122007Kenney.JPGIn 1993 Matthew Kenney debuted his first restaurant, Matthew’s, to enviable acclaim; before he knew it Food and Wine Magazine had declared him one of the ten best new chefs in America. A flurry of activity followed, as Kenney involved himself with a series of popular restaurants throughout Manhattan that emphasized regional Mediterranean cooking. In 2004 he switched gears, opening Pure Food and Wine, an organic raw food restaurant on Irving Place that continues to impress diners with pretty definitive evidence of raw food’s potential. (The White Corn Tamale with Raw Cacao Mole, Marinated Mushrooms, Salsa Verde and Avocado is supposedly sublime.) His latest project is Free Foods NYC, the non-raw but mostly organic midtown café. We questioned Kenney about Free Foods, his conversion to organic ingredients, and got him to share his recipe for raw pumpkin pie; he swears you’ll never know it’s actually made with carrot juice.

Your new café, Free Foods, is organic. But what about the lobster for your lobster stew? Our lobster comes from Maine (where I grew up) and is an entirely organic product, grown naturally without the use of any chemicals or synthetic treatments. There is no USDA certification for fish at present but fish from the wild is about as close to organic as it gets. My home there is on Penobscot Bay, where the Maine lobsters are very populous. The lobster harvest is one aspect of the food industry that has actually changed very little over the years.

How do you verify that the organic ingredients from your suppliers are in fact organic? In most cases, we purchase products with the USDA Organic Seal and our suppliers are mandated to provide us with organic whenever it is available. If we are working with a boutique product from a smaller supplier who may not have the resources to seek formal Organic Certification, we use our best judgment based on the facts available to us.

What brought about your shift to cooking with organic foods? There are a few factors that have influenced me. The experience of growing up in an environment filled with fresh, seasonal foods is something I have always wanted to convey in my cooking. In recent years, as the gap in quality between organic and conventional ingredients widened, I began to feel that it was increasingly important as a chef to take responsibility, not only for the flavor of the food, but for the impact the ingredients have on the diner and the environment as well.

What environmentally sustainable methods does Free Foods practice? Freefoods uses only compostable packaging and utensils (made from corn, paper and sugarcane) and does not serve any beverages packaged in plastic containers. We even compost a majority of our kitchen waste. We avoid using synthetic materials throughout the store, provide our staff with organic cotton t-shirts and used as many natural materials in the construction of the store as possible, while avoiding plastic and other pre-fabricated options.

More and more restaurants these days are doing the “locavore” thing. Is this a fad or something that’s here to stay? That really depends on where it is being practiced. There are certain parts of the country where I would prefer not to have locally grown food, given the quality of the soil, water and air. However, it is a very admirable goal and one that will surely gain traction as artisanal producers continue to develop great products.

What’s the dish on your winter menu that you’re most proud of?
The Pinot Noir and Dark Chocolate Cupcake with Salted Caramel Glaze

What is your favorite NYC restaurant these days – besides the ones you’re involved in? Elio’s, on the Upper East Side, has been my favorite restaurant for about 18 years.

You’ve co-authored a raw food cookbook and have more to come. Are you a vegetarian raw foodist? I have many raw foods in my diet, but I also incorporate some dairy products and occasionally fish, when I am comfortable with its source.

What’s so great about raw food?
As a chef, I became involved in raw food because I realized that it had the potential to be as vibrant and flavorful as any cooked food. Those qualities, in conjunction with its health and environmental benefits, make raw food hard to challenge.

But Matthew, you can’t get enough protein if you don’t eat meat! True or false?
This is a myth. Our proteins are developed from the essential amino acids which are all available in plant food.

What is your favorite vegetarian dish? Local Polenta with Wild Mushrooms at Chase’s Daily in Belfast, Maine

Have you ever heard from any committed carnivores who got dragged to Pure Food and Wine and liked it? I have heard many carnivores admit that they tried raw food and liked it, although it’s hard to say how many of them would actually consider converting.

Tell us everything you ate yesterday.
I don’t have traditional meals unless in a restaurant, so it all runs together…green mango smoothie, wheat toast with macadamia butter, avocado salad with sunflower sprouts and sea vegetables, raw cacao brownie, baked sweet potato with brown basmati rice, swiss chard and shiitake mushrooms, apple-apricot sorbet.

What cooking tips can you offer someone cooking vegetarian meals at home? I think that the best cooking at home is always straightforward. With vegetarian, keep it seasonal, simple and focus on the quality of ingredients. There is nothing more satisfying than a rustic, greenmarket inspired menu. I nearly always go shopping without any preconceived menu and build the meal around what inspires me.

Please share a good holiday recipe.

(Yield 1)

You will never know that this pumpkin pie is actually made with carrot juice. I think it is my favorite of all of our pies – the filling is also great on its own, as a cold pudding or flan.

For the crust:
2 1/4 cup pecans
2 tablespoons maple syrup
1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 tablespoon date paste
¼ sea salt

(Optional: soak pecans over night and dehydrate at 118 degrees for 24 hours.)

Place pecans in food processor, pulse into small crumbs.
Mix all ingredients together well by hand.
Press into plastic-lined 9 inch tart pan to desired thickness.
Dehydrate 48 hours.
Chill crusts in freezer for 15-30 minutes before filling.
If not using all the crust, store extra in containers in the freezer.

For the Filling:
1/2 cups cashews soaked
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup agave
1/2 cup coconut oil
1/2 cup + 2 tablespoons carrot juice
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 vanilla bean, scraped
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons nutmeg
1/2 tablespoon fresh Thyme, chopped

Blend all ingredients, except thyme, in Vitamix until very smooth.
Stir in thyme.
Fill candied tart crust and chill in freezer overnight.
Remove pie from metal tart shells, cut into 12 even slices and wrap in plastic wrap.
Cut the slices, running a knife under hot water and dry it with a towel between cuts.
Store in freezer.