Sarma Melngailis is the proprietor and co-founder of Pure Food and Wine, one of New York City’s premier raw food restaurants. She is also the founder and CEO of One Lucky Duck, a company that produces and packages a line of raw food snacks, offers ingredients, supplements, kitchen tools, books, and many more organic and eco-friendly products and supplies.
Sarma has authored two raw food recipe books, the most recent contribution to the world of recipe books was released today, Living Raw Food.
In this interview, Sarma gives us a few great tips on running a successful restaurant, shares a few of the books that inspire her in business, she talks about her favorite kitchen gadgets, recipes, and more.
Enjoy the Interview…
Raw Epicurean: Tell us a bit about your background as a chef and at what point in your culinary career you became interested in raw living food?
Sarma Melngailis: I don’t really think of myself as a chef anymore. I’m not sure I ever did, in the professional sense. It was just something I did for a while, and something I love, but it’s not my background and I’ve moved away from the kitchen to focus on growth and the One Lucky Duck business.
After college I started out in investment banking, then private equity, then at a hedge fund of sorts, and then I finally left finance altogether and enrolled at the French Culinary Institute. In college while everyone else in my classes was reading The Wall Street Journal I was reading Gourmet and Food and Wine magazines. So it’s not surprising I ended up cooking. My mother was a professional chef, so I grew up in a food centric environment.
After cooking school I got into the restaurant business with a partner for a while and I spent a lot of time in the kitchen and working on creating dishes and menus.
A couple years later, in between projects, I ended up having dinner in a raw food café. I didn’t know anything about raw food. I ended up being totally intrigued. I was with the same partner, and we tried going raw as an experiment. After a few days we realized it was a permanent change. That first dinner at the little café was when I knew inside we were going to do a raw food restaurant—one that would be very different from that little café.
RE: Thankfully, Pure Food and Wine has successfully kept its doors open in the competitive New York food industry and during these tough economical times. What are 3 tips for running a successful restaurant?
SM: Do something different and do it well, so your guests leave wanting to tell other people.
Hire only really nice people and take really good care of them. In turn, they’ll give out good happy vibes that people can feel when they come in, and they’ll also take really good care of all the guests and feel as if the restaurant is their home too.
When things slow down even a little, that’s the best (and most important) time to shower guests with extras… extra food, extra attention, extra love. Always keep in mind that people are spending time and money to come to your place. Some people have traveled from far, planned way ahead, and it’s a special occasion for them. Treat everyone like it’s their special occasion.
RE: I think tattoos are cool. I like your duck tattoo. Did you get it before or after you created your company One Lucky Duck and does it symbolize something significant?
SM: Thanks. :-) I got it just before the online business launched. As soon as the logo was completed and confirmed, I realized it was the tattoo I’d been waiting for. I always wanted one but didn’t want to get just anything. I like the idea of branding myself with the brand of the company.
RE: What books have you read that have influenced the way you approach your business?
SM: Richard Branson’s books, I love him and he inspires me to be stubborn about what I believe in and my intuition. Speaking of intuition, I liked the book Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, it’s fascinating and very cool. I also really liked Danny Meyer’s book about the restaurant business, Setting the Table. His company has the hospitality thing perfected. And right now I’m reading all of Seth Godin’s books. I think he gives me courage to keep at it, and reminds me that it’s not only okay but a good thing to be different.
RE: If you were to open a new restaurant, where would it be?
SM: Tokyo. And London. This is something I’ve always known. Don’t ask me why. (Intuition I guess?).
RE: What are some of your favorite kitchen gadgets?
SM: Right now I’m all about everything ceramic. We recently added Kyocera ceramic tools to oneluckyduck.com and I love my ceramic knife, peeler, and mandoline slicer.
RE: Tell us one of your most amusing behind-the-scenes kitchen stories?
SM: The only thing I can think of is a home kitchen story. It comes right out of my new book (Living Raw Food) where I’m discussing the hazards of using a mandoline slicer if you’re over-confident and also drinking wine, like I was.
“With a mandoline, shredding and shaving takes only seconds. Just don’t shred your finger off! I did this once—sliced off the tip of my middle finger. Who uses the plastic safety guard? Oh yeah, it comes with a safety guard. I recommend using it. I should take my own advice. For the record, I was talking to, and looking at, a really cute boy while shaving fennel at home. These kinds of things are embarrassing when you’re supposed to be experienced in the kitchen.
As soon as I saw this small piece of my body sitting on the cutting board, I panicked and threw it in the garbage, quickly wrapped a dishtowel around my finger, and finished making our salad as if nothing at all unusual had happened. Then we sat down to eat and, of course, all the blood soaking through the towel gave me away. Anyway, the boy bandaged up my finger for me, and being the super-human, raw-food person that I am, it grew back and healed in no time.”
RE: I can imagine owning a restaurant keeps you extremely busy. When you do have time to prepare a meal, what specialty dishes do you enjoy making for yourself, family, and friends?
SM: I don’t end up having a lot of time and I have a tiny NYC apartment kitchen, so I don’t prepare much myself anymore. Just big salads. When I moved into this place, I gave boxes and boxes and boxes of cooking equipment away—pastry tools, mixers, pots and pans in every shape and size, all of it, I gave it all away. I still miss my chrome Kitchen-Aid, we had a special bond. Right now I have a Vita-Mix so I pretty much just make myself green shakes when I have time and my boyfriend gets banana cocoa shakes in the morning. Living right by the restaurant I don’t need to go far for good food. I’m lucky.
RE: Describe your most memorable raw food meal?
SM: It has to be the very first one. I went in with very low expectations and not knowing anything about raw food. I came out a changed person!
RE: What are some of your favorite hobbies?
SM: Good question. I don’t have any! That’s sad. But if I had more time I’d love to get more into photography. I love design too. One day I want to design clothes. I also want to learn more languages. I wish I could just insert a chip in my brain: one for Spanish, one for Japanese, one for German, etc.
RE: If you could be or do anything else what would you be or do?
SM: As much as I fantasize about lying in a hammock on a beach, there’s nothing else I’d rather do than what I’m doing now. It’s just what I’m here to do.
RE: What one word would you use to describe yourself?
SM: This is a hard question. The first thing that popped in my head was “tired” but that’s not good! Maybe determined. I’m asking my CFO on gchat right now and he said I’m too complex to describe in one word. Then he suggested genuine. I like that.
RE: What is the one thing about you few people know?
SM: This is hard too. I’m pretty open in my blog and tweets and writing. There is some stuff few people know that I don’t write about and won’t just yet. Only when it’s all over with and I can take a vacation and actually lie in a hammock on the beach and write my Richard Branson-esque memoirs.
RE: What have you accomplished that makes you most proud?
SM: I think building a business with 70 employees (so far) who are all amazing people and feel really good about where they work is what makes me most proud. It sounds corny but there’s just a lot of love in the restaurant and One Lucky Duck, and I like taking care of people. I also love running a business that gets really good food out there and makes people happy and healthier.
RE: If you could ask three famous chefs, who aren’t raw, to dinner at Pure Food and Wine, whom would you invite?
Steingarten isn’t really a chef, he’s a lawyer turned food writer. All three are very opinionated. I think they’d really like Pure Food and Wine, because it’s interesting, different, and most importantly it’s yummy. And we’re not pretentious about raw food or being vegan (in part because most of the staff aren’t raw or vegan). These three guys are hardly vegetarians. They mock vegetarians, which is all right. But they do know good food so I’d really want them to try this.
A lot of prominent people from the food world have eaten with us and still come back to the restaurant. Still, I’d freak out. I love them all. I’d have to drink a lot of raspberry lime sake tinis.
RE: I’ve had the pleasure of dining at Pure Food and Wine. The overall experience was incredible - the food [absolutely delicious], the atmosphere, the service, all top notch! In fact, I still have my souvenir, the receipt! Name some of your favorite dishes, savory and sweet, from the restaurants menu?
SM: Right now, because they’re in season, it’s the Squash Blossoms. They’re stuffed with spring onion and herb cashew cheese, with a salad of fennel, capers, and heirloom tomatoes. Yum. My favorite dessert right now is easily the Chocolate Passion Fruit Tart. It’s passion fruit curd in a chocolate tart shell with vanilla cream on top, fresh raspberries, and framboise pearls.
From One Lucky Duck Juice and Takeaway I love our Falafel. And for dessert, almond butter cup ice cream out of a pint container. And Mallomars. I eat those a lot. I also love our gingerbread cookies that we sell online at oneluckyduck.com too. Last year at the restaurant we had a sake cocktail made with fresh cantaloupe juice, lemon, and cilantro. Hopefully we’ll make that again this summer.
Many thanks to Sarma for taking some time from her busy schedule to participation in this interview and for contributing the cool tote and raw snacks for this giveaway, and a great big congratulations on the release of your book.
William Morrow, An Imprint of Harper Collins Publishers has provided one  copy as a gift for one  Raw Epicurean reader. Thank you again!
And for those Raw Epicurean’s who love their raw treats, Sarma generously offers a lovely gift from One Lucky Duck! One  Raw Epicurean reader will receive a One Lucky Duck totebag and yummy snacks.
To be eligible to win one of these wonderful gifts, simply answer this question:
If you could pick one of the amazing raw food chefs to prepared a raw food meal for you, who would you choose?
One entry per person, please.
The drawing for this giveaway will take place Friday, July 3rd, and I will use my favorite random number picker to choose the winning participants. The winning participants will be contacted via email and an announcement of the drawing will be posted at the right sidebar, under the heading “Announcements”. Thank you in advance and best of luck to all who participate.
More about Sarma Melngailis
Raw Epicurean’s book review of Living Raw Food