It isn't easy to get philosophical while ramming raw beets into a juicer, but the lunch hour is waning and Roxanne Klein has a lot to say.
"It's about evolution, I think," the onetime queen of the raw food movement is musing, knife in one hand, vegetable in the other. RRRrrrrrRRRRR!! She plants her bare feet on the checkerboard floor of her Mill Valley kitchen and shoves another chunk into the machine. "The food, the business," she says, smiling. "My own life."
Perhaps you remember Klein. Two years ago, she was the hottest thing on the American food scene. People called her a revolutionary. Comparisons to Alice Waters were made.
Her elaborate take on so-called "living" foods--a then almost laughably obscure branch of veganism in which fare cannot be heated above 118 degrees Fahrenheit lest it lose certain attributes--had almost single-handedly turned the phrase "raw cuisine" into something other than a punch line for carnivores. There was the cookbook with Charlie Trotter, the clamor for reservations at her restaurant in Marin County, the national press coverage marveling not only at her cooking, but also at her translucent complexion and wraith-thin physique.
And to top it off, there was Klein's seemingly blissful marriage, which had underwritten her rise to celebrity chefdom. No interview was complete without a mention of Michael Klein, the wealthy environmentalist who had supplied both her best connections and her bankroll. Rich hippie. Tech fortune. Harvard degree. Buddy of the Grateful Dead. Did yoga with her. Even without the amazing food, the image was of a counterculture dream team--her with her talent, him with his drive.
Then in 2004, it all went, as it were, right into the juicer. The Kleins abruptly shut down the restaurant and stopped promoting Roxanne as a brand unto herself. Initially, they claimed that so many patrons had migrated to their tiny takeout operation that it had cannibalized the restaurant's customer base and undermined the entire enterprise. But the fine-dining end of their business had never made money; in fact, when it opened, the Kleins said they didn't care about cash and billed it as a nonprofit.
Soon enough, the real reason for their troubles became public: The owners of Roxanne's were splitting up.
Customers wailed. Rivals smirked. Rumors flourished. One persistent story had him catching her in flagrante with the sous chef and then promptly shutting down the restaurant; both Kleins and several ex-employees called it utterly false. The tale was mild by restaurant-gossip standards--a year later, one raw food chef in New York would be arrested for flashing on the subway and details of the breakup of two others would end up on the New York Post's Page Six--but more than a year after the Kleins' split, it was still making the rounds.
More dauntingly, however, Roxanne Klein fell--at the height of her career--from the face of the food scene, unable to bounce back on her own with new backers because disputes over the divorce settlement had tied up her recipes, her image and even her name. For crucial months, as investors fell away and spas and competing restaurateurs worldwide ran with the raw food concept she and her ex had made famous, "everything," she says, "just kind of stopped for me."
RRRrrrrRRR!! An apple and an orange dissolve into the beet juice.
She's 42 and looks half that, still lithe as a wood nymph in torn jeans. It's been a dark couple of years, but today sun glints off the white marble countertops and the stainless-steel Sub-Zero. Rock music--Counting Crows--drifts in from the stereo in the next room.
Klein turns off the juicer, fills a goblet with ruby red liquid and proffers a china plate of elegant pinwheel finger sandwiches made entirely of raw vegetables, nuts and flaxseeds.
And then, in her first extensive interview since her disappearance, she launches into a conversation about commercial food packaging and a guy who was one of the first purveyors of trail mix.
As it turns out, the queen of gourmet raw is cooking up a comeback, and it's coming soon to a supermarket near you.
It's hardly news that the market for what used to be called "health food" isn't the mishmash of bulk bins and co-ops that it once was. Grocery aisles are stuffed with organic labels. Aging boomers preach the gospel of antioxidants and soybeans. Whole Foods, which had only a half-dozen or so stores in the 1980s, now has more than 180 nationwide, and not just in the blue states. The Natural Products Expo West, a trade show featuring health foods and related products, drew about 40,000 retailers this year to Anaheim.
Still, the notion of a cuisine built around raw food remains, let's face it, eccentric. And when the Kleins stumbled into it in the mid-1990s, it was all but unheard-of outside the context of New Age spiritualism and alternative health. Raw foodists have been around for a century or more, but their philosophy is still considered far out even among other vegetarians and vegans. Cooking, they contend, leaches minerals from food and kills certain enzymes that are critical to good health. (The former claim is generally accepted; the second is dismissed by most nutrition experts as silly pseudoscience.)
For a long time, few chefs even knew the term "living foods," let alone considered experimenting with them. The notable exception was Juliano Brotman, a young vegan from Palm Springs who had worked extensively with dehydrators and other alternative food preparation methods and opened a raw restaurant in the mid-'90s in San Francisco to mixed reviews. There was a flurry of interest in show business circles, but mainstream critics largely poked fun at the handful of eateries that had built on Brotman's ideas and recipes.
"The raw food trend is, even as I write, sweeping the modishly spiritual bowels of Manhattan," giggled New York Observer columnist Simon Doonan after weight-conscious fashionistas began flocking to the raw food restaurant Quintessence. "What's it all about, alfalfa?"
Enter the Kleins.
She was a young graduate of the California Culinary Academy in an industry that seemed unlikely to ever truly view a meatless meal as "fine dining." He was a high-tech entrepreneur who, after selling his last venture, had switched gears to become the head, for a while, of the Rainforest Action Network and chief executive of Modulus Guitars, a company in which his friend Bob Weir of the Grateful Dead was a partner.
The couple had been introduced in 1995 by his chauffeur, who had met Roxanne in a Marin County cafe while she was visiting after a stint as an apprentice chef in Provence. Later she would say that on her first date with Michael--a Grateful Dead concert--they fell in love.
After a vacation in Thailand with Weir and actor Woody Harrelson, another of the Kleins' friends, they followed Harrelson's lead and took their diet a step further, she remembers, limiting themselves solely to uncooked foods. For her, the experiment had less to do with dogma or politics or even the avoidance of toxins than with the fact that it made her "feel great." Plus, she really likes garden-fresh produce. Her grandparents were organic farmers, she says, and she grew up as a fifth-generation Californian in the Central Valley with a natural affinity for seasonal foods.
Inspired, the couple conducted an extended fact-finding mission, soliciting advice from Brotman and challenging better-known chefs, such as Trotter--at whose Chicago restaurant Michael Klein had been a regular for some years--to come up with raw tasting menus. From those collaborations came the recipes that would entrance critics when their restaurant, Roxanne's, opened in late 2001 in the Marin County suburb of Larkspur, not far from their mansion of recyclable materials and rammed earth.
From the moment the doors opened, the place was a source of amazement. Jaded reviewers came to jeer and left in wonderment at the mouthwatering "pad Thai" in which strips of raw baby coconut served as the noodles, or the delicious "ice cream" that was conjured, almost miraculously, from soaked raw almonds. Michael Bauer, the San Francisco Chronicle's notoriously exacting restaurant critic, gave it a rare 3-1/2 out of 4 stars. Gourmet magazine called it "an astonishing adventure in pure, sensual flavors." The Wine Spectator predicted: "Don't be surprised if some of these ideas start showing up on other menus."
Suddenly, everyone who was anyone wanted to eat at Roxanne's, and not for the enzymes. The response astonished even her. "Back then it felt like such a crazy concept: 'We're gonna open a restaurant, and it's gonna be only raw,'" she recalls. "I thought it was just going to be a place our friends would come. I wondered if we'd fill up."
But it was a post-9/11 world by then, one in which the purity of the food in a person's stomach seemed to be one of the few parts of life that could be controlled. To the patrons who made sure to corral a reservation a month in advance and then swarmed a takeout business she later opened in an annex, Roxanne's was a wonder--food that was morally superior and yet so delicious that you actually forgot it was good for you.
"They'd reached a pinnacle of human achievement, the way I saw it," says John Liviakis, a Marin County businessman who became a regular. "It was--I can't describe it. Heavenly. It was like heaven. It was a blessing that we could have something like that on our planet. They achieved virtual perfection, but I guess it was too good to be true."
It was. The restaurant was hemorrhaging money. One person close to the operation says that as much as $10 million had been sunk into the venture by the time it was shuttered.
Because they could, the Kleins had spared no expense. The staff list read like a restaurant industry Who's Who. The chef de cuisine came from Charlie Trotter's. The manager had opened Masa's, Aqua and Gary Danko, three of the highest-ranked destination restaurants in San Francisco. One of the best-known sommeliers in the Bay Area had designed the wine list.
What's more, the menu preparation was highly labor-intensive and the ingredients expensive. Hundreds of cases a week of young Thai coconuts had to be imported to create the pad Thai and ice cream, for example, and the labor costs involved just in digging out the meat and spooning out the water each night "were just unbelievable," says Donna Insalaco, who served in the restaurant's second year as an executive chef and later became general manager and helped open the takeout annex. "We had one guy just cracking coconuts."
Initially, the Kleins said publicly that money was no object, and that any profits would go to charity. But the restaurant wasn't just a financial strain, Roxanne says now. "I think the success was hard on the relationship. For the first year and a half, I was there from 7 in the morning until 2 in the morning. It was crazy." Later, as her schedule swelled with guest appearances and media calls, she says, it became clear that they were "not bringing out the best in each other."
By summer 2004, the Kleins had decided to break up and close the restaurant. It was only later, after Roxanne began talking to investors who had wanted to expand the takeout business (which did show some financial potential) that it became clear nothing could continue until the divorce was finalized.
Michael Klein, who last year married actor Michael Douglas' ex-wife, Diandra, declined to comment on the breakup, saying simply that he and Roxanne are friends now and that he is proud to have helped launch the restaurant. And both stress that they are grateful for the other's hard work on the project. "It was a remarkable achievement," Michael says. "We did contribute tremendously to the awareness of living foods, and I'm very happy for that."
At that moment, however, Roxanne remembers, "everything was stripped away." The house, the garden, the restaurant equipment, even the much-discussed sous chef--they all went to her ex-husband, the sole creditor of a business that had been designed to raise consciousness, not profit. For more than a month, she says, she couldn't bear to set foot in a kitchen; for nearly a year, she struggled to regain her bearings. "For a long time, it just seemed that everything was let go, let go, let go."
She consulted with a therapist and, later, a shaman who "helped me see who I am and what my path is, and to trust my intuition." She holds out the inside of her wrist, which is decorated with black tattoo marks.
"This is the kanji symbol for truth and a nautical star," she says. "I got it last year in the city from a tattoo artist. And I didn't get it back here either." She points to her lower back, where, when the restaurant first opened, she got another tattoo, a magenta-and-green beet. It was to pay homage to her favorite food, the one that her favorite novelist, Tom Robbins, once called "the most intense of vegetables."
"It's right here," she says, looking at her arm and wincing for fear of "sounding New Age-y." "Here's my truth. It doesn't matter what people think, what people tell me. It's just about aligning with what I know and what is true. And from that everything flows naturally."
What flowed in the end, after a certain amount of give-and-take on both sides, was an amicable divorce, a generous financial settlement, the new home in Mill Valley and a line of high-end raw products scheduled to debut later this year--bearing her name. Her backer and co-developer this time is a 33-year veteran of the natural food business. Larry Brucia, president of Sutti & Associates, a Burlingame consulting firm specializing in independent grocery stores, says he immediately sensed the commercial possibilities in Klein's recipes when they were introduced by a mutual friend who owns a Marin County market.
"Having organic in your store no longer differentiates you from other stores," he says. "Wal-Mart has announced they'll be carrying organic. Costco now carries organic." The question among retailers now is "what's next?"
It's a familiar question to Brucia, whose family has been in the food business in the Bay Area for three generations. He got his start in the early 1970s, when he and a friend sold a mixture of leftover nuts and raisins to a Berkeley retailer and ended up as founder of Marin Food Specialties, one of the first major dealers of what would become known as trail mix. Since then, he has had a hand in the development and marketing of a wide array of products, including biodegradable detergents and herbal extracts.
"I can remember walking into stores with natural products and being laughed out of the manager's office and being called a tree-hugger," Brucia says with a chuckle. Raw food may not be the next big religion among Americans, he says, but it's high in vitamins and fiber, and the more elaborate dishes are very difficult to prepare at home from scratch. Made more accessible (i.e. as takeout), raw food could end up being regarded in the same way that many now consider organic or vegan menus--not as an everyday thing, but as an occasional option for getting more fruits and vegetables into your diet. "Roxanne's philosophy is, if you sit at the table and look at the food on your plate, if 50% of it is raw, well, yay!" Brucia explains.
The notion isn't as far-fetched as it once might have sounded. Already, for example, Trotter's restaurant in Chicago offers an all-raw chef's menu upon request, and raw selections are cropping up at luxury spas from Bali to Mexico. Most major cities now have at least one raw food takeout or restaurant, and Southern California has at least a half-dozen. Among them: relative newcomers such as Leaf Cuisine in Culver City and Sherman Oaks and Laguna Beach's Naked Apples, as well as the almost-venerable Juliano's Raw in Santa Monica, run by Brotman. Packaged "raw" desserts and snacks also have begun to show up on the shelves of places such as Wild Oats and Whole Foods, and via online sales operations such as One Lucky Duck, a site started by one of the founders of Pure Food and Wine in New York.
Brucia and Klein say at least three major supermarket chains are vying for their line, which will be sold from a special in-store kiosk. Products are set to range from her version of ice cream--"raw kreme," they plan to call it--to snacks, prepackaged crackers and breads, and takeout like the vegetarian wraps Klein has dished up for our lunch. Meanwhile, the cookbook she wrote with Trotter is being reissued in paperback by Ten Speed Press in March. Klein and Brucia are setting up a website (www.rawrox.com) and plan to roll out their products first in California, then nationwide.
"This is the first time that I've been able to be out there in a way that's just me," she says, pulling a dessert from the freezer. It's her ice cream with a raw version of chocolate sauce.
On a whim, she grabs some of the beet juice, drizzles it on top and sprinkles it with gold flecks of bee pollen. The result--voila!--is like nothing I've ever tasted. Sweet, cold, ethereal. Even evolved.