Natasha Kwan, the owner of the vegetarian, vegan and raw-food restaurant Frida's Deli (622 North and South Road, University City; 314-727-6500), has been thinking seriously about food for a long time. She declared herself a vegetarian at the tender age of nine -- either because her idol, Michael Jackson, had forsworn meat, or because she'd been shaken by a visit to a friend's family veal farm. Or maybe it was a little bit of both.
Since then Kwan has tried being a vegan and even a raw foodist, but is now comfortable calling herself a pescetarian. Her restaurant, which opened last summer, isn't simply about catering to vegetarians and vegans, but offering diners her view of a healthy, delicious diet.
"I've been to so many places around the country that are either vegetarian or vegan, and it's just a lot of processed food," she says. "I like to follow a low-glycemic diet. More whole foods, no oil, no fats. No one did [a restaurant] the way I wanted it. I saw that there was an opportunity in St. Louis to have it."
Not that Kwan is always so serious about food. When I asked about childhood favorites, she told me, "I got my junk food too. I wasn't allowed soda. But, my god, Doritos? After school? It was like an addiction. I would eat a whole bag and -- " she wiggled her fingers -- "have my fingers orange."
Her laughter and enthusiasm while taking about Doritos was typical of our conversation over a table in Frida's dining room one recent weekday afternoon.
How old were you when you started cooking? I remember always being in the kitchen with my grandmother or grandfather and then later with my mom. When I moved into boarding school, we had a kitchen. We would get tofu sent to us, and we'd make tofu yogurt.
What were your first cooking jobs? I was probably seventeen. When I was in college at Mizzou, I was working as prep cook and a baker. I worked at Bruegger's Bagels way before they had prepackaged cream cheeses. We made our cream cheeses. We made our own soups back then. We made our own hummus. And then later on in life, I became a bartender. I suck at serving, but I learned a lot through flavor profiling.
What's a typical meal at home for you? You know, I don't cook at home. I'm out every night. It's Monday, so I might get the tuna at BARcelona, because there's a cook that works on Monday who makes it very spicy for me. If I were to go home, I'd probably make a really good salad as a starter with an oilless, mustard vinaigrette and then I would probably have fish and maybe a small cheese plate with nuts.
What food can't you live without? Onion. You can change the texture, you can change the flavor of it. I start everything with onion. We roast it. It's sweet. It's pungent. You can do so much of it.
What's your favorite onion dish? I probably haven't made it yet. I'll probably make it tomorrow.
What don't you like? Carrots. A lot of chefs gravitate to carrots because they're a cheap filler. Totally high on the glycemic count. And on a personal note, I'm allergic. But I see it in so many dishes. You can add carrots to a tomato sauce so it's less acidic and sweeter -- well you probably made your sauce, in my eyes, way too sweet, and you're adding something that lowers the value of it in terms of health.
What's on top of your pizza? Spinach.
[One of Kwan's employees shouts, "Sauerkraut!"]
No one makes this: sauerkraut and jalapeño. It is freaking amazing. Oh my god. If I was personally making it, anything with hot sauce. I basically eat food to eat hot sauce.
Favorite hot sauce? Depends on what I'm eating. I like Tabasco, the traditional kind. Sambal is really, really good. That's never recognized because it has to be refrigerated, so no one has it out [on the table]. We actually switched our spicy mayo from a sriracha mayo to a sambal mayo because sriracha's full of sugar, and I actually don't like the taste of sriracha. I have six or seven different hot sauces. I even have the 25-year-old tabasco, but I only use it on special things.
How hot is too hot? I haven't hit my limit. I was close to my limit the first time I went to Pearl Cafe. I did an 8 or 10 [spice level] with the "Drunken Noodles.". I am hoping to get on that list [of diners who have finished a spice level of 25]. That's a challenge. I look at that and get excited. I like a good sweat.
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