Chatting With Sarma Melngailis of Pure Food and Wine: Raw Food, Criticism From Vegan Purists, and Global Expansion
At Pure Food & Wine, the Gramercy restaurant that serves gourmet renditions of organic, vegan, raw food (nothing is heated above 116 degrees), there's a glow coming from the candles being lit in preparation for dinner service on this dark winter afternoon. Dressed in jeans, black sneakers, and a hooded sweatshirt with a giant silhouette of a duck on the back, Sarma Melngailis instructs me to sit with her at a table where she's already been conducting another meeting. We've only got an hour, as her mother, in from New Hampshire (though Melngailis grew up outside of Boston), will be arriving for dinner. And I have a lot to ask Melngailis, a raw foodist who doesn't profess to be a purist, or even a vegetarian, and who has big plans for expansion of her snack-bar offshoot, One Lucky Duck, the second location of which opened a few weeks ago in Chelsea Market. But first, the backstory.
I understand you were in finance for five years, then switched to food. What brought that about?
I'd always loved food, and I gradually realized I wasn't passionate about anything in the world of finance. So I left and went to the French Culinary Institute.
After learning to cook conventionally, how did you go in the raw direction, which doesn't involve actually "cooking" things, exactly?
It happened by accident. I wasn't expecting it. I was one of those people in the food world that had this perception that vegan food is terrible--I didn't even really understand what raw food was. I was taken to a little raw-food cafe, Quintessence. I went in with really low expectations, and it ended up being much better than I thought. I felt really good--I was eating a ton of food and I felt energized, and I was used to going out to restaurants and feeling the food coma. That night I kind of had this crash course in raw food over dinner. I decided to try it as an experiment after that, and then the experiment became permanent.
When you started eating raw, what was the biggest change in how you felt?
Just more energy and clarity, I noticed that right away. It was almost like this fog lifted. I slept better, I woke up better. I wasn't trying to heal anything specifically, but I just went from being relatively healthy to feeling amazing.
So then you opened Pure Food & Wine in 2004 with your then-boyfriend, Matthew Kenney. Did you initially do some of the cooking?
For the first year, I spent most of my nights in the kitchen, and for the original menu I created a lot of the dishes. After the first year, I was working on the first book [Raw Food, Real World, a cookbook collaboration with Kenney, featuring recipes from Pure Food & Wine] and I had decided to start One Lucky Duck. Then I split with my partner here, and that made it more challenging to be running the restaurant on my own and starting the business at the same time. So I had to sort of shift out of the kitchen.
What inspired you to start One Lucky Duck?
One Lucky Duck started as the website, in 2005. When I was working on the first cookbook, I realized I was going to be sending people to a lot of other websites, because for this type of food, the ingredients are hard to find. There wasn't like, a really cool, fun, bright website that could appeal to the mainstream. And that's when I first realized how synergistic everything could be: having a restaurant, having a book, having a website.
Is your attention now mainly on One Lucky Duck?
Yeah, the restaurant, obviously I pay attention to, but in terms of the amount of time, I'm focusing a lot on One Lucky Duck, and always on expansion.
You just opened the Chelsea Market kiosk, your second One Lucky Duck location. How's that going?
It's doing well. People are responding who work in the building.
You mentioned that you hope to open similar establishments.
Well, Chelsea Market was really unique because there was so little build-out. So that was a good place to do a first one. But definitely, I want to do more in the city--and even in other cities. I don't want it to be a Jamba Juice, but at the same time, my whole thing is I want it to be really accessible. I think it would be great if, in airports, people could get fresh juice. Whether I'm the one to do it, I don't know, but I'd certainly like to have that available.
When you say "other cities," which are you referring to?
I'd like to open up overseas. I don't really want to go opening up Pure Food & Wines all over the place--this restaurant is really special, and I want to keep the quality what it is. But the two cities I've always felt made the most sense, internationally, are Tokyo and London. That's where I would like to do a Pure Food & Wine, kind of the same thing we have here, where you have the restaurant and then you have a sort of offshoot.
Would your focus on expansion make some people call you a raw food capitalist?
Maybe. Sometimes people will look on the website or whatever and they see that our prices are really high. It does happen where people get this impression that I'm kind of cleaning up and the money is rolling in--but that could not be farther from the truth. It would be impossible to survive unless we keep the prices as high as we do. Our ingredients are so expensive, and the availability shifts. Like right now, it's incredibly hard to get pine nuts, and they're really expensive. Everything we use is organic, and we don't compromise on that. Most people understand the prices, and they also understand that this type of food is really labor-intensive.
My goal is to be able to grow in a way that we could bring our prices down. Right now we're producing our snacks in the restaurant. It's like any business, when you grow, there are economies of scale, so when you're purchasing things by the pallet, you get much better prices than if you're buying it in smaller quantities, and if you're producing it in a more efficient way, you can charge less.
Speaking of criticism, Grub Street did a New York Diet with you last year that got you a lot of flak for eating a venison meatball and drinking grapefruit mojitos.
See that's the thing, when I read it, I was like, I sound like a crazy alcoholic and totally reckless. I do eat raw food most of the time. But like, last night I happened to go out for a business dinner to a really nice restaurant, Aldea. So I didn't eat raw vegan food. I'm very open about everything, so it's not like I'm pretending I'm 100 percent raw or vegan and someone's going to find out I'm not.
Do you think there's something in the raw food or vegan food movement that can inspire a lot of vitriol?
I've certainly taken some criticism from raw-food purists. But for me, my goal is to make this accessible to the largest possible audience. So I think that just by being who I am and showing that it doesn't have to be this sort of almost religious thing where you're completely strict about everything. It's just that I eat this way most of the time, and I feel better because of it. It's not presented as this all-or-nothing thing, where either you're perfect about it or why bother doing it at all...