Catching up with the godmother of haute raw cuisine

sarma_raw_food There’s no denying that Sarma Melngailis is a rockstar in the raw food world. Almost ten years ago now the pint-size pioneer began to transform the way restaurant-goers think about raw food, adding “fine dining,” “culinary” and even “delicious” into their vocabulary about the menu of the mostly uncooked.

With Pure Food and Wine, Melngailis celebrated raw food as a type of cuisine—not just a nutritional choice. And, as a result, she celebritized it.

Girl du jour Lena Dunham recently tweeted a pic of goodies from Melngailis’ clean-living, clean-eating emporium, One Lucky Duck, and Katie Holmes has been known to pop into her raw food mecca, Pure Food and Wine, to dine on uncooked delights, like zucchini lasagna layered with pignoli-nut “cheese” and coconut-meat ice cream that rivals any pint of Ben and Jerry’s.

So, as Pure Food approaches its tenth year as a New York fine-dining landmark, what’s been Melngailis’ (plant-based) secret sauce? We found out.

A raw revolution

Melngailis burst onto the NYC food scene in 2004 when Pure Food first opened on Irving Place. It’s hard to remember a time when this city wasn’t gaga over all-things organic and immaculately sourced, but opening a raw, vegan restaurant—especially a hip downtown one that actually served booze—was flat-out radical in 2004.

“There weren’t juice bars opening up all over the place. People weren’t doing juice cleanses and Vogue wasn’t writing articles about them,” recalls Melngailis, a platinum blonde with a duck tattoo on her left arm (and yes, that “glow” that going raw promises). When she opened the game-changing spot with her then-boyfriend, Matthew Kenney, Melngailis was still a relatively recent raw convert herself, but the changes she felt were instantaneous—more energy, better sleep, and no more PMS.

Pure Food and Wine
The garden, at the restaurant that changed it all—Pure Food and Wine.

Kenney had the restaurant chops and Melngailis had the financial finesse, having recently left a job with Bain Capital (of Mitt Romney fame) for the French Culinary Institute, and the two quickly became poster children for the raw movement—making it look downright sexy on the cover of their cookbook Raw Food/Real World. But then the relationship blew-up, messily and publicly, and Melngailis found herself running Pure Food on her own.

Expanding the empire

The restaurant is still crazy popular, serving corn-and-cashew tamales and sake mojitos to steady crowd of fans, including vegan convert President Bill Clinton. But Melngailis now spends more time now outside of Pure Food’s oven-less kitchen, and more time building her One Lucky Duck brand, which includes two groovy juice-and-takeaway shops (one in Chelsea Market, the other just around the corner from Pure), and a website selling hard-to-find raw and vegan specialty products, like coconut macaroons and “quackers” made with almonds and flax, that satisfy any Cheez-it cravings.

Melngailis has also added all-natural beauty brands to the mix, like RMS Beauty and Simply Divine Botanicals—the next logical step for many of her customers. “Once someone starts to transition to cleaner foods, it spills over into skin care, cosmetics, household products, and pet products,” she says. The idea is to help take the guesswork out of determining which products are truly clean, and which are phonies.

Her personal philosophy

Melngailis herself lives a pretty squeaky clean life. She rarely drinks and often breakfasts on kale salad, or a dandelion and spinach “Swan Juice” from one of her shops. An almond milk cappuccino is about as rebellious as she gets, but she’s not a jerk about it. “I try not to be preachy about anything other than the message that ‘junk food sucks’ and that everyone should start eating more natural food,” Melngailis says. She tries to get to the gym “to expel my demons,” she laughs, but often only has time to walk her beloved rescue dog. (He’s all over her Instagram page.)

One Lucky Duck's "Quackers" made from almond, flax, and spices.
“Quackers” made from almond, flax, and spices.

And while juice bars are opening around her at a clip that might astound even a member of the cold-pressed cognoscenti such as Melngailis, she’s simply focused on opening a small Pure Food outpost in Japan, and shakes her blonde head at the idea of charting a Starbucks-esque expansion course. The same rebellious streak that helped make her a pioneer of all things raw is still fully intact.

“I want to grow, but don’t want to give up our independence,” she says. “This is incredibly personal, and what I expect I will do for the rest of my life.” —Amanda Benchley

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