“Ravishingly Raw” by Rona Gindin of Winter Park Magazine
By Rona Gindin
When Joe Diaz’s 8-year-old son was sick with a cold, the owner of Cafe 118° did something you might not expect from a devotee of consuming only raw foods: He heated up a bowl of chicken noodle soup for the youngster.
“My son was born asthmatic, and I’ve been feeding him a well-balanced, nutritious diet that includes lean chicken and whole grain pastas and breads, but no sugars or junk,” Diaz says. “Eating that way helped get him off a lot of medications and steroids.”
While Diaz himself eats only raw fruits, vegetables, grains and nuts and serves only those foods in his Winter Park restaurant, he’s quick to admit that his way is “not the silver bullet,” but one of many eating options that can lead to good health.
Yet in Cafe 118°, diners find lunches and dinners that fit only into the “raw foodism” realm, which allows them to see this diet in its purest form. Opened in November 2008 on Morse Boulevard east of Park Avenue, the restaurant represents a way of eating that gained popularity about five years ago and still has a devoted following, especially on the West Coast. The raw foodism premise is that we all would be healthier if we consumed only foods that come from the ground, not our fellow creatures, and that those foodstuffs shouldn’t be cooked beyond 118 degrees. That’s the temperature at which enzymes break down, thus reducing the nutritional value, according to diet supporters. Some experts in the scientific community question that claim.
Whatever the facts, Diaz is not on a one-man mission to convert Winter Park residents to his ways. The entrepreneur simply offers an option for the days when folks want to eat healthfully, and he’s determined to make that food so delicious that they’ll be tempted to visit his shop even if they’re apt to have a bacon cheeseburger the next day.
“I didn’t open this restaurant to cater to raw foodists or vegetarians or vegans,” he emphasizes. “I opened this restaurant to expose everyone to what we can do with fruits, nuts and vegetables so I can spark the idea that you end up serving more fruits and vegetables to your family. All I’m saying is, instead of having that big piece of steak with two carrot sticks and three stalks of asparagus, have a small amount of meat and a lot of vegetables.”
Winter Park dietitian Karen Beerbower would be glad to hear Diaz is open-minded about eating some grass-fed beef or free-range chicken — not to mention bread — now and then. She says she’s wary of the raw foods craze. “Raw foodists eat a lot of fruits and vegetables and not a lot of processed foods, which is going to lead to a more healthful diet overall,” notes Beerbower, one of the principals of Nutritional Guidance Inc., on Louisiana Avenue. “If that diet goes to the extreme, though, it could lead to a restriction of major nutrients and necessary calories.” Iron and B12 are the main concerns, she says. People can get iron from nuts and other sources, but it’s “not absorbed as well as the iron in animal foods,” she explains. And B12 comes only from animal sources, so some raw foodists might need supplements or injections, she adds.
One way to better health
A polished-looking young man with slick black hair and a healthy glow that defies malnutrition doom and-gloom warnings, Diaz at age 36 is clearly having a grand time making his 1 1/2-year-old enterprise grow. He oversees the two chefs (one a vegetarian, one not) who prepare the dishes. Diaz chose the elements of the restaurant’s minimalist interior plus the modern art on the walls. Eager to offer information on foods and diet, he’s self-educated, careful to try to rely only on legitimate studies. He recently enrolled in New York’s Institute for Integrative Nutrition to learn more. Diaz admits that his sources may not all be stamped with the approval of PhDs or even registered dietitians, but he is certain that eating this way is an effective way to better health. “I trust what makes me feel good,” explains Diaz, who exercises regularly. “I listen to my body.”
It’s a fact is that Cafe 118° serves intriguing, beautiful and tasty food. Eye a tableful of its dishes, and you’ll see a cornucopia of jewel tones such as ruby red and emerald green. The “ravioli” is actually two oversized diamonds of deep red-colored “pasta” made from pureed young coconut flesh infused with beet juice and “cooked” (the water is extracted) in a dehydrator at 90 degrees to change the texture. Nestled inside is creamy “ricotta,” which is actually created with macadamia nuts in the kitchen. The pear-wine sauce weaves in additional flavors. The basil wrapper has a similar exterior, this one forest green from basil juice and shaped like a tortilla folded burrito-style. Within is a wedge of creamy avocado, pungent dried cherry tomatoes, and more of that macadamia cheese.
The Pad Thai is delightfully robust. The “noodles” are actually long thin strips of zucchini and carrots. They’re tossed with a dressing that’s made with nama shoyu (raw unpasteurized soy sauce), tahini, sesame oil, ginger, lime juice, olive oil and sea salt. Also on the plate is a sesame glaze that’s whipped with almond butter, red chili flakes and several of the same ingredients as the dressing. The dish is then sprinkled with ground cashew nuts.
The lasagna is one layering of zucchini wedges, sun-dried tomato sauce and macadamia ricotta topped with a sauce of spinach marinated in a seven-herb oil.
A wealth of choices
The menu might confuse a newcomer because the names of dishes are deceptive. Spaghetti and meatballs, for example, is long thin slices of winter squash and zucchini with rounds made of ground portabella mushroom, pistachio, almond, onion, garlic, carrot and celery. “The names help people correlate mentally what they’ll get on their plate,” he explains.
The carrots and onions used to create Cafe 118° meals are generally locally raised or organic or both, when possible. “I prefer local fruits and vegetables, but they’re hard to get,” Diaz says. “We do organic as much as possible. We don’t use any genetically modified foods, which are cloned and engineered to withstand certain insects and weather elements.”
Chef de cuisine Osaliqui Barruos finds the restaurant’s food transformations fascinating, and he’s the one making them happen. “It’s amazing to me how you can take something liquid and turn it into a different texture without using an oven or a stove,” marvels Barruos, who worked the line at Gaylord Palms’ Old Hickory Steakhouse before assisting Diaz. A carnivore himself, Barruos has become enchanted with his restaurant’s meat-and-potato dinner — a smoked portabella mushroom “steak” with a Latin American-style “potato” salad made instead with the root vegetable jicima.
Smoothies are a big part of the appeal of Cafe 118°, but the chilled beverages are no ordinary concoctions. Here the Venus Verde tastes like an ordinary fruit drink yet is green; that’s because spinach and basil are pureed with the bananas and pineapples. Rainforest Rapture has ginger and acai along with blueberry and apple. Those who are into spice might try the Goji Gold. Cayenne pepper zests up mango, orange and gojo berries.
Cafe 118° also offers an array of desserts – sweetened with agave instead of refined sugar. Instead of chocolate, Diaz uses raw cacao powder. “Cacao beans have the highest antioxidants on the planet, higher than pomegranates, higher than acai berries, higher than blueberries, based on the studies I’ve read,” he says. “To make chocolate, people take this beautiful, gorgeous bean and roast it until it’s black like a coffee bean. They destroy all the minerals. All the antioxidants go out the window.” So, the sweet S’mores are a stack of oat flour crackers, coconut marshmallow and raw cacao sauce. The pumpkin pie’s filling is actually a mold of pureed cashews combined with carrot juice, coconut oil, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, thyme and agave. Its crust has an almond base.
A different kind of ‘chef’
With all his fancy kitchen tricks, Diaz might be mistaken for a chef, but that’s far from the truth. He came to the world of raw foods by happenstance. For nine years, Diaz was a commercial banker locally with SunTrust. He had reached the point where he was “burnt out by corporate America” and was looking for a business opportunity that would “coincide with what I like doing in my off time: eating well and exercising.”
“I was listening to NPR news one morning in 2005, and there was a discussion about using coal to create clean gases,” he recalls. “A week or two later, I tried to look up the company on Google. I couldn’t remember its name, only the catchy motto, which was something like, ‘Blue is the new green.’ Among the results were listings for the Blue Green Juice Cafe, a restaurant in New York City. I clicked on its Web site and saw the most beautiful pictures of fruits, nuts and vegetables and a fantastic menu that looked much like my menu does now.”
And so the journey began. Diaz called Blue Green to ask about franchise opportunities. Learning that wasn’t an option, he hired one of its founders, Matthew Kenney, to help develop a similar concept in Winter Park. It opened three years later.
From his raw-foods discovery to the opening of Cafe 118°, Diaz made personal changes. He had been a meat eater, trying to have mostly chicken, brown rice and produce. He became a vegetarian, then a vegan, “and then I went raw.” He bought raw-foods cookbooks by Kenney and others, and started making Kenney’s smoothies. “I loved his smoothies because they incorporated something called almond milk and other ingredients I’d never heard of, which aren’t as fattening as regular milk.” Next he bought a food dehydrator, an equipment staple of die-hard raw foodists. The dehydrator never goes above 118 degrees, hence the restaurant’s name.
Although Diaz clearly has been happy with the results of his raw food diet, he’ll learn about 100 varied diets at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and plans to try some of them. First up is the Caveman diet. Essentially, that’s 85 percent raw food diet enhanced by beef, chicken and fish. “You’ve got to change it up,” Diaz explains, enthusiastically. “I’ll see what works.”
Venus Verde Smoothie
1 1/4 cups pear juice or any other fruit juice
1 cup spinach leaves
2 basil leaves
1 cup frozen banana slices
1 cup frozen pineapple chunks
Place all ingredients and blender and puree. Serves one or two.
Vegetarians Don’t eat animals, poultry or fish. Some consume eggs.
Flexitarians Generally follow a vegetarian diet but make exceptions from time to time.
Pesco vegetarians Eat fish but no other flesh.
Lacto-vegetarians Forgo all dairy products, in addition to animal products.
Lacto-ovo vegetarians Eliminate eggs, too.
Vegans Eat no foods that began with living creatures, like lacto-ovo vegetarians. Many refuse to wear apparel that originated with living creatures.
Raw foodists Follow a vegan diet and eat nothing that is cooked to a temperature past 118 degrees, which means no bread or pasta.
Life as a raw foodist
What’s it like to live on raw foods? Maitland real estate and business lawyer Edward G. Milgram spent one and a half years on such a diet before resuming a more traditional way of eating.
“I loved being a raw foodist,” says the 46-year-old married father of two. “Before that I was on a new diet what seemed like every two weeks, and I never felt better than during my raw foods days. I lost weight and maintained that weight without working at it, and I was able to keep my cholesterol under control.” He never found the need for supplements.
The beginning was rough, since Milgram is a self-described “carbohydrate addict.” After the “initial detox” of no bread, pasta or potatoes, however, he “never really missed them that much,” he remembers. “If I eat one thing then I’ll want to eat a ton of it. If I just cut it out entirely, I don’t miss it, so this diet matched my psyche.”
Like most raw foodists, Milgram did stray. “Most of the books on raw foodism acknowledge that it’s hard to be 100% raw foodist,” he points out. “They say you should set a goal, like 70 percent. If you go out to dinner with friends, you’ll end up having a plate of cooked vegetables. In the winter, you might want to eat something hot like a bowl of oatmeal.”
After 18 months, Milgram stopped because of family pressure. “My wife, Gale, was worried that I wasn’t getting the nutrients I need,” he recalls. Also, he was at the mercy of what was stocked in his home fridge and restaurant kitchens. Milgram never went so far as to explore food dehydrators or almond milk.
As successful as Milgram’s experiment was, he admits raw foodism isn’t the answer for everyone. “Unlike many people, I don’t live to eat, I eat to live. For me food is more for survival.”
Milgram’s waistline has started inching outward again, and he’s thinking about returning to his raw foodie ways. “Last time it helped my overall health, appearance and cholesterol. I think I may try it again. I felt great.” – Rona Gindin
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