Thai Lemonade. Cucumber-Avocado Soup. Massaged Kale Slaw. Balsamic Grilled Veggies. Creamy Coconut Mousse. Such delicate dishes could easily belong on the menu of a five-star restaurant, tempting even the most dedicated diet devotee. But those wavering health nuts would be satisfied to learn that raw-food guru Ken Immer developed the mouthwatering recipes, far cries from the rocks and grass courses that many imagine when thinking of a raw, vegetarian dinner.
“We were blown away that raw food could be not just edible, but really good,” says Ellen Rickenbaker, who discovered Immer’s down-to-earth approach to healthy eating when her family took part in a nutritional detox program. Ellen, along with husband Brad and brother Mitch Hankin, was surprised by the results. “We felt amazing, especially when we got dairy out of our diets and began to experiment with different kinds of vegetables.” It wasn’t long before Immer was preparing most of Hankin’s meals, and Ellen asked him to come teach her and Brad his techniques and tricks.
While many raw-food advocates espouse an approach that can cost a fortune or impart as much nutritional misery as good health, the founder of OM Cooking and the all-raw granola snack gRAWnola is very clear on one fact: if a way of eating isn’t satisfying and accessible, people won’t embrace it for long. Whether he’s doing yoga, offering a cooking demonstration, producing gRAWnola, or creating recipes to share on his website, Immer strives to bring reality and wellness together in a way that puts happy eating at the center of a healthy lifestyle.
The irony is that his early career was firmly grounded on the opposite end of the culinary spectrum, as a sous chef specializing in meats and desserts. Then he began a transformative journey that started with yoga, evolved through raw foods and veganism, and eventually turned to the more pragmatic “eat with a purpose” philosophy that now governs his work and lifestyle. “It’s important to be aware of what you are doing. You should take note of how food makes you feel and follow the ones that make you feel better.”
Immer’s advice proved to be an ongoing source of inspiration to the Rickenbakers as they slowly worked their way towards practicing his methods full-time. “This kind of eating is not something you can just flip a switch and do. But if you are enlightened about the options, then you can make changes that are more healthful,” says Ellen.
Inspired by how great this new approach has made them feel, the Rickenbakers invited Immer to share his expertise directly with some friends during a cooking demonstration in their Mount Pleasant kitchen. Though the array of groceries that Immer unloaded onto the enormous center island was, at first, a little intimidating, the chef quickly demystified the raw, live, fermented, foreign-language-label ingredients. As guests took their seats at the counter, Immer started by preparing fresh Thai lemonade sweetened with agave nectar for everyone to sip during class.
While blending a fresh array of ingredients for the cucumber-avocado soup, the chef took the opportunity to teach the group that English cucumbers are a little easier on the stomach than the traditional kind and that the raw fermented soy sauce nama shoyu in place of salt can do magical things for the flavor of a dish. Soup samples were passed across the island as Immer moved on to the kale slaw, which includes mild arame. This seaweed provides a rich source of iron and calcium and can be soaked in the refrigerator for up to two weeks, making it a handy healthy addition to a meal.
Proceeding to the main dish, sprouted quinoa with balsamic grilled vegetables, Immer revealed to the crowd that even in a raw-food diet, it’s not a cardinal sin to lightly grill a few veggies. He also talked of the significant nutritional advantages of sprouted quinoa, a process that only requires the seed be soaked in water for a few hours. “It’s the tiny things that you can learn about how to handle your food that add up to a more healthful lifestyle,” says Ellen, “like sprouting your quinoa or the fact that a green pepper is simply an unripe red pepper and that’s why it upsets your stomach. In the process of learning these things, you feel so much better that you want to eat pure, light, healthy food.”
For a sweet finish, Immer demonstrated how to break down fresh coconuts for the creamy coconut mousse, a completely raw dessert that is not only delicious, but can be thick as ice cream if allowed to set overnight.
Just like his approach to individual clients, Immer’s main strategy during his classes is to help participants add good “building blocks” that eventually push out unhealthy choices. “Many people associate deprivation with vegetarian or raw-food diets,” he says. But using practical methods and a sensible approach, he’s instead able to instill a feeling of improvement and well-being.