Meet Atlanta’s raw food producers serving up food low in calories, high in fiber

This spread of dishes from Mercedes Melendez includes smokey carrot pate served on bok choy, daikon radish with crema piquant, and winter salad topped with miso salad dressing and Chioggia beets. CONTRIBUTED BY REBECCA PRUETT PHOTOGRAPHY

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This spread of dishes from Mercedes Melendez includes smokey carrot pate served on bok choy, daikon radish with crema piquant, and winter salad topped with miso salad dressing and Chioggia beets. CONTRIBUTED BY REBECCA PRUETT PHOTOGRAPHY

A raw-food diet primarily is plant-based and is, by its nature, low in calories and high in fiber. In January, when many minds turn to healthy eating, a raw-food diet can be very appealing.

But, raw food isn't just a January thing. LottaFrutta has been serving Mexican-style fruit cups on a colorful corner in the Old Fourth Ward since 2006. "Our customers are into eating raw, because whole fruits and vegetables are vital in overall health," said Myrna Perez, LottaFrutta's owner. "Our customers know juicing is a wonderful way to get your fruit and veg fix, but eating whole and raw is an incredible nutrient booster."

And, you don’t have to look far to find juice and smoothie bars, whether you’re in Midtown Atlanta or a few blocks from the heart of Snellville. Salad bowl restaurants, such as Salad Express and Salata, dot the metro area, from Peachtree City to Roswell.

“We’re seeing people with health issues, but also people who want more energy enjoying smoothies, juices and poke bowls,” said educational chef and private caterer Mercedes Melendez of Fox + Flower. “Maybe there’s a cooked protein or cooked grain in the dish, but the majority of what’s in the bowl is raw. People are looking at what they’re eating in conjunction with how they’re living.”

We ate raw before we ate cooked, she said, and “a lot of foods are better for us in their raw state. Eating raw is having a fresh apple, but eating raw is also enjoying food that has not been heated above 118 degrees. A lot of natural enzymatic action is lost when foods are heated above this temperature.”

Raw foods typically are either served as they grow in nature, or they may be soaked, dehydrated, juiced and/or blended to make them more digestible and optimize the nutrition they offer.

At local farmers markets, the interest in raw foods is high. Almost every week, during prime growing season, Melendez is at one of the markets organized by Community Farmers Markets. Having found a plant-based diet better for her own health, she said she enjoys demonstrating easy recipes that can be made with what's available from the farmers that day.

“Shoppers at the market try these dishes for free, and I am able to explain the nutrition behind the recipe. The majority of our shoppers are return customers, who may just be looking for ideas, but we also have Wholesome Wave customers who aren’t as familiar with the idea of eating raw or local. Almost everyone can use ideas on how to do something different with a vegetable they’ve seen at a farmer’s booth,” Melendez said.

There’s simple raw, and then there’s gourmet raw, she explained. “Raw food can be an apple or an orange or even guacamole, but gourmet raw can be raw lasagna, or, the area where I really like to work, raw desserts. It feels like magic. You’re eating something based around whole-plant food sources, without refined sugar or most grains. They really do digest better.”

And, she said, her private clients have no sense of deprivation when she serves raw desserts like sunny satsuma tart or spiced cacao and hibiscus mousse.

Gourmet raw definitely is the niche for Claudine Molson-Sellers of Strive. It doesn't hurt that her food is so gorgeous that it sells itself, via eye appeal, even before shoppers find out it's also delicious and healthy. At local farmers markets her table usually is packed with trays of cauliflower crust pizza in varieties that range from margherita to harvest. Containers of raw pad thai sit next to chia parfaits and raw carrot cake bites.

“More and more people are seeking plant-based food that doesn’t compromise on taste,” Molson-Sellers said. “It’s win-win-win. Win for their overall well-being; win for the planet, as eating fewer animals is the single best way to have a positive impact; and win for supporting small businesses.”

Kim Wilson, owner of Lucy's Market in Buckhead, has been carrying Strive products for several years, and said she feels the variety of offerings is one of the keys to its appeal. "Since Claudine uses seasonal ingredients, her offerings are always changing, which is appealing to our customers."

In other words, you don’t have to eat a steady diet of apples.

Raw food chef Akil Amen often finds himself explaining the concept of his products to new customers at local farmers markets. He and partner Myriam Morisset make dehydrated bagels and crackers and other "bready" treats. "The bagels are the cornerstone of the way I eat," Amen said. "Most raw food sandwiches use a thin flatbread, and I started off making those. But, they weren't hearty enough for the kind of juicy sandwiches I like. So, I started making bagels, and then crackers, and that has turned into Raw Head Bread."

Their bagels are made from sprouted organic seeds mixed into a dough and dehydrated. “People are not familiar with gourmet raw foods, and they wonder if they have to take our bagels home and bake them or broil them. We explain the bagels are ready-to-eat, and the fact that we dehydrate them at low temperatures means the enzymes and vitamins are intact.”

He and Morisset enjoy spending their weekend mornings talking one-on-one with their customers. The majority are women, who often are shopping with children in tow. And, Amen and Morisset find that, if the kids like it, the parents will, too.

“What surprises me is that so many people feel they have to struggle for wellness. Wellness should be easy. Some of it is just a little research. How many ingredients are in an apple? Compare that to the number of ingredients in the processed food you might be eating,” Morisset said.

They may have started with bagels and crackers, but they soon learned many customers like to have a little something sweet, so they expanded into buckwheat bars made with seasonal fruit, and now they’re offering waffles. “It’s a nice indulgence that you don’t have to feel guilty about. Top them with almond butter, yogurt or fruit,” Amen said.

Amen and Morisset stressed they are not doctors, nor do they pretend to be. “But, we understand food is medicine. And, we know it’s best to eat food where all the ingredients are things you can pronounce,” Morisset said.


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