetarian?” and then from there it will be “vegetarian or vegan” etc. on airplanes.
As for holidays and being a guest at someone else’s home, I simply do my best and think it’s okay for everyone to do that. If someone was serving pork chops I wouldn’t feel comfortable to eat that, but I would be fine to eat the vegetable dishes, even they are cooked, and cooked in butter. For me it’s just about doing the best I can in any circumstance without making it difficult, or upsetting anyone.
I LOVE Jonathan Safran Foer’s book! And he makes the same argument that this absolutism is becoming outdated. He makes the case (I think this was in an interview and not in the book) that we do not say we are “environmentalists” or not at all an environmentalist. It’s not black and white in that case. So why are we trying so hard to apply absolutist labels to how people eat? When people ask me, I say I eat mostly plants mostly raw most of the time. But I can’t say I’m “vegan” because then if I eat some broccoli that someone cooked with some butter, suddenly I’m no longer “vegan”. More and more I hear people say things like “yeah, I hardly ever eat meat” … and it only everyone in the world would do this, it would be a whole different world. The idea of absolute 100% vegan scares people… they worry they’ll never be able to eat their precious bacon again. It’s much easier for them to agree with the idea that they could eat less meat.
As a busy businesswomen how do you find time to relax? What do you do?
It’s not easy… my work and my own life are so mixed together, I’m almost always looking at my email, replying, and so “working” all the time. One time I was at the dentist office, in the chair getting a teeth cleaning, which is painful, and yet I felt so relaxed. I realized, it’s because I can’t look at my phone. I’m unreachable. No one can ask me a question, or tell me about a crisis, or anything. J So it felt relaxing to be there. But, I do try to do nicer things than go to the dentist! Taking my dog to the dog park is always relaxing for me, to sit on the bench and watch the dogs play. Or just taking him for a walk. And I like to read as much as I can, so when I can take the time, I’ll read. I have piles and piles of books I’ve started reading or intend to read.
I am curious about the other aspects of your green / healthy living. It was a complete lifestyle change for you, right? This is what happens when you start changing your diet, I think everything changes with your food. It brings awareness on what you put on your skin, what you wear, how everything you use on a daily basis affects the planet. What aspects of your life changed after you switched?
A shift towards a raw (and organic) diet almost always comes with a shift in overall lifestyle. If you become aware of eating only the cleanest products, you’ll become more sensitive to skincare, and only wanting to use the cleanest products. You’ll start scrutinizing the labels on pet food and want to shift your pets towards an organic, clean, and even raw diet. This may sounds hokey but after I went completely raw, it was like a fog lifted from my brain. I saw things differently and became more sensitive to all things unnatural, whether it’s someone’s overpowering cologne in an elevator, or noticing the piles of plastic bottles and junk overflowing from city trash cans. Going mostly raw and vegan also opened my eyes to the world of animal rights. And once I adopted a dog, I only felt even stronger about wanting to defend animals from cruelty and harm. So yes, it has been a big change, but an amazing change. It’s all about awareness and I think as more people become aware, more people will change. If someone who eats regular meat watched a video of how the animals are raised, treated, and killed, they would likely never eat factory farmed meat again. It’s all about knowledge and many people are working hard to make the knowledge available, the same information that many big companies are trying to keep hidden. States in the U.S. are passing laws to make it illegal for someone to record undercover video in a factory farm. So if you try to expose this truth, now you can go to jail? It’s crazy. I care deeply about these things that I didn’t know anything about before.
As a sneaker collectioner, I am curious about yours! Actually I was surprised, I thought New Yorkers prefer high heels to sneakers. What is your favorite?
I have an embarrassingly huge collection of sneakers, many of them purchased as long ago as twenty years. Mostly Pumas, some Adidas, and Vans. Pumas are what I wear most every day, the old ones. Funny, now I avoid buying any leather or suede, so I woudn’t buy new ones. Luckily I read that Puma and other companies are looking to move away from real suede and leather in their shoes!
I don’t know how women wear heels all the time. I wore them every day when I worked in finance, but now I could not. At least not walking any distance. Now, when I go to a special event and wear high heels, I always have a pair of sneakers tucked in my bag. What if I can’t get a taxi and need to walk home? Or, what if something worse? I don’t like the idea of not being able to run if I needed to, and I also normally walk really fast, which isn’t possible in high heels, at least not for me!
What new projects are you working on at the moment? What is on the horizon?
I’m always working on a lot of different things. I’d like to publish another book, however it’s time consuming so it’s not happening any time soon! We are also continuing to introduce new products to sell in our juice bars and from the online store. And I do have some other things up my sleeve, but nothing to announce just yet! Right now I’m already looking forward to next Spring’s warm weather and getting our backyard garden open for the season at Pure Food and Wine!