In a city famous for smoked pork, the husband-and-wife restaurateur team Philipp and Cru von Holtzendorff-Fehling are carving out a niche of their own – all-organic, all-vegetarian and all-affordable meals.
“It’s a mix of passion and filling a badly needed gap,” Philipp says. “Not just in Memphis, but the whole world.”
Mama Gaia opened its first location in March of this year in the heart of the burgeoning Crosstown neighborhood in Memphis. The German-born couple of Philipp and Cru moved to the United States in 2010 along with their two sons.
“When we moved here, we noticed that what we needed in a diet was not readily available,” Cru says. “For a while, there was a time when I would feel absolutely terrible after eating at a normal restaurant. My organs just couldn’t take it.”
Cru was diagnosed with chronic Lyme disease several years ago, which led to a unique set of dietary restrictions that eventually shaped the menu of Mama Gaia.
“I caught it a long time ago in Germany and didn’t find out until nearly five years later,” she says. “By that time, the damage was done. After that long, there isn’t a whole lot that ordinary medicine can do for you. At that time, diet change was the biggest thing I could do for myself. I have cut out all animal products from my diet for several years now.“
Five months after the first location opened, Philipp, who handles the business side of things, decided the pair was ready to open up a second location inside Ballet Memphis in the trendy Midtown Memphis area.
“I never ran a restaurant before our first location,“ he says. “My background is in start-ups and marketing, which is what I’m really trying to apply here. And it’s an interesting time since we’re really starting to see the shift in consciousness regarding what people put in their bodies. That’s fascinating from a marketing perspective, but amazing from a human perspective.”
Cru studied culinary arts under Michelin Star winning Chef Armin Karrer.
“It’s always been my dream to cook and create all kinds of different menus and dishes,” she says. “I figure I needed to learn how first.”
The menu boasts an array of handcrafted vegan and vegetarian dishes, from the traditional hummus and quinoa fare to the Mediterranean-inspired “petittzas.”
“I tried not to mock up existing dished with vegetarian ingredients too often, but rather make my own from the ground up and trying to find a kind of balance among the flavors,” Cru says.
Highlights include Mama Gaia’s Asia Bowl, a roasted sesame seed-infused tofu dish with cilantro, red peppers and Cru’s signature sauce.
“I’m not a huge fan of tofu, but it’s such a great protein and it is very filling, so we came up with this wonderful sesame seed crust and marinade, which makes it so delicious,” Cru says. “The flavor combination turned out really amazing along with the Asian slaw and we now serve this as both a bowl and on a pita.”
In addition, freshly brewed green tea lemonade has proven to be a big hit for the fast-casual restaurant.
The menu restrictions presented by the concept offered a few challenges for the couple, namely in the areas of cost and preparation.
“We have our challenges,” Philipp says. “No one else is doing this, so there’s an extra mile we have to run. We pay an average of 50 percent more for some of our ingredients despite the low menu prices.”
Mama Gaia is among 57 local restaurants certified by Project Greenfork, a program that works to build sustainable eateries with low environmental impact.
Mama Gaia stakes its claim as Memphis’
first organic vegetarian eatery
Story & Photos by Casey Hilder
Mama Gaia Balsamic Quinoa Bowl with Veggies
• 1/4 cup quinoa
• 1/4 cup vegetable stock
• 1/4 cup water
• 1/2 teaspoon salt (less if your vegetable stock is salty)
• 1 Zucchini
• 1/2 small eggplant
• 1 red bell pepper
• 2 gloves of garlic
• 3 twigs of thyme
• 3 twigs of rosemary
• Pinch of salt
• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 1/4 cup olive oil
• 2 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
• 1/2 teaspoon salt
• 1/2 teaspoon pepper
• 1/2 teaspoon agave
• 2 basil leaves
1. Put 1/4 cup of quinoa into saucepan.
2. Add vegetable stock and water.
3. Add salt and put on stove over medium heat.
4. Cook covered until water is gone. (About 15 minutes) Note: Don’t stir. Reduce heat if boiling is too strong.
1. Cut vegetables into 1/4 inch slices lengthwise and lay on baking sheet.
2. Top with olive oil, herbs, salt and garlic.
3. Place on top rack and broil on high until vegetables begin to brown. (About 5 minutes)
1. Mix all ingredients together in Mason jar.
2. Close with lid and shake well.
Combining all ingredients:
1. Take 3 loose cups of greens of choice and place in bowl.
2. Add 1 cup of cooked quinoa to bowl.
3. Top with dressing and vegetables.