A conversation with Rawtopia’s Omar Abou-Ismail
I recently visited Omar Abou-Ismail at his Millcreek-area restaurant, Rawtopia—a restaurant that serves, as its name implies, mostly raw food. People who get into particular diets (my pescetarian self included) sometimes become uppity and judgmental, even ideological, when it comes to others’ food choices; sometimes with good reason. Because diets affect not only our individual bodies but the planet and its other residents, we certainly should discuss ways to eat sustainably and without cruelty. Despite this fact, it never feels good to have someone else sneer at us for our dietary choices. What was I getting into, walking into a vegan raw food joint?
A charismatic Omar waved to me from behind the counter and came out to greet me with a warm smile; my fears quickly dissipated. We enjoyed the cool spring air on the front porch as I sipped my coffee and asked about his journey as a small business owner. I had read somewhere that he had been a geophysicist, and wondered about that transition. He called himself “earth-oriented,” and explained that his love for geophysics and raw foods stem from the same place: a deep care for the planet, and for human beings who (through what they eat) are extensions of that same Mother Earth.
Omar said he opened his Rawtopia in Sugar House in 2005, in part in response to his father’s development of cancer and death the year prior. This hardship inspired him to create a sustainable health food oasis to “honor and support healthy practices within organic and sustainable agriculture,” and so people could feel good physically and mentally when they walk away from their meal.
Without prompting, Omar brought up a recent controversy that cropped up around the restaurant’s change in practices. In 2018, Rawtopia began serving some cooked options and meats in addition to their extensive list of vegan and raw food options. The backlash was swift and severe: boycotts, hate mail and all. Despite this, Omar said he wishes “peace to all” who wished him harm, and s unwavering in his decision to bring meat to the table.
As he studied sustainability and permaculture, Omar came to realize that “animals are absolutely a part of our existence and part of our microbiome makeup” —and that to suddenly exclude all animals, after evolving alongside them and using them as a major energy source for thousands of years, isn’t always the healthiest option; while some people can fill their nutritional needs by eating only vegetarian meals, it can be much harder to get all the right nutrients.
I shared with Omar my own story of a similar realization I had during a recent six-day Bears Ears backpacking trip. As I sat munching on my vegan jerky at the bottom of one of the massive, winding canyons that make up the Grand Gulch primitive area, it dawned on me that there certainly were no vegan jerky factories during the times of the ancient Puebloans, the civilization that lived for 1,700 years in Southern Utah and the Four Corners area. I inspected the flora, and it was clear the Puebloans certainly would not have survived off plants alone in that arid desert.
It dawned on me that eating the hyper-processed vegan and vegetarian meat substitutes that so commonly accompany an animal-free diet is really a privilege of modern, middle-class American society. In a lot of ways, that’s what’s contrived and unnatural (how the heck do they actually make those veggie chicken nuggets and super calorie-dense “Beyond Meat” burgers, anyway?). Maybe the problem isn’t so much meat-eating, but the way modern food is manufactured and processed (including the way factory-farmed animals are treated).
Omar called my revelation “beautiful,” an unexpected and impactful reaction that I understood immediately, but that I am guessing many might not. I knew when he used that word that he had come to the same realization that I had: There is a reason we humans reached this point in our evolutionary history, and it has everything to with the fact that we are an extension of the Earth. We aren’t all of a sudden “above” nature, just because we live in an industrialized society that makes it easy to get plenty of satisfying protein. The key is to strike a balance between a healthy consumption and ‘capital R’ Respect for the natural world.
Omar explained that while most of Rawtopia’s menu is vegan, they cater to omnivores, “as opposed to the typical situation in which an omnivore restaurant caters to vegans with just a few vegan items.” He wants his restaurant to be a welcoming and safe place for families and friends to gather where everyone’s dietary needs and concerns are met. Everything, meat included, is gluten-free, organic and sustainably grown and raised. The carnivores, gluten-intolerant, keto dieters, paleo dieters, pescatarians and vegans in my family would all find something to satisfy their dietary needs.
Considering the direction of our conversation, I decided to try the salmon salad, along with a lentil soup and a raw dessert. The lentil soup was satisfying, mildly spiced and extra savory. The accompanying grainy crackers tasted like whole food goodness. They beat the heck out of any oyster cracker.
Next came the salad, protein-dense and filling. The salmon was mildly seasoned, but the salad dressing options were amazing. Omar let me try all three: tahini, blueberry and sweet basil. The basil was just to die for, finding a nice balance between herbal and sweet. There were no compromises on the leafy greens. They were dark, fresh and nutritious. Overall, I give the salmon salad a two thumbs up.
Lastly, the dessert. I opted for the berry-coconut-cashew cheese cake and was not disappointed. The cashews made the cake extra creamy, and the coconut was a great complement to the berries. Cheesecake is one of my guilty pleasures, and this one put every other cheesecake I’ve had to shame; not only because it was delicious, but because I didn’t walk away with that “oh man, I shouldn’t have done that” feeling.
Though I personally don’t eat anything with legs (it’s an empathy thing), I get it. I, too, would prefer to eat food that comes from the earth, not from a factory. If all of us dietary and environmental crusaders have to live side by side on this same blue dot, I hope that instead of being at each other’s throats, we will bring all these brainy minds together to find ways to produce nutrient-dense food that is healthy, that isn’t raised in cruelty, and that won’t destroy the planet. I know we’ve got it in us, if only we try.
For now, I’m just glad there are people out there like Omar who are thoughtful and deliberate about each and every ingredient put on our plates.
Kaleigh Stock is a recent English graduate from Weber State University. She was a CATALYST intern last semester.
Rawtopia Living Cuisine
Olympus Hill Shopping Center (3961 S. Wasatch Blvd.)
11am-9pm, Tues-Thurs; 11am-10pm, Fri.-Sat; 10am-8pm, Sun. (brunch 10a-2p). Closed on Mondays.