Cooking school in the raw
- Olivia Wu, Chronicle Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 29, 2006
Like all canny cooks, Cherie Soria knows how to hook her audience: with desserts.
But Soria doesn't pull out the stops with butter, sugar, eggs and flour, baking them into fluffy confections.
She makes her magic with avocado and agave syrup -- and no baking at all. By the time her students taste her creations, they don't mind that those unexpected ingredients are the major components of their chocolate mousse.
As Soria would say, "If you can make a raw vegan cheesecake better than regular cheesecake, why would you eat regular cheesecake?"
In no time, she has her students dipping into a layered pesto torta that relies on a cheese made from almonds to replace the usual ricotta, and digging into a lasagna-type dish with a noodle-like layer of pureed cashew nuts stretched over mushrooms, spinach and a killer marinara sauce.
Soria is the pre-eminent teacher of gourmet raw food preparation, and founder of Living Light Culinary Arts Institute in Mendocino County. Now, she's established the country's first cooking school devoted to teaching raw and vegan cooking to home cooks and professional chefs.
A place of their own
After nearly a decade of giving classes on the fly, in whatever facilities she could find, to some 800 students, she and her husband, co-director Dan Ladermann, have a place to call their own. The school is now housed in the 6,000-square-foot Company Store on Main Street in Fort Bragg.
With the school, Soria and Ladermann aim to take raw cuisine mainstream. Classes are both demonstration and hands-on; the business also includes a production kitchen and takeout deli. There are no stoves or ovens; instead, dehydrators, high-speed blenders and special climate-controlled rooms for growing sprouts signal this is a raw-food operation.
Power Point presentations are part of the lectures and demonstrations, and six fully equipped stations are set up for hands-on classes.
Roxanne Klein, whose eponymous, exclusively raw restaurant in Larkspur opened to critical acclaim in 2002 is Soria's most famous student. Klein's restaurant and takeout deli closed in 2004, but restaurants such as Cafe Gratitude in San Francisco and Berkeley, and Alive in San Francisco, are continuing the trend.
Raw foodists believe that the greatest nourishment comes from food that is not heated beyond 115 degrees. One reason, they believe, is that antioxidants and phyto-chemicals remain intact. They also believe that heat can transform some ingredients, notably oil and salt, into toxins.
While these claims are controversial, Soria, 58, a radiant, small-framed woman who looks much younger than her years, may be the best advertisement for the cuisine and lifestyle. She has been cooking and living the raw food diet for 14 years, teaching classes at retreats such as Harbin Hot Springs in Lake County, and traveling the circuit of vegetarian and vegan national conferences.
When she began Living Light nine years ago, she kicked off with conventional raw dishes. "I taught raw without saying so by making gazpacho and olive tapenade," she says. Those dishes, followed by raw desserts, she says, won people over.
The menu board of Living Light Cuisine ToGo, downstairs from the school, shows what draws: banana ice cream, carrot apple kuchen, chocolate mousse cup, chocolate cheesecake and frozen fudge bites. Juices and smoothies are listed, but so are entrees such as nori rolls, green burrito, zucchini angel hair pasta and a boxed mezze meal. All of them are made with 95 percent organic and 98 percent raw foods.
At the school, students begin with a required fundamentals class, then advance to associate chef and instructor training levels for professionals. As the classes progress, the format moves from a demonstration to hands-on format. In the past year, most of her fundamental classes have been at the capacity enrollment of 30 students. The hands-on classes are usually full, with 24 to 30 students per class.
Soria says the school enrolls students from an international field, including Lebanon, South Africa, the Philippines, Thailand, Europe and South America. Raw food techniques are different enough from standard cooking that even chefs -- many of them private chefs for Bay Area families -- take her classes, says Soria. Google, the Internet giant in Mountain View, recently hired a chef who graduated from Living Light.
Soria knows what it feels like to be labeled a cultist. "I went from the standard American diet to vegetarian to vegan to raw," she says. When she began a vegetarian diet in the carnivorous '60s, "people thought I was going to die."
She was a vegetarian for 19 years before she attended a workshop in 1992 at the clinics of Anne Wigmore, founder of the Hippocrates Health Institute in Boston, a wheatgrass and raw food discipline with an emphasis on using foods to rid the body of toxins.
Wigmore's regime failed in one respect, Soria says -- "Her food had no flavor." Clients might feel better after a regime of juices, wheatgrass, salads and sprouts, but "they go back home and are bored" with the diet, Soria says.
A mind at work
Soria set her culinary intelligence to work. She based her cuisine on raw vegan "cheeses," and began -- as she did by teaching desserts -- naming her dishes after mainstream comfort foods, and making them look like lasagna, pizza and sandwiches. She created raw dishes with cooked textures, such as her "stir, not-fried" vegetables.
She searched for sophisticated cutting gadgets such as a spiral slicer to create long pastas such as angel hair and linguine out of zucchini, and used high-powered blenders to make smooth and creamy textures, such as vegan mayonnaise and aioli.
Nuts and seeds are sprouted, because a tenet of the raw food movement says that eating "living'' food is the source of energy. By sprouting nuts and seeds, the living components are activated.
Soria ferments pureed nut milks with beneficial intestinal flora such as probiotic and vegan acidophilus cultures and Wigmore's invention -- Revjuvelac, fermented wheat and rye juice. All this adds flavor and nourishment, Soria says, which helps people feel fuller quicker. During the course of a weeklong class, Soria says, students feel sated and still lose an average of 10 pounds.
Jean-Marie Fayat is such a person -- he had tried everything to lose weight. Fayat is executive pastry chef at Draeger's Market in San Mateo. A chef who came up the ranks of professional trade school in France, he came to the United States in 1976. Like many chefs, he had gained quite a bit of weight. He tried a three-day raw foods workshop and found "those foods were very appetizing."
Like other individuals and some private chefs in the Bay Area, he learned that with raw food, "You can make a great, excellent meal." And, he says, "I lost 22 pounds in three weeks.
"It was very dramatic for me. I'm a French chef, and I like my cheese and wine."
Like Soria, Fayat predicts that raw food will become mainstream because it addresses obesity and tastes good. Soria admits that a raw diet can be challenging: It's idealto eat 80 percent raw, but she says that most people will benefit from 50 percent raw. Many of her students, she says, strive to maintain a close-to-100 percent raw diet, but will drink hot tea, and revert to the occasional mashed potatoes.
Trying not to sound extreme, Soria says she and Ladermann do eat out, perhaps once a week, and when they do, they have "a nice vegetarian meal" at a local conventional cooked-food restaurant.
Living Light Culinary Arts Institute, 301-B North Main St., Fort Bragg; (800) 816-2319 or (707) 964-2420, or visit rawfoodchef.com.
In the raw food philosophy, most ingredients supply several nutritional components. Here are the major sources of various nutritional requirements.
Protein: Nuts, seeds and greens
Carbohydrates: Fruits and greens
Fats: Nuts, seeds, avocado, olives and cold-pressed oils
Vitamins and minerals: All raw foods
Antioxidants and phyto-chemicals: All raw foods
-- Olivia Wu
Click here for online-only raw food recipes.
Chocolate Orange Mousse with Almonds
Chocolate is a rich source of antioxidants, but can also be addictive, so use it sparingly, says Cherie Soria of Living Light Culinary Arts Institute. The secret ingredient, avocado, makes this mousse thick and rich, but cannot be detected in the flavor.
1/2 cup coconut oil
1/2 cup agave nectar (see Note)
3/4 cup raw cocoa powder (see Note)
1/2 cup fresh-squeezed orange juice
1 tablespoon evaporated cane juice (see Note)
1/4 teaspoon orange zest
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
2 avocados, about 6 ounces each, peeled, seeded and mashed
1/2 cup peeled slivered raw almonds, for garnish, optional (See Note)
Place coconut oil in a small work bowl and place the bowl in a pan with about 1 inch of hot water. The coconut oil will melt.
Combine melted coconut oil, agave nectar, cocoa powder, orange juice, evaporated cane juice, orange zest, cayenne and salt in a high-powered blender. A regular blender will work, although it may not make the mixture quite as smooth. Puree until smooth; use a small rubber spatula to keep folding the mixture into the center to keep the mixture blending without adding water (you may stop the machine to do this). Make sure cane juice crystals are fully dissolved.
Add the mashed avocado and blend just until the mixture is smooth and creamy.
Pour into six 4-ounce ramekins. Serve each portion topped with slivered almonds.
Note: Agave nectar and evaporated cane juice are minimally processed sweeteners. They are available, along with raw cocoa powder, at natural food stores.
To peel almonds, place a heaping half cup of almonds in a glass bowl. Cover with hot water and let soak 15 minutes. Drain, peel skin off of almonds and slice into slivers with a sharp knife. Dry the almonds slightly before using, either by allowing to air-dry for 15 minutes, or spreading on a sheet pan and placing in a 100° oven for 5 minutes.
PER SERVING: 400 calories, 4 g protein, 34 g carbohydrate, 30 g fat (19 g saturated), 0 cholesterol, 17 mg sodium, 7 g fiber.
E-mail Olivia Wu at email@example.com.