Juliana Luna’s passion for food as a way to express love and togetherness came first. Her dedication to the restaurant industry and to preparing fresh, organic, living food followed. As a result, Living Kitchen captures that ephemeral air that all restaurants are striving for – that thing that takes a place to eat from merely “good” to “great.”
As any foodie worth their salt knows, it’s about more than the taste of the food or the presentation of the plates, and lodged in something deeper than the carefully curated atmosphere or the cultivation of the menu. That spark that leaves an indelible sensory memory comes from the sort of raw passion you can’t fake. That passion is what sets a business into motion in the first place, the thing that infuses the food and the space and the experience with soul.
Living Kitchen has soul in spades. What makes hers such a unique venture is the combination of “soulful” with a type of food with which that word is not often associated. The food served at Luna’s is true clean eating even by the most dedicated healthy eater’s nutrition standards: it’s all raw, organic, plant-based, and local.
At the same time, the food is also lovingly crafted; every dish is full of rich and interesting flavor, painstakingly sourced to invite – rather than alienate – all types of eaters, and is served day in and day out in a bright, warm, open-plan space that seems to be buzzing with people around the clock.
Owner and chef Juliana Luna is originally from Bogota, Columbia. She worked in the food industry in her hometown before completing a bachelor’s in Hospitality and Tourism Management in Brig, Switzerland. She arrived in Charlotte in 2007 as an eager trainee in the hotel industry and before long became involved with Real Food Charlotte, a small organization that focuses on simple, organic foods.
Luna explains that her food experience formally began in 2002, but stems mostly from time spent in the kitchens of her hometown and then later from her extended studies in Switzerland. She credits the dual pairing of learning about nutrition and learning about business management as the keys to her current success.
“I have had far more hands-on, experiential learning in home kitchens than I have formal Culinary Arts training,” Luna says. “That said, my hospitality degree required a lot of technical work in the kitchen and certainly helped guide me in the business aspect of the culinary world. My inspiration has always arrived in the way of ordinary or quotidian experiences… for example, I think a midday espresso in the sun with a simple dessert prepared by loving hands is magical. I long to create those simple experiences for people in nuanced ways.”
Luna’s personal interest in nutrition began simply enough; she experimented with preparing vegan meals for her and her husband at home. They both found a way to cook plant-based without giving up any of the flavor or satisfaction.
At the time, there was nowhere in Charlotte offering what the two were seeking – a restaurant “serving food in its most natural state” – and the idea of filling that void immediately sparked something in Luna. She wanted to be able to offer well-crafted food with none of the animal products, butters, or rich sauces, and she wanted to show people vegan cuisine was no longer what it had once been.
“When I moved to America and saw the state of the food industry here, I became even more committed to bringing nutrition to the forefront of my business,” Luna says. “There is such a lack of healthy and nutritious food at home and in the restaurant industry, so I always wanted to fill this gap and bring organic, locally sourced, plant-based food to the table.”
With her business partners, she purchased the original Luna’s Living Kitchen space in Atherton Mill in 2009. Without the funding to afford an oven, Luna saw another niche. If she wasn’t willing to compromise on the quality of her organic ingredients, the oven would have to go – raw food it would be.
We believe it’s possible to serve health, beauty and art on a plate and we strive to do that every day.”
Just a few short years later, with the rising success of the business, Luna was able to move her operation right across the street to the bright, open 3,000 square foot space in which it now resides.
RBA Group and designer Carrie Frye led the design.
“We definitely didn’t want the space to feel like a cookie-cutter restaurant design,” Luna explains. “We hand-picked every chair, dish, glass, fabric, paint color, and shopped locally for most of our furniture and lighting, too. We were very particular about every decision and wanted the space to feel incredibly special.”
The result is a clean, light-drenched space with exposed brick and carefully chosen detail: hanging lights, a community table, fresh flowers, brightly-colored abstract art.
With all this talk of “plant-based” and “raw,” what does Luna’s actually serve? The menu is surprisingly varied and has been consciously curated to appeal to a variety of different palettes. (My decidedly meat-eating, junk-food-loving brother declared the raw lasagna “one of the best things he’d ever tasted”).
“Many dishes are developed based on the desire to create flavors that are familiar to everyone but with a completely fresh perspective,” Luna explains. “We have Pad Thai, tuna salad, Caesar salad, manicotti and lasagna… just to name a few. Without any animal byproducts or ovens, we are forced to be innovative. Our goal is to make a version of a traditional dish that would appeal to carnivores and vegetarians alike. We don’t attempt to make ‘good vegan food’- we attempt to make good food.”
Luna’s also prepares fresh, cold-pressed juices, smoothies, and a variety of coffee drinks.
Her favorite dish on the menu to prepare? The Living Burrito.
“I’m partial to anything with cilantro, lime and avocado and actually really love using my hands to fold everything together at the end for a beautiful little ‘package’,” Luna shares. To give you an idea of the creativity and care that goes in to creating a truly excellent raw dish,Luna has managed to bring together traditional Mexican flavors and spices and some not-so-typical ingredients to mimic the classic favorite. She starts a with cauliflower “rice,” then adds a sunflower seed-based “refried bean,” and layers with traditional pico de gallo, guacamole, and a scoop of cashew “sour cream.”
“It might seem like it couldn’t possibly work and yet it does,” Luna says. “They [the ingredients] all work together beautifully and the flavor is just spot on!”
Luna changes the items on the menu constantly to incorporate new and seasonal ingredients, many of which are sourced locally from organic family farms in Eastern North Carolina to Spring Hill Pond Farms, Tega Hills Farms, Jesse Deal Orchard and Coto Family Farms, to name just a few.
Today, Juliana Luna is keeping busy with a business that won’t stop growing, a new baby, and over 50 employees. In addition to the restaurant, Living Kitchen has a juice truck that sells all over the Queen City, sells packaged goods (like raw cookies and macaroons) in area retail shops and also recently acquired the beloved local Love Bars out of Durham, NC.
The big vision comes from Juliana’s deep dedication to the idea that her business really embodies a lifestyle.
“We represent more than being fed calories and sustenance to get through your day. When you eat our food, we believe you are actually eating something that is healing and living- able to do far more for your body than something you might get elsewhere.
If you’d like to be in the loop to hear about new product offerings and where Luna’s is planning on going next, you can visit the website and sign up for their newsletter. And if you’ve never had a raw dish, Living Kitchen is possibly the most inviting, soul-filled space in which to cross it off your 2016 bucket list.