By Nicole Berrie
Photography by Sasha Israel
IT’S HARD TO KEEP UP WITH DORIS CHOI. BUT THAT’S THE THING WITH GAME CHANGERS, THEY’RE ALWAYS ON THE MOVE. In a city replete with restaurateurs and personal chefs chasing the latest foodie craze (deep-fried croissant-donut hybrids anyone?), Choi has earned a devout clientele who praise her clean foods, fresh ingredients and simple approach to the “detox” lifestyle. But don’t get it twisted, we’re not talking about bean and rice bowls or nut-filled nori rolls, Choi’s culinary approach celebrates nature’s bountiful ingredients, not covering them up. “Just because something is raw, does not mean it is necessarily good,” says Choi, who was born in Korea and moved to New York City as a child. “Nobody should be eating raw agave or two pounds of nuts.” Instead, Choi, who co-authored The Fresh Energy Cookbook with Natalia Rose focuses on making plant-based foods sing. “I know people who will take papaya and marinate it to taste like salmon,” muses Choi. “Papaya is never going to taste like salmon. Fruits are fruits, that’s it. Why would you turn it into something else?” When she’s not catering events, holding cooking demos or hosting wellness retreats, Choi is working on a number of consulting projects including an upcoming juice shop in Chelsea. You may even have had her delicious kale salad, at her husband’s Chelsea Market meat pie stand (yes, meat pie stand), The Tuck Shop where she created their best-selling salad. “Twenty percent of their sales is my kale salad,” Choi prides. “The girls from the Food Network are lining out the door. They call it the crack salad.” Here, we caught up with Choi who discussed her logical approach to eating, what she indulges in and why eating out is not a nutrition trap.
Were you always interested in health and vitality?
My lifestyle was never that unhealthy because I’m Korean and we have a really good tradition of eating vegetables. But when I hit 36, I thought to myself, I’m going to be old. When my aunts were 40, they looked like old ladies! I was single and I thought, nobody’s going to want to be with me. I’m never going to find a soul mate. That got me really depressed and for two years, I started drinking and was just miserable. I gained weight for the first time of my life. I was 10 pounds heavier. I went to a bookstore on a whim and I saw Natalia Rose’s book, The Raw Food Detox Diet. I never read a diet book in my life but I thought, maybe I could use some help. I sat in the store and I read the entire thing. I never knew about food combining, colonics, dry brushing and raw food. It really hit me. I was like, ‘Wow this makes sense.’ So I started eating that way.
How did you initially change your diet?
I did a three day juice fast right away and I got really sick. I felt like I had the flu. I read those were the toxic die-off symptoms. So I did it for a while and afterwards, I felt really good.
When did you decide you wanted to make this your career?
I was at the point in my life where I could do two things. I could either buy a food truck in Jersey City and do tacos or I could do what my husband said, go into the lifestyle that’s really making you happy and vibrant. So I called Natalia and the minute we met each other, we knew we would work together.
What was your goal as a chef?
I wanted to make this life more mainstream. It took me about three years of doing raw foods and really understanding them. In the beginning, I was doing what everyone else was doing, making really awful falafel balls, sunflower patties and vegan stuff. I actually looked bad for a while because it was so dense. I decided to throw that all the window and do plant-based foods instead. Now I’m segueing back into the nuts and seeds a little bit more but I’m using it in moderation.
Are there any drawbacks to the raw food world?
Some people go into the raw food diet and all of a sudden, they have no social life, they don’t care about anything except what they’re going to eat. In the beginning, I became antisocial, I became disconnected and my husband said, “You’re changing.” So I had to take a step back. Now, I don’t think about food, I don’t think about what I cook, it’s just part of my life.
What are your thoughts on the die-hard raw community?
I understand what’s happening with GMOs and you have to do the best you can but if you’re not going out to dinner anymore, if you’re not going out with your friends, if you’re not taking the subway because of the toxins, if you’re not going to the sun, you’re just not living. When you’re becoming disconnected, you don’t have that sense of connection with society and that’s wrong. You’re not going to teach anyone by doing this. There’s something to be said about happiness.
Are you fully raw?
I balance raw foods with cooked foods, especially in the winter. People are freezing right now. When I drink cold juices in this weather, I have to do it under a blanket with my hoodie because my body temperature just dips so sometimes I don’t have my green juice.
What does a day of the life look like?
I wake up, I drink tea and I drink coffee. I like my caffeine. I need it. I do black coffee. Sometimes I add a little cream but no sugar. I do French Press. A lot of people in the raw community hide it, which is so funny. They’re always caught in a coffee shop. It’s like catching them smoking crack.
Then I don’t eat for a long time. I drink a little water. Once the coffee is out of my system, I drink my juices and then I have my fruits. So it’s light to heavy. If I’m cooking or working, I don’t eat until nighttime because I need to keep my energy up. On my days off, I eat breakfast, lunch and dinner but I eat light to heavy and always a salad before my meals.
I rarely like eating lunch because it does make me feel full for a while and it ruins my dinners. I like to be hungry for dinner. If I do have lunch, I make soup and always a salad. I love an egg salad with lots of celery, dill and cornichons. After at least four hours, I have dinner. For dinner, I might skip a salad because I know the egg is still digesting and then I’ll go into a cooked meal. I like to start my dinner around 5pm so by 6pm.
What about snacks?
I don’t snack. There’s too much to do. If I have an apple, I have to wait 30 minutes. I do try to keep my stomach empty during the day, because if I don’t, I get bloated. Snacks are a waste. They seem so good at that moment you’re eating but afterwards, it’s not worth it.
What does breakfast look like on an “off day”?
Sprouted grain toast with a little bit of honey. Things that I liked when I was pregnant. When I was pregnant, all I wanted was the starchy stuff.
What are your main guidelines to eating for vitality?
l1. Eat ight to heavy
2. Eat raw first. Always start with a salad. When I eat with my family, we always have a salad first. I never give them anything else. We eat in courses. What happens when you give someone a salad first, they’ll eat it. When you give someone a salad and cooked food, they’ll eat a little bit of salad and then the rest of the cooked food.
What is your favorite meal of the day?
Dinner. My husband and I have three course dinners almost every night. We always have the salad first, we eat, we drink, we talk. Then we wait a little bit and I prepare my cooked foods. It’s romantic.
What are kitchen or pantry essentials you always incorporate in your food?
I put garlic in everything. I always go for cold-pressed oils. When cooking, I use butter or coconut oil. I use scant amounts of olive oil in certain Mediterranean cooking because you cant replace it. You can’t do things like coconut oil with garlic and rosemary and expect it to be the same thing. Always shallots. They make a difference with everything. It’s a cross between an onion and a garlic. It has more finesse than a regular white or yellow onion.
What about people who are concerned about the high fat in oils?
When I’m cooking for a clients, I water sauté using very little amount of oil, keeping the heat on high and using water instead. But if your diet is 80 percent raw and the only cooked meal that you’re eating is dinner, having a tablespoon of olive oil is okay in my book.
Do you eat dairy?
I’m not big on dairy but raw goat and sheep products are the best. If you’re using cow products, as long as they’re raw, I’m fine with it. You can get raw milks also.
Do you eat protein?
I eat fish. But the problem is salmon on the Atlantic Coast is farmed and being fed hormones, so you have to eat salmon from the Pacific but the Pacific fish is radiated because of what’s happening in Japan. So now you have two choices. Farmed salmon that’s incredible fatty, which people love, or wild salmon that has no meat or flavor at all. Also, people tend to overcook wild salmon. You have to pick and choose your battles. It’s getting to be a small window.
Do you eat red meat?
I don’t eat anything with a mother or father but I’ll eat fish and eggs.
How does cooking for your family work? Do they eat the same as you?
My two-year-old is a vegetarian. I might give him a little bit of salmon once in a while. My husband is Irish. He’s six feet tall and was two-hundred pounds, and he’s lost 30 pounds doing this. He’s also raw until dinner. He wakes up in the morning, has two apples and a juice beforehand. For lunch, he has his kale salad from work. Then he comes home and says, “I’m starving!” So I make him another huge salad. Then he’ll have whatever I’m cooking. He loves the kale pesto pasta and the spanikopita. Anything with kale and eggs he loves. We eat vegan 2-3 times a week, vegetarian twice a week and then fish twice a week. I never cook meat at home. When he goes out I encourage him to have a little bit of meat just for the experience and not to feel deprived. You should never tell anyone they’re never going to eat something again. If I thought about it, I would be so depressed. The idea is to say you can have it if you want it, but most of the times you won’t.
What does a vegan dinner look like?
I do Singapore style spaghetti squash so it’s spicy with red bell peppers, curry powder, Szechuan pepper, and lots of vegetables like broccoli. Or I’ll braise Kabocha squash and make it Osso Buco style with shitake mushrooms, a little bit of soy, balsamic, lots of garlic and thyme so it tastes more meaty. For vegetarian dinners, I’ll roast Portobello mushrooms with thyme and garlic, add marinara sauce, goat mozzarella and make pizza.
How has your Asian background influenced your diet?
Whenever I think about comfort foods, I think about Korean food. Korean food is amazing because there’s no dairy. When I go out to restaurants with my family to Korean restaurants, I eat whatever I want. But for two years I didn’t eat rice. My mom was so upset with me. “No rice?” I would just eat the seaweed soups with the broth.
Now what’s your order like at Korean restaurants?
I always order the seafood stew. Sometimes they’ll give you romaine with soy sauce so I ask for a bigger salad. I embarrass my family. Kim chi is so good for you so I’ll do that. At home, I make a bibimbap with cauliflower rice. Everything is marinated and half of it is raw. Even the mushrooms can be raw. When I’m using mung beans, I blanche them really quickly and I put raw kale in it.
What is your biggest indulgence?
I eat rice. My biggest addiction to give up was potato chips. I loved salt and vinegar potato chips. I also love wine. My husband is Irish, so we’ll have Guiness and oysters.
What are key tips to cooking raw-ish?
Cruciferous vegetables benefit from some sort of marination or steaming. If I’m using cauliflower, I’ll put it in the food processor to really dice it up and then let it sit in a marinade so it soaks up the sauce. I like to cut Tuscan kale into ribbons because otherwise it gets too chewy. I do it with romaine also just to give it a lightness. If you’re lazy with your kale and don’t cut it small enough, you should massage in the dressing by hand.
What are the key elements to a good salad dressing?
It’s about salt, fat, spice and acid. I use extra virgin olive oil. It’s also good to mince garlic very well so I use a grater. I like to do my dressings by hand instead of the food processor. Sometimes I like to grate fresh horseradish because it adds spice. My favorite salt is the Maldon sea salt. I use on roasted cauliflower. For sweet potato fries, I use smoked Maldon sea salt. It tastes like barbecue chips.
What is in the “crack salad” from Tuck Shop?
It’s tahini dressing with sesame, lemon, a little bit of olive oil to give it richness, salt and pepper. They balance it with sunflower seeds and raisins.
What is your favorite juice to drink?
Really hearty greens with lemon and ginger. No fruits. Sometimes I put jalapeno in during the winter so it’s more warming or cilantro and green pepper to make it more Mexican but most of the time I just stick to basic green juice.
What do you do for exercise?
I have a rebounder, so I do rebounding. I have an infrared sauna, which I use often. I run and I do lots of Pilates.
How do you help your clients quit sugar?
Any time you have a sort of addiction, you have to get rid of it completely. That’s especially true for sugar. You have to eliminate it right away completely and substitute it with really good foods. I give my clients heavier foods in the beginning and I get them off fruit. They are not going to understand the nuances of fruit, it’s too clean. They’re just going to replace one habit with another one. I kickstart the juices and give them tons of salads with tons of flavor. I also suggest herbal tea with lots of cinnamon. Cinnamon staves off that sugar feeding thing. It calms you down a bit. I might give them a little raw honey and fresh lemon.
Do you have tips to eating out and not veering too much off course?
The best places to eat out are Italian restaurants and steakhouses but Greek restaurants are my favorite. My first tip is always find a salad. Say, please can I have a double salad in one plate. Tell them no oil, just lemon on the side because people don’t know how to control the oil. I’ll usually do a double order of a beet goat cheese with mizuna or arugula. For dinner, any fish you see on the menu. If it’s fried or served with butter, you can ask them to steam it. They’ll do it for you in a lot of Italian restaurants. Then look at all the other stuff that’s on the menu, not a la carte vegetables but what’s with the other dinners. So if I see salmon with Brussels sprouts or chicken with cauliflower mash, I’ll say can I get cauliflower mash and Brussels with my fish. You have to be nice if you’re going to make these special requests. Don’t be an a-hole. And you can’t get away it at someplace like WD-50. Just don’t go.
FOR DORIS’ RECIPES, CLICK BELOW