Amid flesh-intensive events such as the Burger Bash and East “Meats” West Dinner, Matthew Kenney will stand tall at next week’s South Beach Wine & Food Festival with a singular vision: high-end raw cuisine.
If anyone can deliver, it’s Kenney, 49, who is bringing his plant-based vision to a sold-out dinner with chefs Alfred Portale and Alex Guarnaschelli, promising all the glamor but none of the meat.
“Raw” means plant-based foods subjected to minimal heat (less than 115 degrees), so as not to destroy living enzymes. To newbies, Kenney realizes the word can sound “harsh, invasive,” but his interpretation of raw goes far beyond green smoothies with dishes such as kimchee dumplings, heirloom tomato lasagna and creamless ice cream.
“Matthew Kenney is definitely the highest profile chef to go over to the raw vegan side,” says Los Angeles Times restaurant critic Jonathan Gold, who favorably reviewed his Santa Monica restaurant M.A.K.E. last spring. “It has been interesting to see a gifted chef bring his imagination and his considerable technical skills to raw food, which is ultimately so unforgiving.”
Kenney mastered traditional techniques at the French Culinary Academy, but after going raw a decade ago, “I realized there was no foundation for this, no structure, no standardized method,” he said in a telephone interview. “If this cuisine is ever going to change the world, it has to be done in a structured way.”
Changing the world is what he’s after, and his primary vehicle is Matthew Kenney Cuisine, a cutting-edge raw-food culinary academy. There’s a school in Maine, where he grew up, and another in Santa Monica, where he’s based.
Next up: Wynwood. The culinary school and Kenney’s adjacent restaurant, White Lotus, will open in the spring. “There wasn’t a high-end plant-based concept in Miami,” he says, “and with the energy, the nightlife, the art, it feels like the perfect place.”
In 1998, before he saw the vegan light, Kenney was one of Food & Wine magazine’s best new chefs. His Manhattan restaurant Matthew earned raves from the likes of Ruth Reichl. A slew of restaurants followed, some serving Mediterranean, others upscale comfort food.
Meanwhile, Kenney was “getting more and more into yoga and more into plant-based, more in touch with what felt great and promoted health.”
He laughs. “I had seven restaurants that were not vegetarian.” His work and his chi misaligned. The karmic backlash hit hard.
“I expanded my company too quickly, I built too fast without the right infrastructure, I sold off whatever I had. I was taking a break.”
It is said that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. This one came in the guise of dinner with a friend at raw vegan Quintessence Cafe — “two blocks from my house and I never heard of it,” he recalls. “I reluctantly went to this dinner — it was just a light-bulb moment.”
Kenney spent the next year teaching himself how not to cook, experimenting with techniques, kitchen equipment and ingredients to create flavors and textures that delight the mouth — without heat and without meat.
“I dreamed it up,” he says. “I had to reverse engineer everything I learned from traditional culinary arts. Once I got my footing, I knew what my end goal was — to make raw its own cuisine. Not to make it look like a burger, but to make minimally processed plants the best food in the world.”
He gave New York a taste of his dream with Pure Food and Wine, which he opened in 2004 with the goddess of raw, Sarma Melngailis. The restaurant garnered great reviews,
Kenney and Melngailis were the city’s glam raw couple, the best advertisement for his food. The restaurant is still around but the glow didn’t last. The couple had a nasty, costly split and wound up as tabloid fodder. Kenney left the restaurant and left New York, but not his passion for plant-based. It’s a passion he wants to share with everyone.
The author of a dozen cookbooks including last summer’s Everyday Raw Gourmet and this spring’s Plant Food (both from Gibbs Smith), Kenney says, “We’ve decided to lead on the high end to make an impact, but you can do raw really simply at home.”
Whether it’s high-end cuisine or a simple salad, “the bulk of what we eat should come from the produce section, with healthy fats — coconut, avocado, nuts —the food that’s alive. Our goal is to change the entire food pyramid.”
That kind of change happens one green plate at a time, like what he’s serving up at South Beach Wine & Food.
“It’s going to be fun,” Kenney says. “A plant-based dinner is what I really believe in.”
But will his guests?
“The quality of the food speaks for itself.”