Matthew Kenney recently visited five countries in the span of a week. It was an educational trip for the American chef, and Kenney's eager to put his unique spin on the knowledge he's accumulated.
One of his stops was in Denmark, as Copenhagen is home to some of the world's most innovative chefs, including René Redzepi of Noma. Like the Danish trailblazer, Kenney is similarly pioneering. In the world of high-end raw cuisine, he is widely considered the uncontested leader.
Since becoming completely vegan ten years ago, Kenney has committed himself to changing the way people view and consume plant-based foods. He does this through his speaking engagements, cookbooks, restaurants, and the Matthew Kenney Academy. Founded in 2009, the progressive raw food culinary school has locations in Maine and Santa Monica.
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In spite of his frenzied travel schedule, the 49-year-old appeared impossibly well rested and at least a decade younger when Short Order met with him last week. Kenney was in town to work on a short-term project: hosting a vegetarian dinner as part of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, and a long-term project: opening a living foods restaurant and a third educational center in our very own Wynwood.
The White Lotus and adjacent academy are slated to open in the fall. The 70-seat restaurant is a collaboration between Kenney and Karla Dascal, founder of the Sacred Space, the Space Miami, and Karla Conceptual Event Experiences.
Like Kenney, Dascal is a staunch believer in the plant-based lifestyle, and said she has been ever since switching to a vegan diet helped cure her diabetes. When looking to partner with someone on a food concept at the Space Miami, her immediate instinct was to approach the raw food guru himself.
Bringing his vision to Miami was a no-brainer for Kenney. Plenty of students from Florida attend his academy, and there's been a great demand from South Americans to open a Miami division, he said. What's more, people here are very preoccupied with health and exercise, and as Dascal put it, "they're demanding and craving the purity and vibrancy of plant-based foods."
The menu for The White Lotus is currently in the creation phase while Kenney familiarizes himself with the area's suppliers. However, the twice-nominated James Beard chef intends for the dishes to have a sense of fun to them while reflecting the local culture and flavors. And the novel style of the cuisine won't just appeal to raw foodists, but to those simply seeking another healthy option, said Kenney.
At his critically acclaimed Santa Monica restaurant M.A.K.E., inventive items such as beet ravioli and kimchi dumplings are served, and prices for mains are under $18. If you're wondering whether any of it's actually filling, Kenney told us the number one comment his team gets following a meal is people remarking how full they feel.
"It's very nutrient dense so people get full -- even people who have no faith in it," he explained.
For those unfamiliar with the term, "raw" refers to plant based foods that are exposed to heat no greater than 115 degrees so as to preserve living enzymes.
Though he makes it seem effortless now, going vegan wasn't an easy transition for Kenney. As a graduate of the French Culinary Institute, he had seven restaurants at one point -- all of which served animal protein. The accolades were pouring in, and he was named one of Food & Wine magazine's best new chefs in 1998.
But his restaurant empire expanded too quickly and he had to start anew. That, combined with bodily aches and pains and a dedicated yoga practice motivated Kenney to make the change.
"I went to a French culinary school and you're taught that you need protein at every meal and this amount of butter and salt, and it's drilled into our head that that's our craft. So to go from that perspective to being a raw chef, you go through a lot. I went through a lot," said Kenney.
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To help others deal with the challenges he faced while learning to work with raw food was one of the driving forces for the Matthew Kenney Academy. According to Kenney, the structured classes attract professional chefs, entrepreneurs, and people of various ages and backgrounds looking to embrace this type of cuisine.
For Kenney, an increase in the consumption of plant-based foods is the wave of the future, and right now he's riding it all the way to Miami.
Follow Valeria Nekhim on Twitter @ValeriaNekhim