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The Crisper Whisperer: What I Learned from a Raw Foods Masterclass

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[Photograph: Carolyn Cope]

In the past few months, I've been growing more and more curious about the raw and living foods movement. You might think that someone who writes out of her crisper would be pretty well versed in raw foods, and it's true, I do make a mean salad. Most of the time I'm content to get my raw foods quotient from fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds in their relatively natural state and to fire up the burner, oven, or grill when I want to eat a prepared dish.

But once I started poking around on raw foods blogs and websites—and saw the radiance that emanates from many of the people who take their raw foods more seriously—I decided to delve a little deeper.

The definition varies from person to person, but in general a raw foods diet consists of whole vegan foods that have not been heated over 115°F. Raw enthusiasts prefer these foods because their natural enzymes, phytochemicals, vitamins, and minerals have not been altered by cooking.

I'm a "glass of raw almond milk is half empty" kind of girl, so I've historically treated this topic just as I do all others—with a fair amount of skepticism.

Still, the more I learned, the more I wanted to learn, and in our Four-Hour Workweek culture, of course I wanted to take my knowledge from zero to hero in sixty seconds flat. That's how I found myself allocating an entire weekend to the Raw Foods Masterclass at Saf Restaurant in London.

Saf is often named among the best vegetarian restaurants in London, with a totally vegan menu and many raw options in a style similar to that of New York's Pure Food and Wine. Chef David Bailey, who was head chef of Saf for several years, taught the masterclass. He focused on "fine-dining" raw foods from a chef's perspective with lots of talk about flavors, textures, and culinary methods and not as much focus on nutrition. I lucked out and had a lot of chefs in my class so the discussion about the culinary aspects of raw foods was sophisticated and engaging.

Chef Bailey and his wife and partner Charlotte Bailey are as laid-back and approachable as they are knowledgeable, which went a long way toward making the class fun, accessible, and not the least bit preachy. We prepared a wide variety of raw foods over the course of two days, from green and "superfoods" smoothies (containing ingredients like maca and lucuma), to snacks like crackers and flatbreads made from vegetables and seeds, to entrees like raw vegan sushi (with rice made from ground parsnips) and the root vegetable tart pictured above, to desserts made with raw chocolate, coconut butter, and lots of nuts. Pretty much everything tasted good, though I didn't want to lay eyes on a nut again for a few days due to the abundance of nuts in so many dishes.

The root vegetable tart was a real highlight. Though I once put in writing that "you won't find me eating cashew cheese in this lifetime," and though the tart did in fact contain cashew cheese, chef Bailey's ability to balance flavors and textures won me over. Herbed tomatoes, balsamic onions, and a creamy spinach filling sat inside a shell made of vegetables, buckwheat, and walnuts and made a satisfying and enjoyable lunch.

Of course there's no cooking involved in raw food, the only kitchen appliances were a high-speed blender, a food processor, and a dehydrator. It's unfortunate for those of us who might like to dabble in raw food but not make a full-time commitment that high-speed blenders and dehydrators are on the pricey and bulky side. (That said, I did splurge on a Vitamix even before taking the class, and I love it.) The vast majority of the recipes used one or more of those appliances—so unless you're interested in investing in them, fine-dining raw foods could be a bit of a non-starter.

My personal take-away? I don't see myself eating raw all the time (though you never know what could happen—see also cashew cheese, above). But the idea of being able to make crackers and flatbreads with their nutrients intact, as well as homemade kale chips and semi-dried tomatoes that won't break the bank—and maybe even the occasional fully raw meal—has me thinking I might pick up a dehydrator one of these days and give it a go.

Either way, it's good to have leaned some new techniques for taking raw food beyond the salad bowl.

What about you all? Any fans of raw and living foods among serious eaters? If so, what are some of your favorite preparations, tips, and tricks?

About the author: Carolyn Cope is the voice behind the popular food blog Umami Girl. A recent transplant to London, she's trying her best to act nonchalant in the company of courgettes and aubergines. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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