Holiday Dining Doesn't Have to Be All Stomach Cramps and Anaphylaxis

Picnik's edible philosophies

Naomi Seifter (Photo by John Anderson)

As 2018 rolls toward an end, the opportunities for rum-soaked frolicking and indulgent holiday feasting seem to snowball faster than Buddy the Elf can throw. If you've already given up all hope of healthy eating until the new year, no judgment here. (Isn't that what resolutions are for?)

That said, Naomi Seifter believes that it is possible to have your (spice) cake, and, well, eat it, too, while maintaining a healthy, balanced lifestyle. And she would know. After all, the young proprietor of Picnik – which now boasts one restaurant, two food trucks. and a coffee company – is in the business of making delicious, craveable foods wholesome and accessible, regardless of dietary restrictions.

Food always played a big part in Seifter's life. She began working in restaurants at 16, starting with a pizza joint in her hometown of Olympia, Wash. When she moved to upstate New York to attend Syracuse Uni­ver­sity, she began to work her way up the restaurant ladder, from hostess to barista to server to bartender to pastry assistant. But Seifter also struggled with digestive issues her entire life, and after talking in more depth to her grandmother, who'd been diagnosed with celiac disease, she began to identify her symptoms as food sensitivities. "My mind was blown," she says. "It was the first time I had an understanding that the foods I was eating might be contributing to making me sick."

Two weeks after cutting gluten completely out of her diet, Seifter says her abdominal pains and digestive issues had entirely disappeared. And since such options weren't easily accessible at restaurants or even grocery stores at the time, she began preparing her own gluten-free meals at home.

After graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, she set out on a path of further self-discovery, practicing and teaching yoga at Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centre in Quebec. It was there that she earned her 200- and 500-hour teacher training certifications before traveling throughout India and living in an ashram in Woodbourne, N.Y.

“I started to learn even more about the mind-body connection and how food is so impactful to the way we feel – not just physically, but emotionally.” – Naomi Seifter, Picnik owner

"It was then that I started to learn even more about the mind-body connection and how food is so impactful to the way we feel – not just physically, but emotionally," says Seifter. "When I lived in the ashram, we didn't eat certain foods like onion and garlic because they're really stimulating and if you're trying to meditate, you can feel more energized or more mental chaos from eating those foods. I'd never recognized that there was such an interconnected nature between what we ate and how we felt."

Around this time, gluten-free packaged foods were saturating the market, but Seifter found they made her almost as sick as gluten itself, so she took a deep dive into holistic nutrition, studying the effects of various ingredients on the body. She eliminated soy, corn, and peanuts from her diet, and it was while researching grain-free recipes that she discovered the paleo movement. "That was the first time I stumbled across a group of people who needed this food the way I needed this food," she says. "So after I saw that there was a community just like me, I decided to build a restaurant someday that catered to people like myself."

At the time, Seifter was studying Ashtanga yoga at the Miami Life Center under world-renowned yoga teacher Kino MacGregor, but after meeting her future husband, Kevin, on a visit to Olympia, she decided to move back home to be with him. When the two agreed to escape the city's depressed economy, they chose Austin on a whim and relocated here on the first day of 2012. While they immediately fell in love with the city, they realized it didn't provide many dining options for those with food sensitivities.

Seifter began planning Picnik, and opened the cafe in a converted shipping container on South Lamar in April of 2013. At the heart of the concept is a menu of specialty coffees and teas blended with MCT oil, grass-fed butter, and whey protein, plus various herbs and botanicals (maca, ashwagandha, turmeric). Unlike standard lattes, these blends produce prolonged, stabilized energy and suppress hunger while boosting metabolism and immunity.

Regulars began showing up en masse for these butter beverages, as well as Picnik's house-made bone broths, gluten-free "trailer toasts," almond-flour tortilla breakfast tacos, and gluten-free pastries like the popular butter blondie (grass-fed butter, almond flour, coconut sugar, and chocolate chips). Seifter quickly learned how difficult it is to accommodate the vast and varied world of food sensitivities in a 150-square-foot space. Preparing food off-site in a commissary kitchen, then packaging and shuttling items to the space didn't allow for the type of customization she needed to provide.

"Even with paleo, somebody might be vegan or egg-free or nut-free and somebody else might be avoiding nightshades because they have an inflammatory response or [they're] ketogenic and avoiding carbs and sugar," explains Seifter. "We realized there was a need to create a more customized food experience for our customers."

In August of 2016, she launched a brick-and-mortar Picnik location on Burnet Road. With the help of a fully outfitted kitchen and culinary team, she was able to drastically expand the all-day menu. At this location, you'll find dishes like salted caramel banana pancakes, a creamy cashew-based queso, and crispy chicken thighs with lemon beurre blanc. And though the entire menu is gluten-, corn-, peanut-, and soy-free, you won't see the word "paleo" anywhere on it.

"When you put the word 'paleo' on something, it can be a little polarizing or intimidating," says Seifter. "Anybody can come in and find something on our menu because we really do have an awareness of the fact that everybody's food philosophies are different. It just happens to have the additional benefit of being better for you because we use such conscious ingredients."

Though Picnik was completely grain- and dairy-free when it first opened, now rice and oats appear sparingly, and high-quality cheeses and dairy from Austin's Pure Luck Farm, Antonelli's Cheese Shop, and Mill-King Creamery add occasional flavor. As for proteins, grass-fed beef is sourced from Bastrop Cattle Company, heritage-breed pork from Colorado's Tender Belly, organic chicken from Mary's in California, and wild-caught fish comes from local suppliers Quality Seafood and Austin Seafood.

Seifter believes that everyone – whether they have identified food sensitivities or not – can benefit greatly from similarly conscious ingredient sourcing. "I think it's important to recognize that so much of the food in our environment is just not real," she says. "It's made from lots of processed, refined ingredients that you wouldn't be able to find in nature. So people don't even understand why they might be feeling sick. Maybe they have migraines or arthritis or brain fog or sinus infections or eczema. I've seen all of those things be linked to issues of diet, so I would just recommend that people eat real, clean, whole foods – meat, fish, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds."

But eating clean doesn't mean you have to miss out on the fun during the holidays (or the rest of the year). Picnik proves that, with featured creations like gingerbread blondie ice cream sandwiches filled with pumpkin spice ice cream and chocolate peppermint pots de crème made with coconut crème, peppermint oil, and cacao nibs. The brand recently launched a line of bottled butter coffees and a creamer that can also be added to drinks or used in place of cream in recipes.

Picnik's brick-and-mortar location, which has a bar stocked with produce-derived spirits (potato vodka, gin, tequila, and mezcal), just launched a new holiday cocktail menu. Highlights include a butternut squash old-fashioned (Balcones Rumble spirit, butternut squash, maple syrup, organic bitters, cinnamon, orange peel) and a White Russian made with Picnik's butter creamer (in lieu of milk), house-made coffee liqueur (in lieu of Kahlúa), vodka, maple syrup, and vanilla.

"I want people to enjoy their holidays and not have such a fearful mindset surrounding them," says Seifter. "If you are in a position in your life where you're having health problems, I think it's important to be very strict about diet, but if you're not, I also think it's important to figure out ways to bring joy to your life through ritual and experience."

Yule Be Fine: Nourish Your Mind and Body This Holiday Season Using These Tips From Naomi Seifter

See what's out there. "Get on Pinterest and see what work people have already done to remake some favorites with better ingredients at home."

Stay selectively sweet. "If you're going to keep sugar in your diet, focus on less refined, less processed sources of sugar like honey, maple syrup, turbinado, and molasses."

Heirloom or bust. "I don't think gluten is the enemy, but I do think hybridized wheat causes people a lot of problems because of the number of proteins in it. You can still explore gluten, but focus on heirloom grains like einkorn wheat, and focus on the best possible sourcing you can find."

Limit your social media use. "Putting restrictions on some of the chaos and consumerism just to take time to be with yourself is really a beautiful thing."

Engage in wilderness therapy. "Get out into the forest and sit by a river or a lake; go on a hike. Do something that brings you back to feeling grounded in yourself and your true nature and take time away from the other stuff."

Prioritize self-care. "Whether that means an ashram or a meditation retreat or camping, doing something that's focused on self-development is incredibly beneficial and I don't think enough people prioritize that."

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