In 2004, Omar Abou-Ismail returned home to watch his father die of cancer. The experience profoundly changed him and galvanized his belief that the foods we put in our bodies can either nourish us or harm us.
“I really wanted to find a way to serve,” he recalls. “I served my dad when he was sick. He was dying, and I [felt] it was because of this relationship between our diets and cancer.”
A geo-physical engineer, Abou-Ismail had been working in Hawaii, helping locate unexploded bombs on on the island Kaho’olawe, which was used by the Navy as a bombing range during WWII. But after his epiphany, even life in paradise paled. He quit his post and stayed in Salt Lake to open Rawtopia, a raw food restaurant in Sugar House.
Even prior to his father’s death, Abou-Ismail was a raw foodist who believed food loses important nutrients and minerals when it is cooked, and thus, nothing served at Omar’s Rawtopia is heated beyond 105 degrees—the temperature at which the enzymes that hold nutrients are believed to break down.
“Fruits and vegetables grown organically are high in minerals and vitamins,” he says. “They are high in water content, they hydrate our cells and cleanse our bodies… The food industry in America gives us this processed food, and I feel like a lot of the public is addicted to it. But look at our grandfathers’ time. Every home had a garden, we grew our food, we traded our food. But food companies have completely bastardized our food. They strip away its integrity, and it shows in our overall health.”
Eating raw is a committing lifestyle that requires creativity and careful attention to proper nutrition. The effort goes well beyond vegetarianism or veganism, although raw food is, by nature, both. (Some raw foodists will indulge in sashimi or other forms of uncooked meat and fish, but this is not a common practice).
And this follower is certainly committed.
“This is a unique type of food,” he says. “It gives us a unique and healthy lifestyle. It’s very beautiful to present food this way and to make it fresh every day. I really pride myself on that. It’s labor intensive but worth it when I see people smile as they leave here.”
Despite his former life as an engineer, Abou-Ismail is no stranger to the restaurant life. His mother is the head chef at Mazza and took up the raw food diet after her husband’s death. She’s also an adviser and contributor to Abou-Ismail’s efforts at Rawtopia, which after seven years, is at the center of Salt Lake’s raw food community. It’s one part restaurant and two parts informal education center, although Abou-Ismail doesn’t consider himself a teacher.
“I’m as much a teacher as I am a student,” he says. “I learn a lot from people who come in here and share knowledge with me. I am a networker of knowledge. I receive it, share it and am always learning new things.”