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Last night, as part of ArtHop, Raw Fresno celebrated its first month of residence at its brick-and-mortar space in The Galleria at Civic Center Square (2405 Capitol, Ste. 103) in downtown Fresno.
The photography of the restaurant’s proprietor, Chef Naomi Hendrix, was hung with care, and it fit in perfectly with the naturalistic décor and vibrant colors of the space. As with the permanent mural on the restaurant’s wall and the sunflower painting in the foyer, both by local artist Rivka Schaffner, Chef Naomi’s artwork reflects the personal journey that inspired her to become not only Fresno’s newest restaurateur, but also a local pioneer of raw, plant-based eating, and an educator and missionary who’s out to improve—and save—lives.
“We’re sitting at our raw, vegan, plant-based restaurant at the moment, and this is like a long day coming,” Chef Naomi tells me during a quick break from food preparation one recent evening. “To be able to be here, it’s a big dream come true. It kind of makes me happily cry just thinking about it. You see on the mural, this is my story, actually. So each letter represents a part of my life and how Raw Fresno came to be. My grandmother was the gardener, and I learned about being in the garden with her.”
A change that made all the difference
Naomi Hendrix was born and raised in Fresno, but her life’s course took an unexpected turn when tragedy struck 11 years ago. Her son, Ian Zachary Smith, began having seizures resulting from celiac disease when he was 20 years old. A year later, he passed away. “And so I went into a deep depression for a couple years, just stayed home, didn’t come out of my house,” Chef Naomi remembers. “And then I was diagnosed three years later with dysbiosis. My doctor said, ‘You have to go gluten-free, sugar-free, dairy-free, vinegar-free, soy-free, yeast-free; take out all sugars, all yeast, all anything that creates yeast—corn, rice—and just eats nuts, seeds, fruits, and vegetables.’”
As she learned about food allergies and discovered the hereditary link between her own condition, her mother’s Type 3 diabetes, and her son’s illness, Naomi found a new mission in life. “That was seven years ago that I began eating this way, and it changed my life. Overnight I felt completely better. Everything [all symptoms] went away. And so now I knew I needed to teach this; I needed to help other people here in my hometown.”
She enrolled in an online course through Immunitrition, and that’s how Chef Naomi was born. “It was all about how to heal my gut with fermented foods. I became a Certified Healing Food Specialist, and so I came back, started teaching classes at Whole Foods, and then I just knew I loved doing this, and everyone was really accepting and wanting this, and I started delivering food to people’s homes. And then Kaiser hospital—they have a farmers market, and they found out about me—and so they asked me to have a booth there. And so I bought a tent and started selling it out of my tent. And so that’s where my following began.”
New space allows for meetings and more
As demand for her food delivery service increased, Chef Naomi found herself in need of more space. From preparing food in her home, she progressed to renting the kitchen of Casa de Tamales. And then, after four years of holding space and cultivating a customer base at the Kaiser Farmers Market, it occurred to her to buy a food truck. “I had just got it going, and the Downtown [Fresno] Partnership, they sent an email to me as an invitation to be in a business plan competition. And I just told everybody, ‘I won this restaurant. I’m winning this restaurant.’ And so I did … I got 12 months’ free rent, and I could choose any one of eight locations. And so I chose this location.”
Chef Naomi then contracted local construction firm Earth Builders to build the restaurant’s distinctive wood countertop (it came from a fallen Sonoma County crepe myrtle tree), and she enlisted her friend, interior designer Nicki Wolfe, to create a space that visually vibrates as highly as the food (Ms. Wolfe gave the establishment its signature bright green colors).
The new permanent space allows for informational gatherings such as a regular “Meet the Doctors” series (the next one is scheduled for Dec. 15 at 10 a.m., and it’s free to attend). It also gives downtowners and visitors to Fresno a standing option for exceptionally healthy eating. “We have so many people that are traveling here, and they’re at the hotels…like the cast of musicals; they’re vegan, and they’re staying at the Radisson and this other hotel here, and so I get to feed all these famous people. And right now there’s a Saturday fight, so I’m serving the fighters and the coaches.”
Despite the permanent digs, Raw Fresno continues to stay on the move. Minerva the food truck, affectionately named after Chef Naomi’s grandmother who lived to be 100 years old, continues to make its rounds. Tuesdays it can be found at Fresno City College (Thursdays too, starting in January); on Wednesdays it’s at the Kaiser Farmers Market; and on Saturdays and Sundays it pulls up at Enzo’s Table.
Chef Naomi will be heading out to Kaiser on Jan. 15 to teach physicians about plant-based eating, as Kaiser is now prescribing the diet for its patients. To those who’ve never tried such a diet, she offers this wisdom: “What my experience is, is that I feel fantastic all the time. I work 15 hours a day, and I don’t even want to go to sleep because I have so much energy and I feel so good. So I mean, that really says it in a nutshell. I know and I hear so many people complain about so many ailments, and I used to have allergies and asthma and skin problems, and the list goes on; and all those are gone, and I don’t have any symptoms of any of that.”
Not your ‘Taco Bell’ vegan fare
From sweet to savory, everything served at Raw Fresno is organic, sourced from local farmers. And “everything is really nutrient dense,” Chef Naomi explains. “Our food is so filling that you can’t help…losing weight, actually, on accident. You’re not hungry, because you’re nourished with the density of the nutrition. I always say that people are walking around starving to death. They’re overfed and they’re undernourished.”
While many people think of vegan diets in terms of what they leave out (meat and animal products) Chef Naomi draws a sharp distinction between Raw Fresno’s offerings and typical vegan fare. “There’s a lot of junk-food vegans out there; they call them ‘Taco Bell vegans,’ and that’s not what we are. We’re raw foodists, and we’re all about putting the highest nutrition in our bodies to be healthy and live forever, I guess,” she says with a laugh.
Delivery and catering are also available. Raw Fresno offers a variety of vegan birthday cakes and specialty holiday pies, as well as a lunch subscription.
Of her photography, Chef Naomi explains, “In the first two years when I was mourning my son, I stayed in, and I got a camera that Christmas, and so as I was healing I started taking pictures through the window. And so all these pictures…I saw Ian in all of nature. It’s called Wildlife Series. So I feel like it’s because of Ian that all of this is here. And then in the window over there you can see the sunflower. It just represents the sun—you know, my son.”
She credits Ian with saving her life, as well as the lives of her daughter and grandson, who work with her in the restaurant on weekends. Because of him, she’s learned about food allergies and how to survive them, and she’s using Raw Fresno to spread awareness and enable others in her community to achieve optimal health.