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Raw Food for Read People
Living Vegan Food Made Simple by the Chef and Founder of Leaf Organics
By Rod Rotondi
New World Library Copyright © 2009 Rod Rotondi
All rights reserved.
ROD'S RAW ROAD
When I first discovered raw food in the 1990s, virtually no one had heard of a raw- or living-food diet. We were considered extremists, which I always found ironic considering we eat unadulterated, unprocessed foods from nature, whereas the standard American diet, what I call the "SAD" diet. is very far removed indeed from nature. Who's the extremist?
But all over the world, people are waking up to conscious eating, and the time to get back to real food is now.
I discovered raw and living foods in Greenwich Village in New York City in 1996. I was taking consciousness workshops back when the word consciousness wasn't used in every other sentence. The leaders of these workshops were eating raw food in order to "raise their vibrations," get clearer, and not be subject to food jags. I thought I would give it a try.
I soon found myself coming home with bags of beautiful fresh organic produce, seeds, nuts, and fruits I would use to prepare incredible meals and drinks. This led to a revelation. I was sitting down to one such meal — a dandelion-greens salad with pine nuts and pomegranate dressing — when it occurred to me that I was eating the food of the gods. I mean, when the gods get together for dinner, I don't think they do drive-through burgers. It is a cornucopia of vibrant, colorful, and life-filled fresh foods that I see the gods eating — and that realization really changed my relationship to food.
As the years passed, I searched for restaurants where I could eat the healthy foods I had discovered. I'd walk and drive around my surrounding neighborhoods looking for a truly healthy restaurant, but I always came back disappointed. I found some restaurants presenting themselves as healthy, but they offered little more than the same old thing repackaged. I couldn't find a single one that was really healthy and delicious from the ground up. And I knew very well that I wasn't the only one out there looking.
Like virtually everyone out there, I have had family members and friends get sick and in some cases die from a myriad of degenerative diseases. On average, fifteen hundred Americans die every day from cancer. We have an epidemic level of obesity and diabetes in this country. And heart disease is accepted as a part of life. When I realized that food was the main culprit behind all this, I knew I was going to do something about it. I finally decided I would step into the breach and bring people what they were looking for — delicious, healthy food that is affordable and convenient.
I had a culinarily advantaged upbringing — I come from a predominantly Italian American family (with some Native American, Irish, and French thrown in). Food is central to our family culture. It's not only the reason we gather; it's also a passion. Everyone in my family cooks, not just the women. My father is an incredible baker, a genius with breads, pies, and pretty much anything else he puts his mind to. Some of my earliest childhood memories are of our family gathered together in the kitchen.
My dad used to enlist me, my sister, Joy, and my brothers, John and James, every holiday season to help him make pies. The oldest kids would help with peeling apples (competing for the longest apple-peel strip), and the younger kids would mix the sugar and spices
I learned important lessons about food from my dad. Because he is an engineer, he would break down the important factors in any recipe and explain (at length!) both the aesthetic considerations and the hard science behind his techniques and methods. I remember while I was working in Jerusalem for the UN, I asked my dad to send me his recipe for apple pie, because I wanted to get it exactly right. He wrote me back with a multipage treatise about apple pies. I can still make a beautiful classic apple pie, but one of my favorite culinary validations was when my dad tried my raw apple pie at Leaf and loved it.
I also was lucky enough to be exposed to other cuisines because of family connections. When I was ten years old, my mom arranged for my sister and me to spend a summer in Mexico with family friends. Then I spent my twelfth, thirteenth, and fourteenth summers in Rome, where my grandfather was the U.S. ambassador.
Because my family has a strong work ethic, we all had jobs, and mine was to help with food service. I was trained in formal food presentation and assisted with dinners, cocktail parties, and so on. And I became close with the head chef at the ambassador's villa, Dino, one of the best chefs in Italy. I used to hang out in the kitchen, learning about cooking and having fun with food and friends.
Of course, we used to eat pretty well those summers. The whole family would plan the menu for the next week. In the early mornings, I used to go to the local openair markets with my grandmother, who was very hands-on in managing the embassy's hospitality. She always tried to get the best and freshest ingredients at the best prices. She was big on not wasting anything. In a way, I think she was a true conservationist. Today everyone is going green. Back in my grandmother's day, it was just considered common sense. One of her favorite sayings was "Waste not, want not." As I write, she is ninety-seven and still going strong.
Which leads me to introduce one of my favorite culinary skills — resourcefulness. My grandmother always said cooks are measured by what they can do with leftovers. The great ones can create delicious meals without a recipe, using the limited ingredients at hand. I always feel the resourcefulness challenge with raw foods, since this cuisine is in the process of being reinvented, or at least rediscovered, and the foods and ingredients one can use are limited compared to those in other cuisines. The resourcefulness and inventiveness required of a raw-food chef is partly why raw food appeals so strongly to me.
When my sister, Joy, and her then-husband were living on a sailboat in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, she invited me, my girlfriend at the time, and my parents to join them for a week. We had a great time sailing around the islands. And we created a contest. Every day a different couple would make lunch and dinner. At the end of the week we voted for the best chef pair, and despite the tough competition, my team won. That's pretty serious validation. I think we won because of our resourcefulness and creativity.
The only time I had greater validation was when I entered a culinary contest in Marblehead, Massachusetts. Every summer they hold the Marblehead Culinary Arts Festival, a black-tie food competition among all the prestigious restaurants in the region. It's held outside in an old fort overlooking the harbor full of sailboats, and judged by five-star chefs from Boston's most celebrated restaurants. When they announced I had won both best of show and best theme, I was too shocked to say anything.
Another really great culinary validation came when I made homemade gnocchi for my nana (grandmother), and she said it was the best she had ever tasted. How good is that? We have a special family technique for making gnocchi, and it is still one of my favorite things to make for (and teach to) people I really like. Yes, I know, it's not raw, but it is part of my culture and family tradition, and people really love it!
My sister is arguably the most knowledgeable chef in the family. She knows everything about food. In fact, she used to own and run a business called Foodies.com, which offered lots of interesting information about food.
To give you an idea of the kind of culinary culture I grew up in: when my siblings and I were teenagers coming home from a late night and wanting a midnight snack, we would typically cook up a sauce from scratch and make pasta. No Hot Pockets for us!
My culinary vistas matured greatly when I was sixteen and my family moved to Paris. Those teenage years in Paris were critical to my culinary education. The French love their food and take great pride in it. I was enthralled enough to sign up for French cooking courses at a local school. I learned how to make pintade aux choux (guinea fowl with cabbage) and a proper chocolate mousse, how to reduce a sauce, and much more.
My cousins, who happened to be living in Paris at the same time, love to tell the story of how I invited them over for a meal during a weekend that my parents were away. They said they were expecting peanut butter–and-jelly sandwiches but instead got a four-course gourmet French meal.
I loved all parts of the experience — even going to the local markets and bargaining for the best ingredients. Getting people I like together to share a meal is still one of my very favorite things to do.
Also, Paris is a very cosmopolitan city, with cuisines from all over the world. I received an amazing education in Algerian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, and other world cuisines. My siblings and I used to make weekend excursions to little hole-in-the-wall restaurants throughout the city. For a couple of bucks per person, one could find an incredible variety of great meals.
After returning to the States to go to college and then to graduate school, I volunteered for a year of grassroots development work with an American nonprofit agency. I spent a few months working all around Morocco, and then one year in Tunisia. Naturally I learned all about Moroccan tagines (clay-pot dishes) and about the differences between the two countries' couscous. I also learned all about beekeeping while managing projects teaching subsistence farmers how to use modern beekeeping methods. I had some incredible meals in the most rustic and pastoral of settings. I even completed the fasting month of Ramadan, breaking the day's fast every evening with friends and colleagues.
In Jerusalem, where I lived and worked for the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) for six years, I greatly enjoyed the Palestinian cuisine. With strong influences from Lebanon, Egypt, and the Bedouin culture, Palestinian cuisine is wonderfully delicious. I learned to make many dishes, held numerous dinner parties, and was invited to countless feasts in both the most sophisticated and simple environs.
It was in Jerusalem that I first became a vegetarian. My brother James came for a visit, and we took an eight-day trip to Egypt and back on my Honda XRV 650 African Twin motorcycle. Arabic cuisine includes wonderful vegetarian dishes, and we tried everything, including a sublime meal in a restaurant serving Nabatean food on the banks of the Nile in Aswan, where the Arab and African worlds meld.
At the UNDP, my job as program management officer was to help develop private business and agriculture in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. I worked with many food-related businesses, including a citrus- processing facility in Gaza; irrigation, beekeeping, and cottage-industry food-processing projects; a chick hatchery; and the tourism industry. I was welcomed into homes and institutions without reserve. I still feel incredibly grateful for the hospitality I received and the insights I gained during this time of service.
It wasn't an easy job. Economic development work is never easy. And when it is done under military occupation and in the midst of an intifadah (a popular uprising), economic development is incredibly challenging. Under these trying circumstances, I saw some of the best and worse in human nature.
THE RAW THAT BROKE THE CAMEL'S BACK
Eventually I decided to experience firsthand the challenges and rewards of building a business in the third world. I had led the setup of the first business development center in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, trained many business consultants, and assisted numerous Palestinian businesses. But I had never owned my own business.
I had never experienced the challenge of making payroll or starting an enterprise from scratch, and I hadn't faced the specific hurdles entrepreneurs in economically and politically challenged areas must deal with. I decided to strike out on my own and "take a walk in the shoes" of the small businessmen and -women I had worked with as a UN program management officer. My business wouldn't be located in Gaza or the West Bank, however, but rather in a nearby area I had come to love.
I traded in my three-piece suit for a swimsuit and opened a scuba diving shop and resort in the Sinai. Yes, the Sinai — that wilderness where Moses wandered for forty years. Having been there and enjoyed the spectacular beauty of the Sinai, I imagined that Moses and the Israelites weren't really lost — they loved the area and were reluctant to leave!
Leaving Jerusalem, my home of six years, I loaded up my 1973 Land Rover Series 3 long bed, which I had rescued from the Samarian desert, with all my belongings and moved to a little Bedouin village called Dahab — Arabic for "gold" — nestled on a palm tree–lined bay on the Red Sea. Dahab had no paved roads, phones, or electricity when I arrived. It was a favorite stopover for backpackers and travelers, and I loved it. During the six years I worked for the UN in Jerusalem, I estimate I took at least fifty short trips to the Sinai — mostly to Dahab, where I practiced free diving and scuba diving.
The first thing I did after moving to Dahab was to take a scuba diving–instructor course. Next I partnered with an Austrian friend who was in the midst of establishing a diving center at a spectacular dive site. That's how the Canyon Dive Club was born — only the third diving center in Dahab, and the first to be owned by non-Egyptians. In the next years I went on to establish the Fantasea Dive Club, Club Red Divers, and Dive Zone.
We were the pioneers of Camel Diving Safaris, leading groups of tourists by camel up and down the Sinai coast to virgin dive sites. These were amazing trips that left indelible impressions on all who participated. Imagine riding up the coast on a camel with your own Bedouin guide with no signs of civilization — just rocky mountains to one side and the deep blue of the Red Sea to the other. We would camp overnight and make a fire and cook food for all. It was always a party, and the complete solitude brought immediacy to every breath. Plus the stars out there were absolutely stunning. With no man-made light for miles, the starlight was awe inspiring in its brilliance.
In the mornings we would be awakened by the Bedouin cooking bread over the fire and the sun rising over the mountains of Saudi Arabia on the other side of the Red Sea. After breakfast we would don our diving gear and venture into the water and a world of sparkling color and vibrant life. These were so much more than vacations — they were adventures into a world almost forgotten by modern man.
I spent about seven years in Dahab. It was an amazing time. When I look back now, it seems like another lifetime — one whose memory I treasure, but also one I find difficult to translate to my life in America. It was not only a different part of the world and a different culture and way of life; it's almost as if it was from a different time and space.
Our first dive center was only the third in Dahab, but by the time I left, in 2000, there were over fifty diving centers. "Progress" had arrived in force, and not in the way I had hoped and worked for.
Nevertheless, I spent some of the greatest years of my life in Dahab. And it was at one of my dive centers, Club Red, that I started my first restaurant, a little Italian place where my friend Enzo Ferraro was chef, making only fresh handmade Italian pasta. We later expanded to include a larger international menu — eventually even including raw food.
The full story of my experiences in the Middle East could be a book on its own, which I hope to write someday. My almost fifteen years there changed me forever. But at a certain point, I knew it was time for me to return home.
Excerpted from Raw Food for Read People by Rod Rotondi. Copyright © 2009 Rod Rotondi. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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