Diet Detective Interview with Vegan Chef Sarma Melngailis

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Postscript: Ms. Melngailis is now referred to as the Vegan Bernie Madoff read more here and  here.

Diet Detective: Hey, Sarma, thanks for the opportunity to interview you. I would love to know how you became interested in food.

Sarma: My mother was a when I was growing up. She always had food magazines around, and I always read them. I watched Julia Child on TV, and I helped my mother cook at home a lot. Food was a big deal in my house, and I cooked and baked frequently. So, naturally, I ended up working in investment banking and private equity! I really don’t know how that happened, but I spent five years in finance before I left to attend cooking school and then do what I’d apparently always wanted to do – work in food.

Diet Detective: Tell us about your overall food philosophy. What have you learned in the last 10 years that you would like to share with us?

Sarma: It’s not just about us. It’s not just about taste or health. Those things are truly important, but what we choose to buy and eat is also critically important to the environment, and to animals and animal rights.

Diet Detective: Why raw foods?

Sarma: When I first learned about raw food, it just made sense to me. If you were dropped on a tropical island, what would you eat? Fruit, berries, nuts, coconut, green leaves … things from the earth grown by the sun. It makes sense that this is what’s healthiest for us. Burning food on a grill or frying it in hot oil or mechanically processing it seems unnatural. You also probably wouldn’t tackle a wild boar and eat it right then and there with your hands and teeth (or, maybe it’s just me who wouldn’t). Humans are built differently from dogs, cats and other predators ­ we have a long, winding digestive tract, and it takes time for our food to move through our system. Wolves, tigers, dogs, cats have a short, straight digestive tract and a more acidic system. People get E. coli, salmonella and other creepy stuff because we’re susceptible to it given how we digest our food. Cats and dogs aren’t going to have those same issues. And when people ask me the inevitable “protein” question, I just ask them where gorillas get their protein (leaves? bananas?) or how it is that horses and cows grow into huge muscular animals eating grass? It simply makes sense to me that our optimal diet is primarily raw plant foods.

Diet Detective: How did you learn to prepare raw foods? Did you start out as a chef cooking foods and move to raw?

Sarma: My background and training were in traditional cooking. I spent a couple of years in a regular restaurant before making the switch to raw. I think it’s really important to have a more traditional cooking background, since preparing raw food, at least creatively, is a bit of a new frontier. It helps to have learned the techniques of regular classic cooking and find ways to apply them to raw. The way I learned raw-specific preparation was mostly trial and error, experimentation and intuition.

Diet Detective: Is raw food always healthy food?

Sarma: It depends on how you define raw food. If it’s always plant-based, organic and unprocessed, it’s hard to find something really unhealthy. But of course, if you ate nothing but dried fruit all day long, it wouldn’t be very healthy. Some people can decide they want to go raw but still fail to get enough green leafy . I’m hooked on greens. Kale, parsley, cilantro, watercress, arugula ­ all of it and more. I feel weird if I don’t have a lot of greens on a daily basis. But yes, pretty much all raw food is, in itself, healthy.

Diet Detective: When someone eats raw food, what should they expect? What feedback do you get from customers, especially those who have never tried it before?

Sarma: We get a lot of great feedback, and it’s really fun when people come in not knowing what to expect, or expecting they’re going to hate it or leave hungry. I think we do a good job of making it an exciting, varied, filling and flavorful culinary experience, and if nothing else we pretty much always win people over with dessert. When people make a shift in their own lives to raw food, everyone reports feeling far more energetic, vibrant and alive.

Diet Detective: Who and what influenced the way you think about food?

Sarma: My mother, my father and my dog (really). My mother because she was a chef, and I learned most of the basics of cooking from her. My father because he’s from Latvia, and bread is really important in Latvia, sort of like the way rice is in Asia. He had a very clear disdain for junk food, and in particular things like Wonder Bread and the processed, nutritionally void fluffy white bread that people here eat so frequently. He also always kept some kind of garden, whether a small one in our yard or in a nearby community garden. So I learned a lot about respecting food and not wasting it, from him. And I’m including my dog here because he’s pushed me over the edge in terms of animal rights. My dog is a blond pit bull mix with a pink nose and really big ears. He’s ridiculously cute, and he looks a lot like a pig. Given how I feel about him and our relationship, and knowing that pigs are just as intelligent (or more intelligent) than dogs ­ I don’t see the difference. If someone’s willing to eat pigs, they should have no problem eating a dog. I’m not really so militant about people not eating animals, but I do feel militant about factory farming. No living, sensitive being should have to go through that hell because people want to eat bacon. I could go on for pages and pages here, but I’ll save it. I’ve been writing quite a bit about my feelings on this subject on my blog.

Diet Detective: If you could have a healthy meal prepared for you, what would you order, and who would you like to have prepare it for you?

Sarma: I would order a giant salad, and I would have Anthony Bourdain prepare it for me, while we drink a lot of good wine and I convince him that he should endorse a plant-based diet.

Diet Detective: What’s your favorite healthy ingredient?

Sarma: Coconut oil.

Diet Detective: What’s the one kitchen utensil or tool you can’t live without?

Sarma: A chef’s knife.

Diet Detective: What do you consider the world’s most perfect food?

Sarma: Coconut. The water is like nature’s version of Gatorade, and the coconut meat is full of healthy and amazingly good fats.

Diet Detective: Breakfast this morning?

Sarma: Today I was in a hurry. I put some chia powder in a bowl, added almond milk and mixed it up. I stirred into it a tablespoon of this insanely delicious sweet almond butter that we carry on And then I also added a handful of One Lucky Duck chocolate crispies. It’s a rich, sweet, protein-filled instant pudding with added crunch. This is probably my favorite thing to eat for breakfast, but I change it up a lot. Some mornings I eat a huge salad, sometimes a green juice and a raw granola bar, or sometimes just a bunch of fruit.

Diet Detective: What’s in your refrigerator and pantry right now?

Sarma: Fridge: Lemons, limes, parsley, cilantro, sweet potatoes that I cooked for my dog, a salad from One Lucky Duck, a few of my favorite bottled green juices, some whole-grain mustard, apple cider vinegar, Cholula hot sauce, almond milk, two bottles of white wine and a lot of beer (which I don’t drink that often ­ I just like to have options!). Pantry: Macadamia oil, pumpkinseed oil, coconut oil, olive oil, hemp seeds, raw almonds from Italy, brazil nuts, chia seeds, chia powder, a lot of dried supplement powders, almond butter, coconut butter, a lot of organic dog biscuits and some of my dad’s really dark, dense, Baltic rye bread that lasts forever.

Diet Detective: Your last meal would be?

Sarma: I’d go to Bar Jamon next door to my restaurant and eat plate after plate of their toasted tomato bread and drink red wine until the end arrived or I passed out, whichever happened first.

Diet Detective: Your favorite “junk food”?

Sarma: Air-popped popcorn tossed with macadamia oil and salt. Is that junky enough? If I had to go really trashy, I’d say Doritos.

Diet Detective: Your worst summer job?

Sarma: I once worked in a shoe store in a trashy mall when I was in high school. The only job I ever hated.

Diet Detective: What’s your motto?

Sarma:  Live, Love and Let Live and Love.

Diet Detective: Last question, why “one lucky duck”?

Sarma:  I wanted a brand name that stands out, that people would easily remember, and that conveys fun.

Quick thoughts on the following:

Diet Detective: Organic foods?
Sarma: Ideal
Diet Detective: Raw Food?
Sarma: Optimal
Diet Detective: Artificial sweeteners?
Sarma: Bogus
Diet Detective: Diet soda?
Sarma: Go away
Diet Detective: Food additives and preservatives?
Sarma: Craptastic
Diet Detective: Nutritional supplements?
Sarma: Worth consideration
Diet Detective: GMO foods?
Sarma: Might kill us

Fact Sheet:
Your Website:
Location (Where you live)? New York City
Your current location….right now: New York City
What is your current job title? Founder/owner of One Lucky Duck and Pure Food and Wine
Education: BA/BS Economics, The University of Pennsylvania, Wharton School, Diploma from the French Culinary Institute
Résumé (brief): Bear Stearns, Bain Capital, CIBC, restaurants, my own restaurant, author of Living Raw Food, co-author of Raw Food Real World
Hometown: Newton, Mass.
Favorite healthy food and living websites (not your own):

5/5 - (1 vote)

You may also like

Subscribe To The Weekly Food & Nutrition News and Research Digest
Our weekly email news and research digest is everything you need to know about food, nutrition, fitness and health.
No Thanks
Thanks for signing up. You must confirm your email address before we can send you. Please check your email and follow the instructions.
We respect your privacy. Your information is safe and will NEVER be shared.
Don't miss out. Subscribe today.