Sometimes, a  journey of a thousand meals begins with a single mouthful.

Jennifer Italiano, co-owner of Live Food Bar in Toronto, still remembers the first raw food dish she had.

Long before she opened Live, long before she (along with her brother and a talented staff) grew the restaurant into a thriving TO destination for raw and vegan organic food, long before she launched a line of raw products that are now available in stores throughout Ontario, Italiano tasted a raw food dish and was blown away by how delicious it was.

The rest is history.

Now comfortably ensconced at the corner of Dupont and Spadina in Toronto’s north Annex neighbourhood, Live is a cosy, intimate 40-seat space (with room for 40 more patrons on the patio out back) dedicated to great tasting food that just happens to be vegan, organic, and, in the case of about half the dishes on the menu, raw.

“We’re into the holistic, the healing, the therapeutic side of food,” says Italiano, explaining the restaurant’s current food philosophy. “We found that people would be doing a cleanse, and couldn’t eat this, and that—we just kind of fit into that.”

Raw food: a growing TO trend

Although vegetarian food has long catered to a niche market in Toronto, raw food restaurants are slightly later arrivals to the health-food scene. Opened a decade ago, Live was definitely on the forefront of the raw and vegan trend.

Now, though, raw and raw-friendly restaurants have popped up like so many (raw) mushrooms, and attract a far more varied clientele than the stereotypical granola crunchers.  With places like Rawlicious, CrudaCafe and Belmonte Raw attracting the attention of mainstream foodies, raw restaurants are no longer simply the territory of fringe diners.

“Raw food’s come such a long way,” says Italiano. “Before, you were snubbed in the culinary world. Now, diners are a lot more sophisticated, and there are great chefs who want to learn how to do this stuff.”

What makes raw food “raw,” exactly?

“When you’re making raw food, nothing’s heated above 118 degrees,” explains Italiano. “It’s all about preserving the life force of food. Think of it this way: if you put a raw almond in the ground, you get an almond tree. If you put a roasted almond in the ground, nothing grows.”

Preparing raw food can be a labour intensive process. Not surprisingly, it involves some specialized cooking techniques to make the food as digestible and tasty as possible. Food—primarily nuts, seeds, and vegetables—is dehydrated, soaked, sprouted, pureed, or thinly sliced to create raw versions of wraps, breads, cheese, gravy, pate, even pasta.

“We’re pretty gadget-heavy,” laughs Italiano. “We’ll use a spiralizer to make dishes look pretty—how the dish looks is really important. We use a Japanese mandoline a lot. Actually, a meat slicer is one of our main pieces of equipment, which is kind of ironic.”

The raw menu items at Live include pizza made with a walnut crust, pesto and cashew chevre, and soft shell tacos stuffed with guacamole, ground spiced walnuts and cashew sour cream.

Does raw food=less energy use?

With so little cooking going on, it’s tempting to think that Live’s energy needs would be significantly less than conventional restaurants—but that ain’t necessarily so. It turns out that raw food has energy challenges of its own.

“Well, the dehydrators probably use less energy than ovens, but they’re running all night,” says Italiano. “Plus, we discovered this summer that we can’t turn off the air conditioner overnight, because it shuts down the refrigerators.”

Customer comfort is, understandably, paramount. Italiano is pragmatic.

“The bottom line is, it’s a business, and we run it like a business,” she says. “So the lights are on when they need to be. The air conditioner goes on when it’s hot. I wish I didn’t have to run it so much in the summer, but people are dining—what can you do?”

It’s easier being green…now

That being said, Live works at offsetting their carbon footprint in other ways, as members of LivClean and Food Forward, through using biodegradable packaging from Green Shift, and purchasing produce and other ingredients from local suppliers.

Italiano says that it’s easier to be a green-focused restaurant than it used to be.

“Prices [for green products] have really dropped. Containers used to be sooooo expensive. You’d try your best to do everything. I think now, even if you’re not into organic food, it’s still ridiculous to use Styrofoam. It just doesn’t make sense.”

Coming up next

In terms of future plans, the restaurant’s launched a product line, Live Organic Raw, which is available at stores across Ontario. Italiano’s working on making it available to more and more customers who are looking for raw snacks and ready-made food but don’t have the time to prep it themselves.

She’d also like to open a take-out place, downtown perhaps, or uptown towards the north end of the city.

So what was that first raw dish?

“It was a sunflower seed pate. I was playing around with some raw dishes, and I fell in love with this one. I still use it.”