Ani Phyo grew up in upstate New York, where her father, and the surroundings, imparted a raw food lifestyle that she continues to refine to this day. She was a longtime caterer who moved to Portland for four years, and now, Phyo is back in Los Angeles, looking to promote raw food to a wider audience. She’s appeared on “Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern” and hosts an online cooking series called “Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen Show.” She’s also proven to be a prolific author, writing books like “Ani’s Raw Food Essentials,” “Ani’s Raw Food Desserts,” “Ani’s Raw Food Kitchen,” and most recently, “Ani’s Raw Food Asia,” available May 10, 2011. She even has plans to create a detoxifying brunch menu at a local boutique hotel, and intends to open a restaurant by 2012. We recently met at Paper or Plastik, where Phyo discussed her background and approach.
What brought you to Los Angeles?
The first time I came to Los Angeles was in ’99, and my clients were Warner Brothers and Disney Channel and I was doing convergence television, working at some of the properties there. And then I went up to Portland for four years, and now I’m back. This time, being more on the talent side, it’s a much different experience. Before it was more in the supporting talent side, and this time, it’s on talent side. It’s fun. I really like it. I’m enjoying it.
What was the moment when you decided to make the switch from one aspect to the other?
I was eating this way, this style of cuisine that I make, it just grew more popular among my friends, my community, and it was giving me a lot of mental clarity and focus, which is what I talk about, is the benefits of it. It keeps you healthier, boosts your immune system naturally, helps you lose weight, clears up your skin, gives you a lot of energy. You don’t have to sleep as much. You’re highly productive, because your brain space is just on. So I was doing catering on the side. I was doing events every weekend. I was doing dinner on Saturdays, sometimes brunch on Sundays, as I was working my corporate jobs. It became really popular. We would get at least 50 people each time we would do an event. I would do it in Santa Monica, in a warehouse, a teahouse on Fairfax, and at the end we had a loft in Pasadena, and we’d have at least 50 people. I thought, “This is a really viable business.” That’s when I thought to go to Portland, where overhead is less, and I wanted a bit of a break. I focused 100% on the food business then. Then I realized, I wrote my first book, and I thought this is a lifestyle that could help save lives. It’s just about avoiding processed foods and eating foods that Mother Nature provides for us, just whole ingredients, organic and clean. So eliminating processed foods, preservatives, artificial color, artificial flavor, all the toxins that create chronic illness, and then serious illnesses. I just realized that just being in the media, I could help spread that message.
How did the raw food lifestyle become so important to you?
Cause I just saw the difference that change made in my life, like how much more I could get out of my life, how much more fully I could live, how much healthier I felt, how much more vibrant I was. Then really it was also – I taught classes, gave workshops and retreats and all that – the people that would come to my events and eat the food – some of the people that would come see me, it was just incredible. They’d be like, “I realized you were going to be here. Nobody else would come with me. I just lost my husband to lung cancer, and I really need to make a change in my life.” There were people that were in a really critical state, completely obese, or smoking, or having diabetes or hypertension, or even cancer – on the severe end – really wanting to reclaim life. Cause they either lost a loved one, or they’re in a critical state. I’ve also seen how this lifestyle healed my dad. My dad was terminally ill. He had renal failure, and I think he actually lived 12 or 15 years longer than expected, because he was doing the raw food diet, grew an organic garden in upstate New York, we did all green juicing. All of our foods were whole food, nothing processed in our house. So I’ve actually seen how it’s saved a life already, so I just feel like, I could help a lot of people.
Did you introduce the lifestyle to your father?
He introduced it to me. I was raised on a lot of raw food, and as I got older and got to high school, I started to want to eat a lot of pizza, hamburgers. I just wanted to eat normal food. And then by the time I went to college and there was food hall, I just went nuts and ate cakes, white flour, deep fried stuff and white sugar, and then I had a whole health issue around that. I gained like 15 pounds. I developed really high cholesterol. I was almost at 300, because I was eating so much cheese and deep fried stuff, things I had never had my whole life.
Have you ever eaten meat in your life?
Yeah, I have.
What was the last time?
The last time I ate beef was ’86, and then from there it was pork and chicken, probably ’88 or ’90. It’s been a long time, but even today, on occasion I’ll eat fish. I’m always experimenting on my body. Again, I know that a lot of raw food comes from veganism, and a lot of vegans are driven more by animal activism, and I don’t want any animals to ever suffer. I don’t want to cause any stress to any other life forms, but I do think that my approach is more about health and whole food. Some people do need to have beef or whole chicken or fish. I’m actually Pacific Islander, so I do sort of feel like, for a Pacific Islander, fish and vegetables and fruit are the perfect diet, because in nature, we’d be climbing a tree, picking fruit, eating vegetables and catching fish offshore, by hand, or whatever. That is sort of more natural.
What are some misconceptions that people have about raw food?
That’s so funny. I was just having this conversation this morning. People think that it’s hippie, fringe, really hard, really expensive, takes a lot of time, is unaccessible, and that’s why I write my books. I’m trying to break that myth. It’s actually very accessible. It’s easier to make something raw in your blender or food processor with three to five ingredients, in like two seconds. It’s so much faster. You don’t have to cook it. You don’t have to heat it. Nothing crusts on. You don’t have to wash things. Just soak it. The clean-up’s really easy. You’re lowering food contamination issues. You’re also lowering touch points, especially if you’re going to a local farmers market, where food contamination can come into your food chain. It’s just cleaner, and also expense. That’s what someone was saying this morning, that there’s this image that it takes a lot of time and costs a lot of money. I actually go to the farmers market once or twice a week; I actually spend less than $20, cause greens are so cheap. You can get a whole head of kale, chard, romaine, cabbage, celery, for like a dollar or $2 at the farmers market. And I get two big huge bags…If you think about what’s really expensive. Processed foods are really expensive. Fruit can be expensive, but again, we shouldn’t be eating that much fruit anyway. A lot of the greens and vegetables – if you get a whole head of chard – that can make salad for like two days.
So you were at the market today?
I didn’t go today. I usually go Sunday and Monday.
What do you look for when you go to the farmers market?
Just whatever looks really good, whatever looks really fresh. Definitely organic. I always buy organic. Some of the farms though, I have to say, it’s challenging for the organic certification, since it costs so much. Some are transitional. I have relationships with some of the farms. I have some farms that I trust that I buy stuff from.
The whole 118 degree barrier. Is it true that beyond that, enzymes and nutrients begin to break down? Do you subscribe to 118 degrees?
I actually subscribe to 104, because if I was to sit in a 118 degree hot tub, I wouldn’t be able to do it. It’s really painful. So I actually don’t raise it more than 104. I figure that anything hotter than that is painful to the touch, so it’s going to be damaging to the enzymes. Studies have shown – and I always encourage everyone to look it up themselves online – they’ve had studies that show the more heat we apply to food, it damages the nutrient properties. It also damages the fiber and it releases water. One of the benefits of eating raw foods is fiber. It’s like a broom. It sweeps your system in a detoxifying cleanse, and then the water, that’s naturally structured by the plants. So if you think about a tomato, that plant has roots that goes into mineralized soil. It pulls the water from the stalk and distills the water naturally. It’s living water, and it deposits it into the tomato, let’s say. It’s structured water. It’s very different from water that’s sitting in a plastic bottle leeching toxins from the plastic, having sat in a 130 degree warehouse in the sun, having traveled around. In nature, water’s never still like that. It’s never separated from the rest of the environment. So the water that we can get structured from a plant source is much more natural. It’s more recognizable to the body. It’s a different type of water, so that water acts as a hose, sort of like, washing our insides clean.
What’s the first thing that you remember cooking?
The easiest things are like guacamole, gazpacho and salad, but as far as gourmet or something that really popped, desserts. I love desserts, but they’re white flour, white sugar, butter, eggs, cream, things that we feel guilty about eating after. My favorite desserts – I have two – one is a cobbler. So I make the crust. Instead of using brown sugar, butter and flour, I make the crust by processing pecans, which have a naturally maple-y flavor to it. Pecans I process into little chunks, and then it becomes a powder. The way I bind it is with dates, which are sticky, and dates are just a fruit that ripen that way on the tree. It has fiber, potassium, minerals and vitamins and all that stuff. I’ll put some dates into the food processor and process that together, so the dates start to bind up the crumble, and I’ll put in a little bit of salt. If I want it to have that oily mouth feel – cobblers have oil from the butter – I’ll put in coconut oil, and it’s so good. I might add cinnamon or vanilla, pecans, dates and a little bit of Celtic sea salt to round out the sweetness. That’s the cobbler crumble. The easiest thing you can do is take blueberries or raspberries, put a cobbler layer on the bottom, put berries, put a cobbler layer on top and your done. Just pat it down lightly and that’s it. Or you can do slices of mango or slices of peaches. And you put it out at a pot luck and nobody even guesses that it’s raw. It’s so good. And then I have a really good chocolate cake that I love to make too.
So you don’t call it cooking? You call it un-cooking?
Preparing, un-cooking, yeah.
So when you go on hikes, you forage?