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Raw Flavor

by Jennie Nunn

Los Angeles-based chef, author and plant-based lifestyle advocate Matthew Kenney talks about the shift toward a plant-centric world

Renowned plant-based chef Matthew Kenney, founder of Plantlab (plantlab.com), a lifestyle brand with global culinary academies, wellness retreats and stylish restaurants in California, Florida and New York, says that his “aha moment” hit him early on.

“I embarked on a health and wellness journey while I was still in high school, when I realized I didn’t feel my best, and joined a gym in my small town, ” says the Searsport, Maine native, who conceived the world’s first classically structured raw food culinary academy eight years ago. The owner of the gym followed a Pritikin diet, which Kenney tried, and he found that cutting out sugars and simple carbohydrates improved his energy levels.

“I recognized the benefits of a well-balanced diet combined with exercise really young, and just expanded on that,” says Kenney, who began to practice yoga and became a vegan in 2003. As a chef, he committed himself to making healthy food more exciting and more accessible: “It was a combination of experience and focus on what is the optimal path for wellness and how that works with my passion for culinary arts.”

Kenney, a classically trained chef who graduated from the French Culinary Institute, noticed a major disconnect between two of his passions: wellness and fine dining. “While living and working in New York City, a friend took me to a raw vegan restaurant,” he says. “I realized how vibrant and beautiful the people eating the food were, but how lacking the space and actual cuisine were. I’ve always loved food and wine so I thought the two could come together, making healthy food really exciting, colorful and bold. I wanted to create social atmospheres that combined clean, healthy food with culinary art and flavorful ingredients.”

The author of 12 books, Kenney’s newest, Plantlab (Regan Arts), scheduled for release in the fall, is a 400-page culinary tome with 220 photos, a coffee table book and an art book meant to showcase the accessibility and possibility of plant-based cuisine. “The biggest challenge with plant-based cuisine is the lack of mainstream accessibility and popularity,” he says. “There can be a misconception that it is not as flavorful or filling as other foods, and my goal is to change people’s minds.”

Now based in Venice, California, Kenney—who recently launched a week-long transformative wellness and nutrition retreat program, Matthew Kenney Wellness, in Hawaii, and has education facilities in Barcelona, Berlin, Paris, Sydney and Stockholm, with the newest, Essence Cuisine, just opened in London—believes the plant-based lifestyle is on the brink of becoming the norm. “Plants not only provide the basis for optimal health, but a plant-based lifestyle also contributes to the overall well-being of the planet,” says Kenney. “It really doesn’t have to be difficult. That’s the key.”

“I feel like we are a year or two away from a major tipping point,” he says. “Things have already changed dramatically, for example, Jean-Georges Vongerichten just opened a vegetarian restaurant in New York. Eventually, plant-based will become the center of the plate. I don’t mean that the whole world will turn vegan. I just mean that when we think of food, it will be plant-centric. The meat and fish will be there, but it’s not going to be a big slab of meat or fish. And, whether it’s all plants or not, it will be the norm as opposed to a fringe thing. I think it’s happening far faster than people realize.”

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