Omid Jaffari stands with his back facing the door, chopping at a quiet pace. He is small and svelte, particularly in his large, white-walled, open-plan kitchen, which is tucked into a Collingwood backstreet. The roof is high and his kitchen equipment (a dehydrator, a blender and large drum of biodynamic olive oil, among petri dishes, drippers and a glass fridge full of colourful liquids) seems to only take up a small portion of the space. It feels like a science lab and, in a way, it is.
Jaffari is preparing something for lunch, while recipe testing a raw chocolate ganache for Nettle, a raw vegan pop-up dinner that he runs seasonally.
“We’ve done something like 47 tests on this ganache recipe, but we’ve called it test number four,” he smiles. “It’s more encouraging for us,” A rich dessert made from chocolate, butter and cream, ganache typically draws from a list of ingredients of which none fall into the vegan category.
“This recipe is a tough one for us, so we’re still trying to nail it…you can try some later,” he offers. Jaffari, 34, was born and raised in Iran, but moved to New Zealand with his parents when he was 12. From the age of 17, he began travelling the world as a chef, working with Ruth Watson and at London’s River Café before a stint in Japan and his eventual move to Australia a couple of years ago to set up botanical cuisine (all lower case) – an organic, raw, vegan food company.
“I used to be a raw foodist – a raw vegan – for about three-and-a-half years and I started doing that in Japan,” he explains. “But it’s hard to be a raw foodist in Japan, because raw means ‘numa’ and if you go and say ‘numa’ they’ll bring up sushi and you know, whale sperm.
“There’s a lot of sea vegetables, but because the sea is so polluted [in Japan] you can’t trust eating a lot of sea vegetables either. So actually, Australia is the best place to be a raw foodist.”
Upon his arrival in Australia in 2009, Jaffari began working as a chef at slow food cafe Slow Down in St Kilda, but ran into issues when head chef asked the raw foodist if he tasted the food before it went out to diners.
“After a couple of months I started getting back into rich, Italian flavours again. And because of the long hours, I realised I couldn’t dedicate my time to being a raw foodist because it’s a part time job,” Jaffari explains. “You’ve got to be very organised, and you’ve got to become very intelligent to understand what’s happening to your body, you couldn’t just eat whatever’s around.
“I mean we’ve been eating the way we have for so long and then all of a sudden to change into raw food you need a plan…because your body will go into a shock, you know?”
So Jaffari threw in the towel on his raw vegan lifestyle and started introducing things like bread, risotto and pasta to his diet. Before he knew it, he was eating lamb shanks, Yorkshire pudding and Sunday roasts.
This shift spurred on the creation of botanical cuisine – raw food products to be introduced into regular (cooked) food – which he began in 2010 as a cooking academy and catering company, which looked after Serena William’s food while she here for the Australian Open last year. “I stopped making food for raw foodists and started making food for food lovers,” he says. “Because up to that point, you know, raw food was quite daggy in many ways.” The third arm of the business is his seasonal pop-up restaurant Nettle, which Jaffari plans to open as a permanent raw food restaurant in 2014, using graduates from the academy.
“Melbourne is a tough nut to crack as far as food because it’s a city of food lovers,” he says. “And people would just, you know, look at you strangely. Even my friends, if I invite them over for raw vegan food, they’re like ‘Yeah, we’ll see you tomorrow’.”
But the last few years have seen an increased awareness of raw food and an interest in techniques like dehydrating in everyday eating, even for the cooked food eaters. In order to start introducing his work to a mainstream customer base, late last year, Jaffari – along with his team – launched a line of 20 retail and wholesale products for anyone’s pantry. From cream cheese (made with cashews, walnuts and olive oil) and pates (mushroom and truffle made from brunoise carrots and celery), to sauces (walnut bolognaise) and desserts (including French vanilla ice cream, tiramisu and the aforementioned chocolate ganache) made with ingredients like agave nectar, raw coconut oil and raw cacao butter for a sweet creaminess minus processed sugar and dairy, he’s changing the way we think about raw food.
With his assistant Aysha Abulhawa, Jaffari is making us lunch of cold pea soup with coconut and chopped veggies (a colourful spread of tomato, cucumber and radish) to dip in mushroom and truffle pate, basil and kale pesto and cheese. Everything comes in 180-gram glass jars, which are sold from the small retail space at the front of the building, online and at a number of retailers across Melbourne. The aesthetic is slick and clean and though labelled ‘organic’, ‘raw’, ‘vegan’, ‘gourmet’ and ‘sustainable’, the raw vegan tag isn’t so explicit that it dominates your attention. Indeed, these products are not only for the raw food movement – their plan is to mainstream botanical cuisine and take it to supermarkets across the country.
“Flavour and texture is central to our product, with an emphasis on seasonal organic produce,” says Jaffari. “This is a new raw food philosophy, based on the idea that raw food cuisine should be created using freshly grown, minimally processed ingredients.
“The thing bout raw food is you can’t cheat,” he says as he looks up from his chopping board. “With cooked food you can hide things and disguise flavours. All we are doing his putting food together in a way that really showcases the produce.”
58–60 Sackville Street, Collingwood
Mon to Fri 9.30am–5.30pm