Q & A with Sarma Melngailis: Groundbreaking Raw Restaurateur

Alice Waters is to the organic food movement as Sarma Melngailis is to the raw food movement. She is the co-founder and owner of Pure Food and Wine, a groundbreaking raw food restaurant considered to be one of the best restaurants in New York City.

She is also the Founder and CEO of One Lucky Duck Holdings, LLC, which operates OneLuckyDuck.com, an online boutique for the best of everything for a raw and organic lifestyle, as well as One Lucky Duck snack, made and packaged by hand at Pure Food and Wine. She is the coauthor of Raw Food/Real World, a book of recipes, practical advice, and the story of how she made the change to a primarily raw and vegan lifestyle. Her second book is Living Raw Food: More Recipes from Pure Food and Wine.

MindBodyGreen: You went from UPenn to Wall Street then to the French Culinary Institute and then to Pure Food and Wine — was there an "a-ha" moment when you made the decision to leave finance and make the leap that you did?

Sarma Melngailis: I didn't have any such moment when leaving finance. That was more a decision I made over time as I realized that I simply didn't love what I was doing and very often felt out of place in that environment. I didn't love reading the Wall Street Journal and talking about deals. But I loved reading Gourmet and Food and Wine and loved talking about restaurants and food. When I was leaving Bain Capital in Boston to move to a high-yield fund back in New York, one of my colleagues pointed out to me that I didn't seem to love what I do, since I always talked about food. I think that's when I realized I needed to leave finance, though I didn't actually do so until about a year later.

When first learning about raw food, it was clear that there weren't many raw-vegan restaurant options out there and the ones that existed were more like small cafes catering only to raw food people. The first time I ever had raw food was in one of these very small cafes. The food was really good, but I felt like it could be done so much better. There was also a pretty girl at the next table eating alone. She said raw food changed her life and she felt like a new person. But she also said she was there alone because her friends would never come to a place like that. She said, "I wish someone would open a cool raw food restaurant." And that's when the light bulb in the cartoon bubbled appeared overhead.

MBG: How do you start your day?

SM: The first thing I always do is reach over for my Blackberry to check texts and new emails. Sometimes there's something urgent which is helpful because then I bolt out of bed. Otherwise, I get up more slowly. Once I'm up I try to take a few minutes to stretch, and then drink big glass of water with lemon, and I take MSM tablets, and sometimes a probiotic (which you're supposed to take on an empty stomach).

MBG: What do you have for breakfast?

SM: Lately for breakfast I've been having a small bowl of One Lucky Duck chocolate crispies with a handful of raw cocoa nibs and goji berries, with nut milk or hemp milk, and some powdered Stevia. I'm kind of hooked on this. It's filling and it wakes me up, which is helpful these days since I usually feel like I could use help waking up. Because I live so close to my restaurant and juice bar, I really ought to be running over to get a green juice first thing in the morning -- I'd love to start the day with green juice more often.

MBG: A meat-loving carnivore just walked into your kitchen — if you had to choose one dish to serve to this person — a dish that would open them up to the delicious possibilities of eating raw/vegan, what would that dish be?

SM: Heirloom Tomato and Zucchini Lasagna with Pine Nut Ricotta, Sundried Tomato Sauce and Basil-Pistachio Pesto. This has been on the menu since day one and it's one of the most accessible dishes. It's also rich, filling, has familiar flavors, and looks really pretty…If I'm allowed to choose dessert too then I'd give them one of our ice cream sundaes.

MBG: What is the most common misconception people have about eating raw? If there's one message that you'd like to get out there about eating raw, what would it be?

SM: People think it will be boring and difficult and that they'll be hungry all the time. There are a lot of great things about eating raw, but the best is simply that it makes you feel amazing. And it doesn't have to be an all or nothing commitment — just something to transition into or incorporate as much as it makes sense to at any given time. It's meaningful to me to provide a resource for people that want to eat better and/or who want to help their families or kids eat more naturally. I like that we make raw food taste great and it's all about feeling good rather than sacrifice.

MBG: Please tell us more about your latest book, Living Raw Food?

SM: Living Raw Food follows where Raw Food Real World left off with more recipes from the restaurant, but this time they're divided in two sections… easier ones that don't require much soaking time or dehydration, and the more ambitious ones in another section. The text around the recipes in Raw Food Real World was very much about what it's like to begin on raw foods. Now this one is more about my experiences after five years on mostly raw. I also really wanted to address some of the more common questions I've been asked over the years, which includes issues related to emotional detox and people's struggle to "stick with it." Of course, I don't think it should be a struggle, and I hope this book helps people see that it doesn't have to be.

MBG: Do you have a favorite ingredient to work with? If so, what is it and why is it your favorite?

SM: Macadamia Nut Oil. We use it in the restaurant and carry it on OneLuckyDuck. It's the most flavorful yummy oil and goes with just about everything. I use it to dress salads or any vegetables along with lime juice, and sea salt. So easy! (It also happens to go really well with so many cooked foods, like rice, potatoes, pasta, beans, etc. so I'm always recommending to everyone, no matter what they like to cook or prepare).

MBG: Do you have a favorite getaway? A favorite place to vacation or travel to?

SM: I wish I had a favorite getaway but I don't, at least not yet. My Mom's house in New Hampshire is a really pretty place for me to visit (and it's free!) so I try to go there when I can get away. Otherwise, anywhere with fresh air and a hammock would do. And access to fresh fruits and vegetables.

MBG: Given your demanding schedule, how do you find time to relax and exercise? What do you do?

SM: It's really challenging for me to shut my brain off and not think about work. Exercising is almost easier than relaxing because at least it feels productive. And I know when I exercise more I feel better and think more clearly. I also tend to multi-task while exercising. For example I'll have my Blackberry with me on the treadmill, stationary bike, for walks in the city, or working out with a trainer. My favorite really easy and low impact exercise is rebounding (I have a rebounder in my apartment.). You can bounce on it lightly if you feel lazy, or put on loud music and jump really hard. Either way you're on a bouncy surface so it's not hard on your knees the way running can be.

To relax, I might get into the bathtub. Usually with a bottle of kombucha or a glass of wine, and whatever book I'm reading.

MBG: Who inspires you (food or non-food related)? Is there someone you haven't met but would love to meet?

SM: Non-food related, right now it's Richard Branson. I love the way he built his business and his spirit. I admire his focus on quality and creating value and making people happy, and keeping it fun. He also gives me the courage to be unconventional, and to be stubborn when I really believe in something. And he's clearly been very successful. He also uses his influence now to do a lot of good things for the world and I'd love to be able to do that some day. I'd love to start a charity that somehow brings fresher foods into hospitals, and schools, and prisons. All prisons should have big gardens and the prisoners could all take care of the gardens and grow their own food.

MBG: If it was your Last Supper, what would your last meal be? Where would the meal be? Who would you like to be there (past/present/future)?

SM: I don't like thinking about having a Last Supper! I suppose if it was my last, I'd want it to be something special. I'd go to a really nice restaurant. Maybe the French Laundry in Napa Valley, since I've never been there. I'd have whatever is on the most extravagant tasting menu. I'd also want to be distracted and make it a party with lots of different people and I'd definitely have to drink lots of wine.

MBG: Favorite guilty indulgence?

SM: I don't like the idea of feeling guilty about anything. But I do LOVE cold beer. Especially in the summer….I don't drink it a lot, so it tastes extra good when I do.

MBG: What are your favorite places to buy food?

SM: I love to shop at the Union Square Greenmarket, which is also only one block away from my apartment and the restaurant. It's sweet to see the same people each week and to buy food directly from the people who grow it. And there's always something new in season. I bring my One Lucky Duck tote bags and fill them up. It's nice to shop and bring everything home and not have packaging to throw away.

I also still like to go to any big Whole Foods store, just because I like to walk up and down the aisles and see what's there. I'm spoiled though because I don't have to shop much. Living so close to the restaurant I don't keep much food at home and we carry so many of my favorite ingredients at OneLuckyDuck so I usually have everything I want food-wise.

Find more on Sarma, OneLuckyDuck, and Pure Food and Wine below:

Pure Food and Wine
54 Irving Pl
New York, NY 10003
(212) 477-1010

For OneLucky Duck Products check out OneLuckyDuck.com

Sarma's books: Raw Food/Real World & Living Raw Food: More Recipes from Pure Food and Wine

Sarma's delicious recipes for Coconut-Lime Cookies & Sesame-Mixed Vegetable "Noodles" with Herbs

Photo courtesy of the author


Explore More