Veggies can be exciting! Although, when your mom made you eat your veggies as a kid, I am sure that’s not the thought that went through your mind. But folks like Philipp and Cru Von Holtzendorff-Fehling are changing the face of vegetables. Instead of the overcooked or canned veggies from days of yore, innovative chefs are creating vegetarian fare that is fresh, nutritious and delicious.
“When we moved to America, we noticed a gap in healthy eating in a fast way,” explains Cru. “For years we joked we should open our own restaurant.” Luckily for us Memphians, Cru and her husband Philipp decided that this idea needed to become a reality.
Mama Gaia opened a few weeks ago in the Crosstown Concourse. The first restaurant to open in this renovated landmark, Mama Gaia is a one-of-a-kind dining concept dedicated to making real, organic vegetarian food accessible to everyone.
Cru and Philipp are originally from Germany. They moved to the United States nearly ten years ago for a job opportunity for Philipp. Having had a successful career in corporate marketing, Philipp is the business side of their venture. And Cru, who previously worked in a four-star restaurant in Germany, is the culinary mastermind of the operation. They are two of the nicest people one could ever meet and are both intensely passionate about eating healthy and sustainably.
Mama Gaia translates from ancient Greek to mean Mother Earth. “We want to honor the Mother Earth for all the things she gives us and to create a better environment for future generations,” explains Cru on the name choice.
The dishes are handmade to order using all-organic ingredients. Stuffed pitas were the original recipes developed for this new restaurant concept. “When we were deciding how to deliver all this deliciousness to people, pitas seemed the perfect vehicle,” explains Cru of this bread that is often considered more healthy because it is low calorie, dairy-free and vegan.
And talk about deliciousness!
The Diva Pita — a pita stuffed with antipasti (roasted and thinly sliced veggies like zucchini, eggplant and colorful bell peppers), arugula, mozzarella, Parmesan, pesto, and fresh basil – is light yet filling at the same time. Another pita, the Cena Pita, is stuffed with flavorful quinoa patties and garnished with a tasty mushroom sauce and asparagus spears. What are quinoa patties, you may be wondering? Think mini crab cakes or veggie burgers made from the ancient grain and much lauded superfood quinoa. They add a hearty bite to the pita sandwich — no missing the meat in this one.
As Cru and Philipp developed the Mama Gaia concept, quinoa bowls, salads, and petitzzas (individual pita pizzas) were added to offer options for those eating gluten-free, as well as to provide choices for kids of all ages. The Asia Salad includes sesame-crusted tofu and Asian slaw on a bed of shredded romaine tossed in Mama Gaia Sauce with red bell peppers and cilantro garnish. As you can see, nothing bland or boring about these vegetarian dishes.
“I love the Asia, Diva, and Cena flavors the most … doesn’t matter how they come: pita, petitzza, or bowl,” says Philipp about the menu. Cru adds, in her loving “mama” mannerism, “I love them all because they are all my babies! I can’t favor one over another.”
So why vegetarian? The decision started out as personal. “In 2010, I was diagnosed with Lyme disease,” explains Cru. “I started out on a high dose of antibiotics, but they made me weak and put my energy level down the drain. After a while, I decided to stop the medication and take a more holistic approach to my health. I changed my diet to be mostly vegan and reduced the amount of gluten and sugar I was consuming.” And now, Cru attributes her plant-based diet for helping her overcome the effects of Lyme disease. “It made all the difference,” she adds with a smile of gratitude.
“I’m a ‘flexatarian,’” Philipp chimes in. “I want to eat more healthy more often. I still eat meat or fish every once in a while, but I am now eating a more plant-based diet. And as a bonus, I have lost weight without eating less.” And it is his flexatarian diet that makes Philipp an excellent spokesperson for this couple’s new concept. “Yes, vegetarians and vegans will love eating here, but we also are trying to target everyone — even meat-eaters. Most people don’t know how to make vegetables the center of their diet. Here at Mama Gaia we want to make it easy for them.”
Whereas Philipp and Cru may vary a bit on the amount of meat in their diet, the one thing they do not waver on is their dedication to eating organic. “Organic produce is so important because organic produce is more nutritious and it doesn’t have all these chemicals like herbicides and pesticides like conventional produce does,” explains Philipp.
“In the whole restaurant industry, but especially in the fast-casual and fast-food segments, there are not many high-quality, healthy options. Not many restaurants in the U.S. are 100% organic,” adds Philipp. “We strive to be 100% organic,” explains Cru. “Occasionally we may have to substitute a conventional product because of availability but we will always be non-GMO. We will take an item off the menu before serving a GMO food.”
With their commitment to Mother Earth, it is not surprising that Cru and Philipp chose to have their restaurant be as sustainable as possible. “In addition to health, one of the reasons we created Mama Gaia like we did is also to help the environment,” explains Cru. Not only are the organic ingredients they use better for the environment, but they specifically chose to design the restaurant and its components with the environment in mind.
One first step for the duo was the decision to be certified by local nonprofit Project Green Fork. This certification requires restaurants to complete six steps toward sustainability. The steps include things like recycling, composting, using green cleaning products and eliminating styrofoam. “We went an extra step and made sure that all of our paper and to-go packaging is either compostable or biodegradable,” explains Philipp.
“We also wanted to help keep the look of the original building alive. We loved the rawness of the space, but we added natural wood to create warmth, to make it modern and organic at the same time,” adds Cru. “We also invested in furniture that is made from 100% industrial waste.”
Using recycled materials even made its way to the employee uniforms! “Even our logo hats are made from recycled materials,” Philipp points out as he pulls off his ball cap. “‘Organic. Love. Food.’ That’s our motto,” adds Cru, “Everything we do here at Mama Gaia comes from the heart.”
Mama Gaia is located at 1350 Concourse Ave., Ste. 137, Memphis, TN 38104. Hours are daily, 10:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Opening soon for breakfast. For more information, call (901) 203-3838 or visit mamagaia.net.
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