They peel, cut and grind. They squeeze, mince and press. They assemble incredible collections of vegetables and fruits and process them into smoothies. They soak seeds, wait until they become slightly sleazy and dehydrate them into “crusts.” They grind nuts and turn them into “milk,” then age this “milk” into “cheese.”
Watching Tom Leenders and Sarah Leisdovich cook at their restaurant Eten vol leven (Food, full of life) in the Belgian city of Antwerp, you realize quickly that raw food requires more cooking than cooked food.
A long pedigree
Eating raw vegan food was first promoted as a health protocol at the end of the 19th century in Europe. Swiss physician Maximilian Bircher-Benner, convinced of its healing powers, founded a whole medical movement. His methods, which continue to be applied at the sanatorium he founded an hour from Zurich, influenced the lifestyles of Europeans for decades. So did his famous food invention muesli. His main conviction was that food should not be used to satisfy hunger or to feast upon, but to keep the human body healthy.
It was in the 20th century, while Europe was engulfed in two World Wars and the following years of reconstruction, that Bircher-Benner’s ideas were developed further in the United States.
Weston Andrew Valleau Price revisited them in his book Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, insisting that the modern Western diet contained many deficiencies. Price was followed in the 1970s by Viktoras Kulvinskas, whose cookbook, Survival into the 21st Century, is considered to be the first Western raw food book, or at least the one to bring the diet into mainstream consciousness.
The American “second wave” inspires an eager Belgian raw food community.
Vegan raw foodists define themselves by excluding all meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products, as well as any food that has been heated to above 104F from their diets. But in the U.S. over the last 15 years, vegan raw foodism has been aspiring to be something more than a set of restrictions. Chefs in California, New York and Oregon have been working on adding a gourmet touch to the diet. These innovators describe what they are doing as making raw food taste cooked. And their ideas have turned Tom and Sarah’s lives around.
She is a philosopher, he is an architect. They grew up in the heart of Europe, Belgian Flanders. They could easily have spent their lives immersed, respectively, in obscure intellectual pursuits and at any one of the exquisite design studios of Belgium. Instead, they fell for vegan raw food, stepped off of their prestigious career paths, and opened a miniscule restaurant.
Some of the customers they cater to in the port city of Antwerp are just curiosity seekers, but there is also a burgeoning Belgian raw food community. Their restaurant, Eten vol leven, is the first one of its sort in the country, but it is one of a growing number of new enterprises uniting the followers of this trend. Workshops, online stores for specialized products, the website Belgium Goes Raw, a restaurant — all of this points to an upsurge of Belgian interest in this lifestyle.
It’s not the first time Belgium has responded to American dietary influence. The contemporary raw food movement here makes little reference to its European history. Tom says that perhaps 95 percent of the literature and other sources of information used by raw foodists is American. This includes the work of Ann Wigmore, founder of Hippocrates Health Institute, Victoria Boutenko, inventor of green smoothies, and dozens of other American proponents of raw foodism. Tom claims that in Belgium you can still track down a significant community of raw food eaters from a previous generation known as De groene dag (The Green Day). This group was also inspired by an American trend, but one that came from the States in the 1960s.
First wave emphasized ethics and health, new wave is about taste.
Taste is what drew Sarah and Tom into this lifestyle. Their eureka moment was in the Verdellama restaurant in Buenos Aires. “We found the menu so delightfully festive,” recalls Tom. “And then, we stepped outside so incredibly full of energy — an experience, which is not typical when you step out of a traditional Italian restaurant, for instance.”
A post-meal conversation with the chef, Diego Castro, felt to Tom like a revelation. “In the 10 minutes that we spoke he told me more important things than I had found in the numerous books I had read.” Diego Castro was trained in New York, by David Jubb at his Jubb’s Longevity. Tom and Sarah got inspiration there as well — a visit to a top New York raw food restaurant (since closed) helped them realize that this food could be haute cuisine.
Eten vol leven, which opened a year ago, offers a mix of simple and more complex dishes. There are traditional and unusual smoothies, such as one featuring dandelions mixed with a generous dose of kiwi. This particular smoothie is meant to convey a key piece of raw foodist ideology: the greener and the wilder, the better — it tastes slightly bitter, but it is very refreshing. A staple of the restaurant, buckwheat crusts with cashew and macadamia cheese, tastes surprisingly like … ham, with a rich, pungent aroma.
“This is the thing about raw food,” explains Tom. “People associate it with tasteless, rough food, but it can actually make the best out of the products concerning taste. Look at one popular example: the sun dried tomato. Are they not like little taste bombs, with all the vitamins preserved in them?”
Health remains the base of the diet.
While taking inspiration from the latest wave of gourmet raw foodism, Tom and Sarah are not uncritical of it. “They tend to overuse nuts. We try to deal with this issue in our menu by maintaining the proportion of 80 percent carbohydrates, 10 percent proteins, and 10 percent fat.” This rule, authored by Florida-based Dr. Douglas Graham, is often defined as the most ascetic vegan raw diet.
In the end, though perhaps fashionable, this is a diet that people often come to after having health problems. Or as Tom puts it, “I know many people who wouldn’t stick to any raw, vegan, or even vegetarian diet on daily basis. But they turn to it once they feel bad.”