Colorful murals surround diners Larry and Leslie Mahaffey at CultureWorks Cafe in Ashland. - Jim Craven

CultureWorks Cafe: Clean cuisine

After 18 years as a vegan with long stretches of consuming only raw food, Christopher Iverson realized "freaking out" about diet actually can make a person sick.

"I don't even talk to people about diet anymore," says the 32-year-old chef and restaurateur. "I just make them really good food."

That includes an organic selection of vegetarian, vegan and raw specialties. But Iverson still made room at Ashland's CultureWorks Cafe for a guaranteed palate-pleaser.

"I love raw food; I love healthy food, but pizza is still my favorite food," says Iverson.

Vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free pizzas "fly" from the ovens during CultureWorks' late-night hours, when live music performances are the Oak Street venue's main attraction. Yet the restaurant's busiest time, Iverson says, is lunch, which draws customers of all persuasions — many women in their 60s who come armed with lists of foods they can't eat.

"It is like as complicated as it gets," says Iverson.

From gluten-free, tree nut-free, nightshade-free — even garlic- and onion-free — the menu's numerous notations reflect the prevalence of food allergies and sensitivities, as well as preferences for healthful fare. Joining the designations are "V" for vegan and "R" raw. Vegetarian applies to everything — there isn't a morsel of meat in the place.

"It was kind of exciting to hear there was an all-vegetarian restaurant in town," says 66-year-old Larry Mehaffey, who ordered a tempeh "Reuben" for his weekday lunch.

Nearly as nonexistent as CultureWorks' meat is soy — its Reuben being about the only item featuring a soybean product. More common to the eatery, Iverson says, is protein from nuts — including almond "cheese" — and hempseeds, both raw and processed into "milk." CultureWorks doesn't draw a lot of attention to its use of hempseeds, in deference to the "ultraconservative demographic," but bills it as a "very clean source of plant protein," says Iverson.

Clean flavors characterize CultureWorks' dishes, even when numerous ingredients are blended with nutritional yeast and liquid amino acids into patés, pastes, sauces and dressings. When the entree isn't recognizable as a pizza, lasagna, burrito or wrap, the kitchen crew puts extra emphasis on presentation.

CultureWorks' raw sampler plate is a conscientious arrangement of sprouts, greens, sprouted grains, shredded vegetables and vibrant sauerkrauts. Rich and nutty with a pebbled texture, the platter's house-made flaxseed crackers are a taste-treat all their own.

"When there is time, we actually do that," says CultureWorks cook Udi, finishing the dish with flourishes of raw cream cheese.

"Eventually we want all the plates to look like that," says Iverson of the cooks' most artistic arrangements.

While feasting with the eyes is a raw-foodie credo, experience tells Iverson that customers more often value consistency and reasonably fast service. The Portland native learned the restaurant-industry ropes in the 1990s at a raw, vegan cafe he opened in a downtown nightclub. In 2004, Iverson founded the first raw-food restaurant, Living Source Cafe, in Vancouver, British Columbia. The self-taught chef widened his repertoire in Maui, Hawaii, with one of the raw-food movement's most recognized authors and evangelists, Jeremy Saffron.

Rejecting his former "food-Nazi" persona, Iverson opened CultureWorks in February with the goal of appealing to anyone who loves food as much as he does. CultureWorks' partners are Iverson's girlfriend, Samantha Sperry, and events manager Chris Deckker. After testing menus on its evening clientele, CultureWorks expanded hours in June to include lunch.

"Probably most of the people that come in there are not vegetarians or raw foodists," says Iverson.

However, CultureWorks looked to local raw-food expert John Larsen to staff its kitchen. A raw-food chef for more than a decade, Larsen previously operated Manna Community Cafe and Luminescence — both in Ashland and both short-lived. Iverson says those ventures lacked competent management and sufficient investment but not quality cuisine.

"When he makes plates up, it's a work of art," he says of Larsen.

The plates also contain only organic ingredients, says Iverson, explaining that he buys the highest-quality products from United Natural Foods, which also serves the nearby Ashland Food Co-op. When in season, produce comes from local farmers, he adds. Amid growing demand for both local and organic foods, the vast majority of restaurants adopt those standards only when cost-effective, says Iverson, adding that he applies his personal standards for eating to the business.

"Our ingredients cost twice as much," says Iverson. "We're not doing this to make a profit.

"We are sustainable."

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