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Raw Emotions

'Living foods' guru Roxanne Klein saw her marriage and restaurant crumble. Now she's dishing up a comeback.

October 08, 2006|Shawn Hubler | Shawn Hubler is a senior writer for West.

It isn't easy to get philosophical while ramming raw beets into a juicer, but the lunch hour is waning and Roxanne Klein has a lot to say.

"It's about evolution, I think," the onetime queen of the raw food movement is musing, knife in one hand, vegetable in the other. RRRrrrrrRRRRR!! She plants her bare feet on the checkerboard floor of her Mill Valley kitchen and shoves another chunk into the machine. "The food, the business," she says, smiling. "My own life."

Perhaps you remember Klein. Two years ago, she was the hottest thing on the American food scene. People called her a revolutionary. Comparisons to Alice Waters were made.

Her elaborate take on so-called "living" foods--a then almost laughably obscure branch of veganism in which fare cannot be heated above 118 degrees Fahrenheit lest it lose certain attributes--had almost single-handedly turned the phrase "raw cuisine" into something other than a punch line for carnivores. There was the cookbook with Charlie Trotter, the clamor for reservations at her restaurant in Marin County, the national press coverage marveling not only at her cooking, but also at her translucent complexion and wraith-thin physique.

And to top it off, there was Klein's seemingly blissful marriage, which had underwritten her rise to celebrity chefdom. No interview was complete without a mention of Michael Klein, the wealthy environmentalist who had supplied both her best connections and her bankroll. Rich hippie. Tech fortune. Harvard degree. Buddy of the Grateful Dead. Did yoga with her. Even without the amazing food, the image was of a counterculture dream team--her with her talent, him with his drive.

Then in 2004, it all went, as it were, right into the juicer. The Kleins abruptly shut down the restaurant and stopped promoting Roxanne as a brand unto herself. Initially, they claimed that so many patrons had migrated to their tiny takeout operation that it had cannibalized the restaurant's customer base and undermined the entire enterprise. But the fine-dining end of their business had never made money; in fact, when it opened, the Kleins said they didn't care about cash and billed it as a nonprofit.

Soon enough, the real reason for their troubles became public: The owners of Roxanne's were splitting up.

Customers wailed. Rivals smirked. Rumors flourished. One persistent story had him catching her in flagrante with the sous chef and then promptly shutting down the restaurant; both Kleins and several ex-employees called it utterly false. The tale was mild by restaurant-gossip standards--a year later, one raw food chef in New York would be arrested for flashing on the subway and details of the breakup of two others would end up on the New York Post's Page Six--but more than a year after the Kleins' split, it was still making the rounds.

More dauntingly, however, Roxanne Klein fell--at the height of her career--from the face of the food scene, unable to bounce back on her own with new backers because disputes over the divorce settlement had tied up her recipes, her image and even her name. For crucial months, as investors fell away and spas and competing restaurateurs worldwide ran with the raw food concept she and her ex had made famous, "everything," she says, "just kind of stopped for me."

RRRrrrrRRR!! An apple and an orange dissolve into the beet juice.

She's 42 and looks half that, still lithe as a wood nymph in torn jeans. It's been a dark couple of years, but today sun glints off the white marble countertops and the stainless-steel Sub-Zero. Rock music--Counting Crows--drifts in from the stereo in the next room.

Klein turns off the juicer, fills a goblet with ruby red liquid and proffers a china plate of elegant pinwheel finger sandwiches made entirely of raw vegetables, nuts and flaxseeds.

And then, in her first extensive interview since her disappearance, she launches into a conversation about commercial food packaging and a guy who was one of the first purveyors of trail mix.

As it turns out, the queen of gourmet raw is cooking up a comeback, and it's coming soon to a supermarket near you.

It's hardly news that the market for what used to be called "health food" isn't the mishmash of bulk bins and co-ops that it once was. Grocery aisles are stuffed with organic labels. Aging boomers preach the gospel of antioxidants and soybeans. Whole Foods, which had only a half-dozen or so stores in the 1980s, now has more than 180 nationwide, and not just in the blue states. The Natural Products Expo West, a trade show featuring health foods and related products, drew about 40,000 retailers this year to Anaheim.

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