J.P. || San Diego, California
A chef talks about his problem with vegans, the joy of feeding people, and how to make eggs from a sea vegetable.
I'm not a fan of food writing. I hate words like “decadent” and “mouthfeel,” I hate the branded onomatopoeia of “pop” and “bam” and “yum-o,” and I really hate that sexual subtext imposed on the topic. I've only read two food writers, one dead and one living, who seem capable of describing food without prurient undertones.
This aversion to food writing hinders me from producing an authentic description of the food that J.P. makes at Peace Pies. The only word I could come up with was “zingy,” and immediately I feel the need to take the precious snub nose off the word with a little overexplanation. I don't mean “zingy” like a gazpacho recipe from Better Homes and Gardens, or like that godawful Celestial Seasonings tea.
I don't mean spicy, or tart, or (even more broadly) flavorful.
I mean something like alive....
There, again, the word brings this whole political aesthetic. Generally, when people commend food as tasting “alive,” they're one of the subset of high-minded health zealots.
(Incidentally, working at the farmers' market meant rubbing shoulders with such zealots, and I quite like many of them. I just don't like hearing them talk about food.)
What I really mean by “alive” is, certainly, something like the taste of sashimi, or of milk just pulled from a cow. It's also like receiving a crayon drawing from a child, or catching sight of the smile of someone glad to see you.
By strict definition, the food J.P. makes is indeed alive. None of it has been heated over 100ºF, the temperature that kills enzymes and beneficial microorganisms. “Dead food” is certainly not an attractive concept, which, by raw food standards, is what you're eating if you're eating something cooked.
But I mean something more than just preservation of enzymes. I mean something like having your teeth turned on...
(Apparently these sexual references can't be avoided, even when you're trying.)
Call it, then, an experience like discovering a new talent, or even a new muscle. I didn't know it was possible for my teeth and tastebuds to grapple with flavors and textures that way.
Even as you're enjoying his food, there's always the question in the back of your mind--"how does he make it taste like this?" How does one accomplish such a thing as sour cream and onion-flavored kale chips, let alone make them taste better than Pringles? And while you're eating, that conceptual discussion tangles with the physical pleasure, each fighting playfully for dominance in your brain, like having someone whisper in your ear while you're making out...
(I give up.)
J.P. has a face straight off an El Greco religious painting, with cavernous cheeks, liquid eyes, and a flowing beard. I've never seen him without head covered by a knitted rastafarian cap. But I don't think he's Rastafarian—anyway, he doesn't carry himself with that agro-beatnik shuck and jive that you see around Ocean Beach, though those types greet him with warm familiarity.
His transcendent comportment could be the result of his lingering migraines and fatigue, that six years of veganism haven't entirely eradicated.
The deal with raw food seems to boil down (again, no pun intended) to toxins. Cooking--defined mostly as heating over 100 degrees Fahrenheit--changes the chemical composition of food. Sugars become carcinogens. Fats become trans-fats. Proteins are denatured. Amino acids, vitamins and minerals die. "It has also been suggested that cooking food, directly or indirectly, utilizes Btu's and releases gases associated with global warming."
My favorite is the AGEs--advanced glycation end products, toxins created by heat, which are received by receptors embedded in the body's tissue cells. (These receptors have another much-too-apropos name—RAGE, or "receptors for advanced glycation products.") When AGE meets RAGE, the result is chronic inflammatory disease.
Detractors of the raw food movement say that the diet doesn't provide enough essential nutrients, such as protein and vitamin B-12. But for every detractor, there's a raw foodist with blooming cheeks and an arsenal of anecdotal science to prove that either yes, you can get as much as you need, or that you don't in fact need it.
J.P.'s journey to rawness was, by contrast, undramatic. “Normal" food hurt his stomach, so he stopped eating it.
"If I had cheese or ice cream, I would feel the effects, so I would just stay away from it. I wasn't into meat; I didn't like fish."
His favorite food was pasta; his mom, not an enthusiastic cook, made pasta and garlic bread most nights of the week.
I assume that a childhood of deprivation would make a person rather resentful of food. Somehow, the opposite happened for J.P. His usual languid delivery deepens as he tells me,
"I've always loved food."
Like musical theatre or professional sports, food seems to be one of those métiers that find people early, grabbing hold of them before they have a chance to be distracted by other careers and concerns. Maybe it's because the food world is so consuming (sorry...first sex, now puns), fraught with addictive drama, a system of immediate rewards and punishing challenges...
(Writing this, I'm starting to understand why New York City is the epicenter of both those worlds. But that's an analysis for another time.)
"As long as I've worked, I've worked in a kitchen. I've worked in Mexican restaurants, Italian restaurants—all sorts of fancy, schmoozy restaurants. Food was definitely my medium. I like being able to create quick art on plates, and then have people eat it and enjoy it. I worked with this Nicaraguan chef named Paulo, and he taught me a lot of the little things he did.
"There are a lot of passionate chefs out there...there are a lot of passionate people, period. But I always found my passionate people in the kitchen."
I once shared an apartment with a girl who treated her Lyme's disease homeopathically. She ate from a very narrow list of foods in copious amounts—quinoa, millet, olive oil, Celtic sea salt, raw nuts and kimchee. She also zipped herself naked into a body bag, and piped pure oxygen into it from a tank that sat in the corner of her room.
I watched a later roommate deal with fiancétrouble by preparing guacamole out of equal parts avocado and sour cream (she was from the northern midwest) and eat it methodically with a spoon.
After that, I lived with a no-nonsense Jersey girl, the daughter of a doctor, who made wonderful Indian food, drank lots of diet soda, and scoffed at any form of pain treatment that didn't come from a prescription.
I didn't want to be any of those people. And I didn't want to be me, either.
I'd spent five years as an anorexic. Then I was a vegetarian; then I wasn't. Then I was poor, so I subsisted mostly on leftover pastries and soy milk from the coffee shop where I worked during college. The only time I didn't obsess over my food consumption was when depression ate up my capacity to care about anything.
What I really wanted was to be the healthy, pretty girl who could gorge on pizza and beer one day, three sensible meals the next day, forget to eat all the day after that, and—most importantly—not remember any of it the next week.
I tried a raw food diet during the summer I lived in New York. I borrowed a book from the Brooklyn Public Library, spent way too much money at the Park Slope Food Coop, and sourced a Champion juicer on Craigslist, which I lugged home from the Upper East Side back to Prospect Lefferts Gardens.
A few months later, I proudly told my new acupuncturist that I was a raw foodist.
He stared gravely into my eyes.
"I really don't think that's a good idea for you," he said. "You'd have to be eating all day, to get the nutrition you need to live in New York."
I went straight from there to work in Harlem, where I worked with a cook who teased me about eating salad all the time...he said I should live in the Central Park Zoo, where I could eat off the trees with the giraffes.
I asked Keith to cook me some steak and eggs. We ate it together on the communal table in the middle of the empty restaurant. I could feel him watching me with curious pleasure.
J.P.'s vegan diet had sneaked up on him; raw food was more of an progressive experiment.
"I just always enjoyed the way it made me feel. Definitely, eating cooked food makes me really lethargic and tired. With raw food I'm always light, and energized, and ready to go."
By that time, he was living in San Diego and working at the Ocean Beach People's Food Co-op.
"That's where I really got a chance to go wild with making vegan food, and raw food, as well. They don't have dehydrators, so it was limited. But you also had the entire grocery store as your stockroom. I definitely learned a lot...I did all the raw food at the co-op, while I was there."
One of the main books J.P. found to guide him was "Nature's First Law," by a collection of authors who appear on the cover, predictably nude and grinning.
"It's actually out of circulation, due to some of the allegations in it."
Every chapter, he tells me, ends with a categorical indictment of cooked food, which led to its being pulled off the shelves by the FDA...or the USDA, whoever is in charge of such things. J.P. owns several copies, which he loans out only to people who truly want to learn more.
To those vaguely dissatisfied with their health, the rhetoric of raw food is very seductive:
- Are you tired?
- Are you bloated?
- Is your hair dry and lifeless?
- Do you have no libido, or too much?
- Are you shy?
- Do you get cavities and wrinkles?
Raw foodists say their diet will cure all these ills, and the many more you don't yet know you have.
The ethos' persuasive power is only expanded by its confident adherents, who routinely appear in smiling states of undress. (They don't always look good, but that could be the fault of their purist attitude, which seems to eschew airbrushing along with cooking.)
But the raw foodists I've actually encountered, in writing and in real life, have this polemical, punishing tone toward people who disagree with them; they seem always to be spoiling for a fight.
But I doubt anyone could draw J.P. into argument. It would be like picking a fight with someone standing above you on a staircase—he's taller than most people I've met, and imperviously laconic when he's inclined. The strongest aggression he's likely to take is to not offer you food. A would-be arguer could walk away from him feeling like William Jennings Bryant, never knowing what he lost.
When I ask him about the more religious-minded members of the raw food community, he gives a tentative laugh and looks warily at the recorder.
"I don't want to say too much. But yeah, there's definitely some intricate raw food people out there. And..."
"Not that I don't identify with them?"
The statement comes out like a question.
"But I try not to pinpoint myself as a raw foodist, like that's all I am and all I do. I feel like a lot of people out there, when they get super into one thing, they become blindfolded. That's the only thing they identify with.
"It's fine when they're submerged in the community that supports it. But as soon as you go outside of it, you become a complete outcast."
He still deals with this attitude when he goes home to Rhode Island. His father still offers him meat; his mother goes out of her way to make what is technically vegan food—as often as not, it's still pasta and garlic bread. They still don't really get it, he says.
To be fair, it's a hard thing to grasp, without practice. One afternoon at the Ocean Beach market, I unthinkingly offered him some hummus. He looked at it apologetically.
"Oh, thanks... The thing is, I haven't eaten cooked food in six years."
I felt simultaneously foolish, protective, and a little guilty, as if I'd been pushing a wine cooler on a recovering alcoholic.
After that, I often wondered if he felt a little grossed out by me, as an eater of cooked food. I've been guilty of that, too—judging people based on the food they consume. I still remember an instinctive "Ew, gross!" when a guy that I liked offered to take me to Burger King. (That was the last time I saw him, incidentally.)
"I don't necessarily like the smell of burning flesh. But, you know... different things work for different people."
He does opine that raw food could help a lot of people, if they'd give it a chance.
"I think a lot of people have allergies they're not even aware of—they think that's just how they feel."
But he's not interested in pushing an agenda, even when an opposite agenda is being pushed on him.
"If I'm offered something I don't eat, I'm not going to be like..."
He holds up his hand, looking like Jesus in the Last Supper painting.
"'...Oh, I'm a raw foodist.' You don't want to talk about your personal beliefs when someone's chowing whatever they're eating. It sets a weird vibe. I'm just like 'Oh, no thanks, I'm all set.'
"I just enjoy feeding people. I think everyone has their little niche of what they have to offer, and my blessing is like being able to nourish people."
"My parents were here a couple weeks ago. They had a curry wrap, and pizza, and my mom was like 'If I could eat this way every day, I totally would.' But you know, it's not a reality for her, at this point."
In the days when I worked at the Ocean Beach farmers' market, I would go home every night with loads of food from J.P. Cookies-and-cream pie, pad Thai, burgers, pizza, tuna wraps, and my favorite, whatever flavor of kale chips he had brought that day.
The first night or two, I downed most of the food during my drive home.
Then I discovered how full I was, the next day.
I didn't feel sluggish, the way you feel the day after too much pizza and beer.
What I felt seemed to be a joint protest between my brain and my belly, which usually are at odds on the matter of eating. Somehow, they'd managed to agree that I'd overindulged on a very good thing. And while they were willing to make the best of it, they lodged a joint complaint that this not happen again.
I learned to increase pleasure through restraint. I learned that the raw pizzas tasted better the next day, when the flaxseed crust got a little softer. I learned to eat the burgers layer by layer. I also learned that I will probably never have self-control with kale chips.
But that's an easy one to get over; kale chips are, in the digestive process, much like sashimi. If it is possible to consume too much, I'll probably never be wealthy enough to find out.
Remembering my “salad days”—the anorexic years of methodically consuming bowls of lettuce and cucumber doused with the travesty of fat-free vinaigrette—I'm still a little shocked that raw food can be so filling.
"It's really nutrient-dense. It might be a small amount, but it's going to fill you up because your body's getting what it needs quickly. One of the reasons you can eat ten bowls of pasta is there's no nutrition in it. Your body's still hungry until your stomach's completely full and you can't eat anymore."
Most raw foodists of the "health nazi" breed, J.P. says, don't eat the kind of food he makes at Peace Pies. It isn't so much meant for them, anyway. J.P. calls his food “transitional;” he makes it for people who are trying to implement more healthy food into their diet. “It's stuff that people are already familiar with. Pizza, and burgers, and mock tuna, and falafels, and pie, and cookies. It's not that far off from what they're used to."
As a result, he's grown a sort of hybrid community for himself, one that makes raw food a component of a more holistic approach to life.
"The majority of our customers, they just like good food. They don't care if it's raw or if it's vegan. As long as it tastes good and makes them feel good."
He's also a frequent converter of skeptics.
"You can see it on the Yelp reviews. They're like 'I was really skeptical, and I went in, and had a meal, and I left, and the food was awesome and I was full.' "That's mainly, you know, what people want. I think it's more about good food, than it is about raw vegan food."
Oral fixation is the primary problem facing humanity. People cannot or don't want to control what they are putting into their mouths. --David Wolfe
I ask J.P. if he ever misses anything from his days of eating cooked food, or from pre-vegan days.
"I feel like if there's anything I miss bad enough, I make it."
Some such things can be pretty labor-intensive. I remember one autumn when he was asking me for sugar pie pumpkins, to make pumpkin pie. People expected it around that time of year, he said, rolling his eyes a little, but it's really hard to make. I tried to imagine where you'd begin with the process, and failed.
For this reason, J.P. doesn't really live on the kind of food he makes at the restaurant. He doesn't "cook" very much at home, mainly drinking juices and smoothies. During his work day in the kitchen, which swelters with the heat of six dehydrators, he drinks a lot of coconut water, and at the end of the day finishes off whatever food is left over.
I ask if there's a Holy Grail of raw food, something he's tried repeatedly to reproduce and hasn't been able to.
The other day, he says, they tried making scrambled eggs.
(A respectful silence passes as I try to make conceptual sense of this endeavor.)
It starts, he tells me, with Irish moss, a sea vegetable with similar chewy, coagulating texture to chicken ova. Then they add pureed cashews, young coconut meat, and stirred in a whole bunch of other vegetables for textural interest.
It tasted good, he says. But it was too soggy.
"So it got turned into a quiche—we threw it in a crust and dehydrated it out. Which everyone loved."
Other recent successes have been apple turnovers and fig Newtons. But my particular favorite surprise...one that only makes seasonal appearance on the Peace Pies menu...was the pumpkin pie from that long-ago November. It tasted like pumpkin cheesecake in a cookie-dough crust, but without the head rush of sweetness and the later pancreatic crash.
Maybe it's just his apostolic appearance, but I always feel as if J.P. could say a lot more worth hearing than he usually does. I want to know more about his background, and how he ended up in San Diego from Providence, Ri., and how he feels now that the dust has settled on the tumultuous year he's just endured—becoming a father, getting married, seeing his flagship restaurant burn down just as he's opening a second location.
But he looks tired...which is probably the whole story, right there.