The chef Matthew Kenney was at the forefront of the raw, vegan food movement when, in 2004, he opened Pure Food and Wine in New York. In the 13 years since, his business has expanded to include restaurants on both coasts and an integrative, plant-based cooking style that is taught in culinary academies in eight cities around the world. In Kenney’s restaurants, whimsically plated dishes with unusual raw ingredients like cashew hollandaise, coconut bacon, and saffron cream abound; in his culinary academies, students are taught to write recipes from scratch that use locally sourced, in-season ingredients. But what in the world does raw mean? Are vegetables still considered raw if steamed, boiled, or roasted? To different rule-abiding denizens of raw diets, 104 or 118 degrees fahrenheit is the tipping point after which the integrity of the ingredients is compromised. Others maintain that cooking food at any temperature disqualifies a dish from being all-raw.
We chatted with the Food & Wine Magazine-award winning chef about his interpretation of raw rules and regulations, as well as advice for kickstarting our own plant-based diets in the new year.
Extra Crispy: What is your go-to morning drink?
Matthew Kenney: Every morning I have a green juice made with kale, fennel, ginger, lemon, and a touch of pineapple. It’s the best way to fuel the day before I head off to yoga.
What advice would you give someone who is interested in going raw?
I encourage people to slowly transition from eating meals dominated by traditional proteins to a plant-based diet. A great first step is to eat one plant-based meal a day. Or to pick one day of the week to eat raw and just listen to how your body feels. The general public often assumes that eating vegan is “expensive” when it’s the opposite; sourcing fresh produce from local farmer’s markets and finding unique ways to prepare meals with marinades and nut-based sauces can be cost-effective.
Some people that follow a raw diet will cook foods up to 117.2 degrees, while others won’t cook any ingredients at all. What’s your approach?
I think people get a little carried away with [what constitutes a raw diet] and it’s important to be flexible with cooking. I used to be much more of a purist, but these days I’m a lot more forgiving. If I steam something a little bit or lightly poach it, I still consider it raw. For me, it’s not so much that nothing on the plate can go above 117.2 degrees; it’s more about maintaining the integrity of foods in their natural state. I make meals with whole, plant-based organic ingredients—fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, and sprouted grains. Nothing’s coming from a can. Nothing’s been pasteurized or cooked.
I’ve heard that there are some merits to cooking vegetables—like with carrots and sweet potatoes, that cooking activates beta-carotene to be released, and that with tomatoes, it boosts the amount of lycopene. Are there nutrients you lose out on by eating raw?
Look, I think there might be a couple of ingredients where you might need to cook them to be more digestible and that’s totally normal. Again, that’s why I’m more flexible. I like squash, for example, but I don’t like eating squash raw, so I’ll have it in my grain bowl, with kale that might be raw or hand massaged and steamed vegetables.
Do you take any supplemental vitamins, like B12 or calcium?
I do B-12 shots once in a while. I don’t know if it helps or not but I do go to a naturopath and do blood work. She told me that my B-12 levels were a little low. I felt fine but just to be safe I take B-12 supplements from time to time. I’ve also experimented with tonic herbs and pine pollen and reishi [mushroom] and chaga.
Do you have allergies? Was that part of your decision to eat raw?
No, and I wasn't having any health issues. I just really am attached to feeling my best and doing what’s best for the environment and so forth.
What are the main benefits of eating this kind of diet?
To me it’s all about longevity. And I don’t just mean for personal health. I mean for the environment, for the animals, even for the economy. You know, health care costs—I don’t want to get too political but—the healthier people are, the better off we all are, in general.
You started culinary schools in London, Bahrain, Sydney, Paris, and Barcelona. I can only imagine the great variability of traditions and available ingredients in each of those regions. What ties the schools together?
Instead of teaching recipes with pre-measured and limited ingredients, our instructors have students write recipes from scratch. Chefs often run out of specific ingredients—most often, produce or spices—so it’s crucial to know how to substitute, invent and make adjustments. Also, it’s important to learn how to improvise with seasonal and local produce, and to deal with allergies.
Can you tell me about your upbringing in Maine? How has it shaped your approach to food preparation?
Growing up in Maine really shaped my understanding and love for nature; it's where I first truly fell in love with food. I have the greatest and fondest memories hunting with my dad, foraging, picking berries, fishing, and a ton of other great outdoor activities. It was an outdoor culture; people spent time gathering food, preparing it, and dining outside.
Having the background of hunting-and-gathering in my blood from a young age really helped to shape the chef that I am today and the plant-based business that I’ve been able to build. The culinary scene has changed radically across the country in the last decade, and consumers are now curious to know where their food is sourced. When I was growing up, it was not like this in Maine or really anywhere else.
What do you think of the "power bowl” trend?
I'm thrilled the bowl concept has become so popular. I've been making my own for years and I believe one-bowl meals are a great way to simplify healthy eating. Bowls are fun to make, easy to travel with, and work well in a retail environment—a win for everyone!
What are you looking forward to in 2017?
The continued growth of plant-based and raw cuisine! It’s the future of food. People are looking for foods that will make them feel good, and wanting fewer over-processed food. The plant-based movement is here.
Dragon Fruit (Pitaya) Bowl
Blend all ingredients together and garnish with sliced bananas, strawberries, dragon fruit, mango, granola, and shredded coconut.
This interview has been edited and condensed.