By Jane Black
Wednesday, July 28, 2010; E3
For 22 years, Washington caterer Elizabeth Petty has been serving elegant dishes such as lamb carpaccio with goat cheese and herb-grilled poussin with spinach custard and morels. Until last year, one of the perks was getting to taste them all.
In April 2009, Petty, then 49, learned she had breast cancer. By August, she put herself on a strict raw-food diet that meant no meat, dairy, caffeine, processed sugar and alcohol, or even fruits and vegetables with high levels of natural sugar. What was still permitted could not be heated above 105 degrees.
Petty didn't especially miss those foods; the subsequent treatment took away most of her appetite. But, she says, "I had to change my whole psyche. So many people live to eat. I was eating to live."
Now Petty is bringing raw food to Washington in an occasional restaurant in the gracious second-floor dining room at her catering headquarters on L Street NW. On July 16, at the debut of Elizabeth's Gone Raw, she offered a $55 four-course raw and organic menu that included creamy coconut soup topped with a cucumber, mango and radish salad and a glossy chocolate ganache tart. The next dinner, which will feature flax seed and hemp flatbread with zucchini, hummus and shaved fennel, a Thai noodle salad and a Key lime tart, is set for Aug. 13.
The benefit of a raw-food diet is a matter of controversy. Its proponents say that when food is cooked above a certain temperature - some say 105 degrees, some say 118 degrees - heat destroys the enzymes that aid digestion and absorption of nutrients. Food without enzymes can cause toxicity in the body. Critics, such as Harvard anthropologist Richard Wrangham, counter that the act of cooking makes food easier to digest, a key step in human evolution.
Whether they're serving simple wheat-grass juice or faux pasta and sushi, raw-food restaurants have long been part of the scene in New York and California. Here in Washington, Java Green and its sister, Cafe Green, offer a few raw options, but an all-raw restaurant is a hard sell, Petty says. The dinners, to be held weekly starting in September, will allow her to serve the raw-food and vegan community and show others "that there is really healthy, healing food out there that tastes great."
Petty enlisted the help of her chef, Thomas Berry, a man who by his own admission was not particularly suited for the task. He was classically trained at the Culinary Institute of America to appreciate the benefits of meat, butter and cream and has been cooking that way since 1978. Given a choice, he says, he would skip his vegetables.
"For me, it's been a big challenge," he says. "So much of it goes against everything I've learned and have practiced. So I've had to kind of learn the rules."
The rules are many. Nuts must be soaked to soften them and make their nutrients more digestible. A dehydrator can be a raw-food chef's best friend, although some technique is required. Berry has learned that when moisture is removed from food, the flavors become concentrated. As a result, foods need less salt and spice.
Petty and Berry also came up with a rule of their own. Unlike many who prepare raw-food dishes, they don't try to re-create or mimic traditional dishes. There's no soy "meat," for example. The pair are even careful not to call dishes names such as "sushi" or "lasagna": "If I hear 'lasagna' and I don't get a big plate of noodles and sauce and sausage, I'm disappointed," Berry says. "Names bring about expectations."
At each dinner, Petty says, her goal is to show the range and variety of raw foods. The July 16 dinner began with a ginger-sake cocktail: optional, because strict raw-foodists shun alcohol. Instead of bread, there were dehydrated kale chips. On paper, the snack probably would not entice many raw-food skeptics. But the dark-green shards had an addictive oomph from a blend of cayenne and crushed red pepper flakes, pureed cashews and nutritional yeast, an inactive strain popular for its cheesy flavor.
The first course was the refreshing coconut soup in a canoe-shaped bowl, garnished with radish and ribbons of cucumber and mango. Next came a "tamale." Perhaps because the chef had broken his own nomenclature guideline, the gluey texture of the thing was a disappointment. But the entree of zucchini layered with nut ricotta and basil pesto managed to be both light and satisfying.
Most impressive, though, was the chocolate tart. The filling was made with organic maple syrup, coconut butter and unprocessed powdered cacao. The shell was a dehydrated mixture of macadamia nuts, dates, alcohol-free vanilla extract and sea salt. No butter and cream here, but it would be hard to feel deprived. The tart had a distinctive puddinglike mouth feel and a delicious nuttiness.
These are not dishes that will leave you hungry. Ground nuts, coconut milk and avocado are used generously for flavor and texture. "It's caloric," Petty acknowledges. "You wouldn't eat like this every night. I certainly don't eat like this every day. I'm eating sprouts most of the time."
"I thought it was first-class, gourmet raw food," said Melissa Van Orman, a yoga teacher who attended the first dinner and has eaten at two meccas of American raw food, Pure Food and Wine in New York and Cafe Gratitude in San Francisco. "You can really tell that they brought in the artistry of their traditional catering company."
If the concept takes off, Petty says she hopes Elizabeth's Gone Raw will serve food three nights a week. It's a new adventure for her new life as a raw foodist. She had her final cancer treatment this week.
Elizabeth's Gone Raw, 1341 L St. NW. $65 for 5 courses. Organic and biodynamic wine pairing, $20. email@example.com or 202-347-8349 or 202-347-8040.