In his 2010 book Catching Fire, primatologist Richard Wrangham argues that cooking is the activity that made us human. Freed from the constant need to gather and eat raw foods, we had time to socialize and think. Our digestive tract shrank, and our brain grew. The hearth became the place where we came together, and the results included marriage, family and the household.
Although it's possible we have cooking to thank for our social structure, raw foodists believe that by cooking food, we lose much of its nutritional value. As with any food movement, the spectrum is wide and varied when it comes to beliefs — some simply think that whole, raw foods added to any diet help maintain health, while others believe that our bodies never adjusted to a cooked and processed diet and that those foods are toxic to our systems. For many, eating raw is the final stop on the vegetarian and vegan journey.
One of the raw movement's best-known proponents is Matthew Kenney, who was the opening chef at New York's most prominent raw food restaurant, Pure Food + Wine. Since then, he's become something of a guru within the movement, penning raw-food cookbooks, appearing as a raw-food expert on television and opening raw-food restaurants across the country. In the last few years he's added raw-food cooking schools to his stable of businesses. The latest of these is in Santa Monica, perched on top of the Santa Monica Place mall in a location called the Market. Attached to the school is a restaurant: M.A.K.E.
The Market is an odd place. Originally hyped as Santa Monica's answer to San Francisco's Ferry Building Marketplace, it has failed to attract the droves of customers who flock there. It's easy to see why: Where the San Francisco marketplace sits on the waterfront in a giant building with soaring ceilings, the Market is an almost dowdy space on the third floor of a mall.
M.A.K.E. has done a decent job of transforming its corner of the space into a green oasis, with soothing wooden walls and tables, and plenty of plant-life accents. You get the feeling that if this restaurant were on street level, it would be packed. As it stands, business is slow, and waiters and managers seem almost surprised and delighted when you show up and sit down. “How did you hear about us?” they ask, excitedly.
As far as service goes, in fact, the whole operation is an exercise in enthusiasm. The staff seems to recognize that for most customers, this meal is likely about novelty. Can raw food taste good? Will I be satisfied? Is it possible to make a full meal — let alone a lifetime of eating — work without meat, dairy or heat?
The answers at M.A.K.E. are invariably yes, yes and yes. As with vegetarian and vegan food, superior results come when restrictions are seen as a call to creativity. The best chefs view the limitations of certain diets as a challenge to use ingredients and flavors in ways that might not occur to them if, say, a steak were involved.
With raw food, this needs to be taken even further. Texture is important, and variation is needed if you're to end up with a dinner that consists of more than the crunch of leaves and raw vegetables.
Your server may push you toward the kimchi dumpling as an appetizer, and you should allow yourself to be pushed. It's a beautiful plate, with three purse-shaped, bright green dumplings served over some vibrant purple stuff that looks like it should taste of passion fruit and flowers but tastes of nothing much at all. Still, the dumplings themselves are a lot of fun — the almost waxy wrapper made of coconut and cilantro, the kimchi filling turned hummuslike with nuts and other mystery ingredients. They're only lightly spicy but intensely savory, and a good introduction to the extreme ingredient manipulation that's on display at M.A.K.E.
If there's a classic raw dish, it's lasagna made from thinly sliced zucchini and “fresh” marinara, and M.A.K.E. does the best version of this dish I've ever had, with layers of tomato, pesto and “ricotta” made from nuts and nutritional yeast. It's the richness that makes this work, the nuttiness of both macadamias and pistachios. It feels decadent rather than virtuous. Likewise, wild mushroom tacos with mole and almond crema provide enough salty, creamy components to let you forget this is a plate of uncooked food.
It's possible to eat a meal at M.A.K.E. that plays on only one end of the acid-to-base spectrum. If you think about the elements of a meal that soothe the low end of your palate, that provide a juxtaposition to raw veggies and acidic juices, they're generally off-limits in a raw diet — rice, mashed potatoes, bread. The absence of those grounding elements can leave your palate tired — mine was quite literally worn out after one meal, the roof of my mouth desiccated by too much juice, vinegar and raw roughage.
Texture does occasionally become an issue. I found both the nut cheeses appetizer and the white chocolate cheesecake dessert cool for a minute — the cheeses intensely tangy, the cheesecake (made with cashews, among other things) mellow — but both have a disconcerting pastiness. The chocolate walnut cake is dense and rich and awesome, but the “ice cream” alongside it is like the uncanny valley of dairy and dessert, just close enough to the true nature of ice cream to make it unsettling.
As with fake meat in vegetarianism, I find raw foods' failures often come when trying to imitate off-limits techniques and ingredients. Raw zucchini in place of pasta in a lasagna works because raw zucchini in itself is delicious — the cool snap of the vegetable doesn't so much fool you into thinking you're eating semolina as it makes you happy you're eating a vegetable.
While the focus on cleverness is necessary in order to create interesting and diverse textures, it would be nice to see some raw-food items that emphasize vegetables. For all the nut cheeses and nutritional yeast sauces, I would have liked to see a simple, huge salad made from everything that's fantastic and in season right now.
But I suppose any old carnivore can make that salad anytime they want. M.A.K.E. is about showcasing the tricks and discoveries Matthew Kenney has come up with, in presenting the raw-food recipes with the biggest wow factor. As a novelty, or a treat that's far healthier than much of what's out there in the dining world, M.A.K.E. displays the inventive and often delicious potential of raw food. The question now is whether the odd location can support that effort.
M.A.K.E. | 395 Santa Monica Place, Suite 333, Santa Monica | (310) 394-7046 | matthewkenneycuisine.com/restaurants/santa-monica | Mon.-Fri., 11 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sat., 10 a.m.-10 p.m.; Sun., 10 a.m.-9 p.m. | Wine and wine cocktails served | Lot parking