Raw Vegan Cafe
If you walk outside and the air is blowing just right, you will probably smell the aroma of barbecue. Could be a commercial “smoker” coming from Cave Creek or Carefree, could be from a neighbor . . . maybe it’s your own grill ‘cuing up some chicken or pork or thick steaks.
Yet here where the favorite initials of many are B-B-Q, a little place run by a woman who swears food saved her life is fast earning a reputation as the raw vegan capitol of Phoenix, if not all of Arizona.
You read that right: raw vegan.
If you just made a face like you bit into a bad prune, you probably are a carnivore, as are approximately 90 percent of Americans. Of the estimated 10 percent who are non-carnivores, only about 2 percent identify as vegans – people who don’t eat meat, fish, dairy or other foods derived from animals.
The number of “raw vegans”? Probably less than 0.1 percent of the population.
It’s one thing to eat healthy, but enjoying it … that’s another thing entirely.
Which is why people are buzzing around Chef Sara’s Raw Vegan Cafe like bees at the hive. (Pop quiz: Is honey vegan? Answer at end of this article.)
Here behind Big Bronco Western Home Furnishings and next to Janey’s Coffeehouse, regulars and newcomers are chowing down on the likes of nori wraps, zucchini noodles with marinara sauce and pesto over cucumber noodles.
There is more to this story than esoteric food in a land dominated by smokehouse barbecue. Chef Sara Siso started studying raw veganism when her sister was dying of cancer. Shortly after her sister passed away, Sara herself was diagnosed with cancer.
Siso insists that when her doctor gave her the crushing news that she had a cancerous tumor, she simply smiled and said, “I’ll be cured in a month.”
“I immediately started detoxifying with wheatgrass juices and green juices,” she said. “Within a month of cleansing, I knew I had gotten rid of the cancer.”
The energetic chef who never cooks is asked how she is now, some 15 years later. She puts her arms in the air victoriously. “Perfect!”
Her health is matched by prosperity, as her extreme-vegan cafe has been a hit.
On a weekday afternoon in mid-January, Chef Sara’s Raw Vegan Cafe was in the restaurant limbo, with lunch slowly fading into dinner. As 4 o’clock neared, Siso was finishing up with a table of four having lunch on the deck, and getting started on a table with a couple who came from Surprise.
Naomi and Terry Oswalt had seen the raw vegan chef on Channel 3 that morning (Siso is a “Good Morning Arizona” guest about once a month), and heard the chef’s story of overcoming cancer through diet. Naomi, who has had breast cancer treatment, asked her husband if they could try Sara’s place for lunch. They arrived in Cave Creek just in time to catch a meal.
She starts them out with a green juice (leafy greens, cayenne pepper, garlic) they had seen Chef Sara make on one of her Channel 3 segments that morning. The couple took a few sips, then started wandering around the bright cafe, which features the chef’s recipe books and various organic/alternative concoctions. “Finish your juice!” Chef Sara lightly but firmly scolds, shooing them back to their table. “It’s very important to finish it within 15 minutes!”
After serving the Oswalts cream of spinach soup, the chef went back behind the counter to prepare one of her almost-famous Rawgasmic sandwich, made with onion bread, tahini, avocado, arugula, broccoli sprouts and sunflower sprouts. She sings along to “Beauty and the Beast” as she prepares the meal, and happily answers questions.
Siso celebrated the second anniversary of her cafe in early February. “It’s been fantastic since day one,” she says. “It’s been a blessing.”
Tall and slender with bright eyes and an intense gaze, Siso is a native of Israel who came to the United States 32 years ago. After her sister was diagnosed with cancer, “I received my education about the healing power of raw, plant-based foods at the number one alternative medicine facility in the world,” Siso said. “I discovered Florida’s Hippocrates Health Institute in 1997. I was so impressed with the program that I enrolled immediately and began my journey of discovering the disease-preventing and healing power of raw, plant-based foods.”
She now fully believes in “the powers of living foods that nourish, cleanse, and alkalinize the body; the importance of food combination; and the powers of wheatgrass. During my stay at HHI, I saw with my own eyes the transformation in people’s health, physically, mentally, and emotionally.
“The medical field chooses to call it a miracle when a patient is completely recovered from deadly disease. I, on the other hand, call it the power of raw, plant-based foods. I believe the food we choose to consume plays a vital role in healing the body, mind and soul.”
After moving from Florida to Arizona, Siso was teaching workshops on how to live a raw vegan lifestyle before becoming a restaurant owner.
Why did she open this cafe in what formerly was a candle store?
“It picked me, I didn’t pick it,” she answered, her lean face breaking into a grin. “I never wanted this, even though people were always telling me, ‘You need to open a restaurant.’ I was sitting next door (at Janey’s Coffeehouse) having herbal tea, and saw a sign on the roof saying ‘for lease.’ It drew me here.”
The transformation from a candle store to a raw vegan cafe was easy, Chef Sara said. “I don’t need a stove, I don’t need a kitchen. All I need is a counter and a juicer!”
Even so, gaining a customer base in this area would not have seemed to be so easy. The other restaurants up and down Cave Creek Road feature fried chicken nights, all-you-can-eat fish fries, hamburger joints and hot dog stands.
“When I first opened they all thought I was crazy to open in the middle of a meat-and-potatoes place,” she says with a shrug. “I said, ‘Listen, people who need this kind of food will find me.’ And they come here from Sedona and Tucson - all over.”
Another thing that makes her unique is that this chef doesn’t just prepare your food, she often seats you, takes your orders, serves you and delivers your bill. She only has one other employee, and darts around the cafe like one of those honey-bees when the cafe is busy.
She started with a staff of six, but, unhappy with employees that couldn’t keep up with her pace, she cut back to just Carla Garnica. “She’s the best I’ve ever had. She’s wonderful, she learns fast. She was eager to learn, she loved everything about this place.”
But how does Chef Sara put in the long hours of opening, prepping, shopping for organic vegetables, making all those lunches and dinners and all the other things that go into running a restaurant?
“I’m 60 years old and have energy coming out of my tush,” she blurts out with a laughing exclamation point. She says her energy comes from the raw foods she eats, the juices and the wheatgrass shots. “Let food be your medicine and let the medicine be your food,” is a favorite saying of hers.
Siso lives by herself in nearby Carefree. “I have one child,” she says. “I was divorced for many, many years. I raised my daughter on my own. For 33 years I’ve been a single mother and proud of it! I did a great job.” Her daughter Nicola, who received a master’s degree from Harvard University, lives in Napa; Chef Sara is mulling over opening a second cafe near her daughter.
The only time she takes off is in July and August, when she closes the cafe. “It’s too hot - the snowbirds all leave so it gets slowed down.”
While Chef Sara serves the couple from Surprise their sandwich, a visitor’s eyes wander around the painted inspirational messages around this good-vibe cafe:
“I live in peace and gratitude.”
“Take joy in helping others and share your abundance.”
“I connect with the energy of the universe.”
At the entrance is an homage to Sara’s inspiration for this lifestyle she is rapidly spreading: “In loving memories of my sister,” reads a sign above big photo of her sister taken as she was floating in water, head above rippling waves. “03-17-1936 – 12-21-1997. Thank you Dina for the priceless gift of life that you gave me. I love & miss you so much.”
While most restaurant owners are haggard and terminally exhausted, Sara Siso says running her cafe is an extension of her good-vibrations lifestyle. “I’m a cancer survivor. I like my peacefulness. I like my joy, not stress. To me this is joy. I like getting to know my customers and learning about them.”
This seems to remind her of the couple, and she calls over to them: “How’s your sandwich?”
“Oh! To die for!” answers Naomi Oswalt. “What’s for dessert?”
Terry Oswalt, a 77-year-old former factory supervisor who seems like a meat-and-potatoes kind of guy, agrees. “Delicious!” he says, with a note of surprise. “And so filling.”
“And,” his wife adds, “so healthy.”
Answer to quiz question: Whether eating honey violates vegan practice is open to debate; some believe that honey produced for human consumption “exploits” bees, and thereby goes against the vegan philosophy. Those who feel this way substitute agave nectar for honey.