It has been months in the making, and finally, I am happy to post this interview with Nwenna Kai. She is an eco-entrepreneur, lecturer, food activist, raw vegan chef and instructor who has authored her first book, The Goddess of Raw Foods, but her accomplishments don’t stop there.
In 2007, Nwenna was the recipient of the Elizabeth Dole Young Entrepreneurial Grant from the organization Women Impacting Public Policy (WIPP) for her work as a health and wellness eco-entrepreneur. She is the previous owner of Taste of the Goddess Cafe, a raw vegan restaurant that was based in Los Angeles.
I extend a long awaited warm welcome to Nwenna, and in this interview, she shares with us how she adapted raw food into her diet and her thoughts on embracing a raw vegan lifestyle, some fun information about herself, and more.
Enjoy the Interview…
Ingrid Weithers-Barati: Tell us about your eating history before embracing a raw food diet?
Nwenna Kai: I have been vegetarian since I was 14 years old and vegan since I was eighteen. Of course I’ve changed my diet from time to time. I spent some time in France when I was in college and I completely went back to eating meat because I just didn’t know how to stay vegetarian in France. Then I got really really sick and came back to the States and did the master cleanse for 14 days and got better. Then I went back to being vegan again.
Overall, I always ate really healthy. My parents always had fresh fruit available for us and we always had something green and fresh on our plates for dinner. We never ate out of cans or boxes. When I went to college, I was astonished to see people put two or three starches on one plate at a time. Having a green vegetable in my household was the rule, not an option. So that stayed with me.
IWB: When did you discover raw food and what inspired you adapt it to you lifestyle?
NK: I discovered raw foods in the year 2000 while I was an art student in Chicago. I was sick all the time. I was eating a mostly cooked vegan diet and I suffered from horrible headaches, acne, constipation, a thyroid disorder, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, anxiety, sciatica. You name it. I experienced it. So the constipation was the most debilitating so I said to myself if I ate salads and fresh juices for a week, then I’ve got to go to the bathroom and that’s what I did and I surely went to the bathroom. I just kept eating the salads until I was sick of salads and then I met someone on a yoga retreat who happened to be a raw foodist who introduced me to Karyn Calabrese’s restaurant in Chicago and I bought all the books and equipment and started experimenting with food.
What inspired to adapt it to my lifestyle was simply based on how I kept feeling. I just was feeling so good and the food was nourishing my body so I just kept educating myself about it.
IWB: What is the most amusing response or reaction that you’ve experienced when you told someone about the raw food diet?
NK: “Its dangerous to eat raw foods all the time because of all the bacteria.” Right? I had to laugh at that one. Or, “Are you going to make your kids eat that way too?” Like God forbid right? What’s interesting about these reactions is that people don’t even realize what they are saying. We are so programmed by other people’s programming which is programming by other people’s programming that we are on autopilot and we ourselves can’t see through our own stuff.
IWB: What people or events have most influenced your journey as a raw foodist?
NK: Karyn Calabrese’s restaurant was my first introduction to the world of raw foods, so she has been such an inspiration to me as a business woman, a raw foodist, and as a woman of color especially since the raw foods movement doesn’t really recognize people of color as much who are pioneers and leaders in this movement as well.
The events that influence me the most is when people reach out to me and tell me how much I’ve helped them. I also just love educating people about their health and well-being. Also being African American I am doing a lot of work in my own community with educating people. I grew up with a grandmother who grew collard greens in the middle of the ghetto in a community garden in West Philadelphia. Raw Foods is an interesting diet because some of the foods you can’t get them in the ghetto. You won’t find nori rolls, durian, or hemp seeds in the supermarkets in the ghetto but you can grow collard greens, tomatoes, and bell peppers anywhere so I love the simplicity of eating a raw foods diet. Some people think oh, I gotta have a lot of money to eat this way and you don’t. All those superfoods and stuff probably costs a lot of money and they taste really good but a ripe tomato just pulled out of the ground is like putting heaven on your tongue.
IWB: When did you decide to become a chef and how did you learn to “un” cook?
NK: Its funny because I never decided to become a chef. And I really don’t consider myself to be a chef. I love raw foods and I teach people about raw foods but I am self-taught and self-learned and I pretty much break all the rules around being a chef. But I learned how to “un” cook from eating this way and then from running my own restaurant.
IWB: Who inspires you as a chef?
NK: Definitely my own taste buds inspire me as well as my culture and background growing up in an African American family where food is like medicine. Simplicity also influences me since I’m such a simple person who likes ease and comfort at the same time so I create recipes based on what I would like to eat, what is functional in terms of what ingredients can I grab easily, are readily available, and simple and easy to make.
IWB: If we could have a peak into your kitchen pantry, what raw food staples would we find?
NK: I love seaweeds so I keep dulse flakes, nori rolls, wakame, and arame in my pantry. That’s as exotic as it gets.
IWB: What is/are your favorite kitchen gadget[s]?
NK: The Vitamix of course.
IWB: Tell us one [or more!] of your all-time favorite raw vegan recipes?
NK: Watermelon gazpacho soup. Its the best on a hot hot day.
IWB: What type of challenges, if any, have you faced with your family, friends and within your community since embracing a raw vegan lifestyle, and how have you overcome them?
NK: I still face challenges with friends and family who just don’t get it or understand. I still get asked questions like “you don’t eat fish or chicken” or “you eat like a bird” or “how can you get full from just eating vegetables and fruits all day”. But those challenges have dwindled over the years as my life is full of people who want to be healthy and eat better and so instead of critcizing, they are calling me asking me for advice and recipes.
IWB: What are you most proud of as a raw vegan?
NK: I am most proud that I healed a lot of my physical ailments with a raw foods diet and I also that I have a testimonial to use to teach and inspire others to do the same.
IWB: Tell us one of your most amusing behind-the-scenes kitchen stories.
NK: Too many to tell. There were a lot of fun times I had in my restaurant with my employees in preparing food, and experimenting with food, chatting it up with customers, seeing who would come in.
IWB: Where and what was your most memorable raw meal?
NK: When I first started eating raw food, I was introduced to it from an ex-boyfriend. That was my first raw foods meal at a raw foods restaurant and it was at Karyn’s Fresh Corner in Chicago. We had a chickpea salad with sprouts, some nori rolls stuffed with a almond pate I believe and then we finished it off with carrot cake. It was memorable because I remember feeling so nourished from the experience of eating live food and sharing it with someone who I really cared about. It was awesome.
IWB: If you could be or do anything else, what would you do or be?
NK: When I was in Australia in March of this year, I saw dolphins for the first time. I might want to be a dolphin but other than that I would like to get into this time travel thing.
IWB: What one word would you use to describe yourself?
IWB: What’s the one thing about you few people know?
NK: That I’m a quantum physics, metaphysics, science freak. I love anything about the esoteric, the mythic, the ancient, the erotic, the 5th dimensional. I crave that stuff like I crave love and watermelon gazpacho soup on a hot summer day.
IWB: Is there a food you can’t bring yourself to like?
NK: Durian. Can’t find it in the ghetto.
IWB: What are some things you enjoy doing in your spare time?
NK: I watch a lot of films and I read a lot of books. I love hiking, sweating at the spa, and spending time with the ones I love the most.
IWB: As a previous restaurant owner, what was the most difficult situation you had to handle and what did you learn from the experience?
NK: Wow. There are too many to choose. Mostly the multi-tasking was just too difficult. And so what did I learn? That I was extremely creative and multi-talented.
IWB: Any plans on opening another raw restaurant?
NK: I’m doing consulting work with investors who want to open up a raw foods restaurant in downtown LA, but I don’t have any plans on opening up another restaurant anytime soon. I love the restaurant industry, but I love my freedom also.
IWB: What are some important things each of us can do to stay on the raw food tract?
NK: Surround yourself with people who adopt your diet and your lifestyle, and arm yourself with a lot of information, and learn how to eat intuitively instead of listening to everyone else tell you what to eat and how to eat, and don’t put so much pressure on yourself. Sometimes the raw foods community can be so extreme and its almost like we’ve become the raw foods police force. I think balance and moderation is the key to everything.
For the giveaway, Nwenna offers a copy of her book The Goddess of Raw Foods to one Raw Epicurean reader. To participate in the drawing, simply answer the question:
If we could have a peak into your kitchen pantry, what raw food staples would we find?
One entry per person, please.
The drawing for this giveaway will take place Monday, October 26th. I will use my favorite random number picker to choose the winning participants. The winning participants will be contacted via email and an announcement will be posted in the comment section of this post.