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Raw talent

Cutting-edge cuisine finds a home in Oklahoma City.

Sam Lower May 23rd, 2012

A group of culinary students learns how to cook portobello mushrooms sous vide, a process that involves submerging vacuum-sealed ingredients in water at a precisely controlled temperature.

They move to the “anti-griddle,” a flattop made for freezing on contact, rather than heating, on which dollops of nut-based “butter” and “cream” are chilled into icecream “omelets.”

This isn’t happening on the Food Network or in one of the exotic eateries of New York or Los Angeles. It’s happening right here in Oklahoma City, at the Matthew Kenney Academy.

A quick look around its kitchen, which serves as a classroom, yields no grills, ovens or microwaves. This is because the academy, formerly 105 Degrees, specializes in raw, vegan cuisine.

Students have come from Florida, California, Brazil — even as far as Zambia — to learn from chef Matthew Kenney.

The words “raw” and “vegan” probably don’t figure into the average diet, especially here in the home of Stockyards City.

Students are not coming from all over the world to plate salads and carrot sticks. Kenney’s creations are works of skill and imagination, transforming basic ingredients into vibrant and exotic dishes that evoke the tastes and textures of foods both familiar and entirely new.

“We don’t try to imitate,” said Kenney. “We want a point of reference for people trying this for the first time.”

Many of the dishes have familiar names but are original creations by Kenney. “Dumplings” are actually a cashew kimchi in soft coconut wrappers. The “classic heirloom tomato lasagna” is not the heavy pasta dish we know, but layers of raw tomato, zucchini, pesto and a “macadamia ricotta.”

“We didn’t invent dehydration,” he said, “but we were the first to make a coconut wrapper using dehydration.”

While Kenney is now the leading figure in the raw movement, he was not always focused on healthy cuisine.

“I grew up hunting, eating the standard American diet,” he said.

He graduated from the French Culinary Institute, and his restaurants in New York led to him being named one of America’s Best New Chefs by Food & Wine magazine in 1994. Although he has changed his diet and outlook on food, Kenney’s experience with traditional French cooking influences much of his creativity in altering raw ingredients.

“Classical training gave me the tools for raw food,” he said. “French cooking teaches you about the fundamentals, how to layer flavors, how to season things.”

The academy has graduated students from more than 30 countries. Many of them are not professional chefs; they range from engineers to contractors to documentary filmmakers.

Mubanga, a mother from Zambia, talked about her prior cooking experience.

“Now I’m learning how to un-cook,” she said.

Originality aside, the underlying reason for this new brand of cuisine is health.

“The food we’re used to is overcooked and over processed,” explained Johan Everstijn, a raw, vegan chef at the Matthew Kenney restaurant. “Most people don’t realize that once it’s processed, the nutrients aren’t there anymore.”

If you’re unconvinced by the theory, give it a try and see how the body responds. Most raw-dieters claim to feel a remarkable difference.

“The energy level is amazing,” Kenney said. “I’m almost 50. I can go out and run 10 miles, do what I did when I was 25 — almost better now. I don’t get sick. Ever.”

With projects in New York, Chicago, Miami, Santa Monica — as well as Spain, Thailand and Australia — Kenney chose Oklahoma City for the only licensed raw food academy in the world. He said he recognized it as a “city on the move,” but one “without an emphasis on healthy eating.” And he wanted to change that.

The restaurant alone is a huge contribution to Oklahoma City. In 2010, Forbes named it one of America’s Best New Restaurants.

Meanwhile, the academy has made OKC a hotbed of creativity in an unexpected field.

“If we can make people happy who would not normally be into this kind of cuisine, that’s good,” said Kenney.

Want to devote your home kitchen to raw creation?

You’ll need new tools and ingredients to make it happen. The Culinary Kitchen, 7302 N. Western, is a supplier unlike any other and should be your first stop for the specialized equipment to get started.

For any aspiring home chef — raw or otherwise — the essential starting point for skilled preparation is a quality chef’s knife. The Culinary Kitchen carries several brands of knives suited for beginners and pros.

Owner Claude Rappaport has some of the more advanced raw equipment, such as the Vitamix blender, essential for making smoothies and gazpachos. He even stocks a sous vide, cookbooks included, if one wants to recreate Kenney’s mushroom “sirloin.”

For quality ingredients, look no further than Epicurean’s Pantry, 1333 N. Sante Fe in Edmond. You’ll find a variety of local and imported raw and organic foods you won’t find in grocery stores.

Owner Leah Haskins also carries a wide selection of spices, vinegars and raw honeys. The store prides itself on foods with no additives or preservatives.

Raw food at home may be an ambitious undertaking, but Oklahoma City’s local kitchen suppliers can start you on your raw journey.

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