Hear me raw: The delight of unbaked treats

By Nici Wickes

It's the coolest food trend amongst celebrities, now it's here. Nici Wickes meets Little Bird 'unbakery' owner Megan May.

Chef and creator of Little Bird 'unbakery' in Kingsland, Megan May. Photo / Babiche Martens
Chef and creator of Little Bird 'unbakery' in Kingsland, Megan May. Photo / Babiche Martens

Meet Megan May, owner of a new Auckland unbakery, Little Bird. Yes, that's right, an unbakery. May is a proponent of raw food, and that means all of Little Bird's range have been produced, without "cooking" as you know it. She even operates an un-cooking school and now, has opened the Little Bird cafe featuring 100 per cent raw food. But before you jump to any conclusions about raw rhyming with bore, think again.

When I meet May, her eyes are wide and shining, her skin glows and she's full of genuine, bouncing vitality. I notice all of this, despite my inner cynic, within moments of arriving at her workplace.

Why "despite my inner cynic"? Well, I'm a keen cook and I love to braise, stew, sizzle, roast and caramelise all manner of produce, from both plant and animal origins, so the idea of following a "raw food regime" as a lifestyle choice doesn't exactly light up my culinary dashboard. As I soon discover, however, I have a lot to learn about this fast-growing trend for raw food including, as it turns out, that I've already been subjected to it at some of our top restaurants without knowing it.

The raw food phenomena is very hot overseas with the likes of Woody Harrelson, mega-star chef Charlie Trotter, Demi Moore and long-time stalwart Gwyneth Paltrow extolling its virtues (is that why she named her child Apple?). Take a spin around LA's yoga-ridden Santa Monica or the hipster-ville neighbourhood of Silver Lake, and you'll be bombarded with cafes and restaurants with names like Cafe Gratitude, RAWvolution, Planet Raw and my personal favourite, Taste of the Goddess.

Ardent followers are usually vegan, meaning they shun animal and dairy products, but most importantly, they believe that heating beyond about 46C (118F) destroys the enzymes in food and diminishes its nutritional value. For food to be good for us, it must be "living food", they say - organic and uncooked. At the beginning this all sounded a bit extreme for me, but May and her "little bird" were playing with my mind because the cabinet shelves at her unbakery were abundant with all sorts of treats that I find seriously appealing on any given day - dark chocolate cakes, berry cheesecakes, lasagne, pizza - all made from "live" or whole foods.

"When you talk about raw food, what springs to most people's minds is cold, uncooked food but that's not it at all," explains May. "I'm a chef, so I'm chasing flavour and texture all the time. We sprout, activate, dehydrate, do all sorts of things to achieve, ultimately, food that people want to eat, not because they have to, but because it tastes great and makes them feel fantastic. That's why we've gone for food that people might expect to see in any on cafe or restaurant menu - sweets, wraps, ravioli, dumplings - because by providing people with great food items, that just happen to be raw, it begins to make them think and challenge what they thought about raw food preparation."

Her tone is reassuring and, when I start to think about it, she's right. One of my favourite dishes on restaurant menus this year has been beetroot carpaccio - raw sweet beetroot, sliced paper-thin. Admittedly it often comes with a dollop of soft goat's cheese and perhaps that's the attraction for me. May makes me feel okay about that, saying, "It's difficult to be 100 per cent raw, and it's good to be practical about it. If it makes you feel good, it probably is." Come to think about it, with many of the chefs using sous vide (water bath) as a cooking technique, where food is "cooked" over a long period of time at temperatures as low as 19C, there's many a dish that would qualify as "raw".

I don't baulk at tartare or ceviche, I don't think of an oyster bar or the sashimi stand as occupying a different tier in my dining headspace, so raw is here, just not as I expected it to be. For one, there's no feral hippies in sight. The movement towards health food in New Zealand has traditionally been the domain of hippies and alternative types but, as May explains, it's starting to gain momentum amongst the mainstream now as the interest in whole (unprocessed, unrefined) foods and personal health emerges more strongly. And Little Bird was the chosen caterer when local fashion designer Juliette Hogan launched her new range.

Growing up in the 80s, May's parents helped to pioneer the organic movement in New Zealand. "I was familiar with the hippie movement of the 60s and 70s and the notion of 'health food'. The problem I had with it was that my background was as a chef. I observed that what people are used to, with so-called health food, is that in order for it to be good for you, it must be compromised in some way - either it tastes bad or the texture is like cardboard." She laughs. "Okay, so I'm exaggerating a bit but when I started out, that's what it was like for me trying to find decent food that was good for me. I'm a chef, I like good food, I enjoy dining in restaurants but I also want it to be a healthy experience for me and not suffer afterwards."

May's own road to a life of raw food was a bumpy one. "I was sick with adrenal fatigue, upset gut and malignant tumours and was unable to work. It didn't seem right. This lasted for about four years and then at 25 there came a turning point and I began seriously to look for ways to gain back some control over my health. Good food proved to be the key." However, May is adamant that she wanted her eatery to appeal to anyone who values good food and who just wants to feel great, not for only those who have been driven to find alternatives due to their intolerances. So the fact that the products are gluten-free, vegan and sugar-free is not the driver? "I'm doing this because I'm a chef and I've always wanted to serve great food to people. We started this business because we saw a need and we love it."

The "we" refers to herself and award-winning architect husband Jeremy - but more on him later.

As we start to take a tour of the unbakery (it makes me giggle every time May mentions it), I start to see exactly what she means. This is sophisticated cuisine and the effort and quality of ingredients that goes into making each product and dish makes your average vegetarian look like a lazy slacker by comparison to these raw foodists.

First we come across three staff (all of them looking very healthy, I've got to admit) meticulously hand-rolling chocolate macaroons and the rich, chocolatey aroma drives me wild. These little gems were one of the anchor products when May first started out: "Jeremy and I were attending a seminar with the US raw food guru David Wolfe a few years back and we took along some macaroons and some of our granola. We had such an incredible response with people asking where they could buy them that we went away, designed some packaging and began supplying them to shops, markets and supermarkets." These days they make the macaroons in batches of 250 but they're still hand rolled.

We move further back into the unbakery to a room that, when I enter it, looks like a laboratory but smells more like a kitchen. There's banks of dehydrators happily humming away and a large fairground ferris wheel-type machine, dripping with water (filtered, of course) that sprouts 40kg of buckwheat at a time, 24/7. It's here that I learn more about the complexities of each process. "Raw food isn't just about ingredients being cold, uncooked, unprocessed - there's a lot more to it than that," explains May. "If you think about cooking in a conventional way, it's about heating food up to transform it in some way, often the outcome being that some of the moisture is removed to intensify the flavours for example. But the by-product of heating to high temperatures, is that some of the good, natural enzymes are killed off. We dehydrate instead." As she talks about activation, probiotics, sprouting, she's pulling out trays from the dehydrators to reveal sheets of caramelised onion bread, cheeses of cashew and macadamia nuts and pasta sheets made from young coconut, flax and zucchini which will be used later to make smashed pea and lemon ravioli. Sound weird? Let me assure you, it all tasted out-of-this-world fantastic.

As I look at Little Bird's operation, I ask her how she knew what to do when she started out? She'd been a flight attendant for a few years and she recalls diarising the back of packets that she'd come across overseas for products that we didn't get here. "I was really interested in it for a long time. Subconsciously I was researching for my big business idea. I started with the known quantities, macaroons and granola, because these were in stores in London and LA where raw food was already making its way into the mainstream so I knew there was a demand."

She shyly admits that her research into what equipment she'd need was rather more primitive. "It involved looking at YouTube clips, freeze-framing the screen to try and catch the labels on the equipment they were using, then googling them to contact the suppliers. It was a risky strategy and the time, from purchasing the machines and getting them shipped here, was nerve-racking. The biggest one cost nearly $30,000 so you can imagine that I was a bit on edge. In fact my mantra while I waited for it to arrive was "F***, I hope I got it right." Nice to hear a swear word come out of her clean-living mouth.

The newest part of Little Bird is the cafe and it's May's husband who can claim the credit for this darling space. A talented designer, Jeremy works for a large architectural firm and he's turned the Kingsland space from bare, rough bones, into one of the cutest food stores I've seen. It's refreshing and calm, not boringly reverent in any way.

But is it just a fad? "No, I don't think so,"she says. "It's where we're heading in general as we try to maintain our health. Here in New Zealand, I'd say it's not exactly a revolution but more a quiet little energetic seed that has been sown. I want the food at Little Bird to stand on its own merit and I'm confident it will."

I am too. While she's been talking she's made me a dumpling, stuffed with portobello and shitake mushrooms, cashews and zingy herbs like ginger and chilli. It rests in a flavourful broth. It is magnificent.

I left positively chirping with energy and I have to admit that, ever since meeting May, some of my evening meals have involved some seriously good un-cooking. Hear me raw!

•385 New North Rd, Kingsland, www.littlebirdorganics.co.nz, (09) 550 7377.

- NZ Herald

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