It's Giving... Chef's Kiss: How Chef Priyanka Naik Makes Food From Waste (Exclusive)

"I can’t individually change the system, but what I can do is be more thoughtful in my own kitchen."

Sophie Hirsh - Author

Apr. 26 2024, Published 7:00 a.m. ET

On a pink background, Chef Priyanka Naik bites down on a green pepper, alongside an aerial photo of a chocolate mousse.
Source: Green Lovers Composite: Courtesy of Priyanka Naik, chefpriyanka/Instagram

In the oversaturated world of content creators, carving out a niche can be difficult — but luckily for Priyanka Naik, better known to the internet as Chef Priyanka, her niche came to her easily, as it is deep-rooted in her childhood, culture, and values.

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The self-taught vegan celebrity chef, public speaker, Food Network champion, and author of cookbook The Modern Tiffin is well-known for two things: incorporating her Indian culture into her cooking, and utilizing handy zero-waste techniques — whether that means taking carrot tops and making a pesto, or turning leftover rice into plant-based burgers.

“Generally most things are edible if they're treated in the right way,” Naik tells Green Lovers over a video chat ahead of Earth Day 2024.

To learn more about Naik’s sustainability journey and how she incorporates her culture and environmental values into her cooking and career, read on for our Q&A!

This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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Priyanka Naik wears red glasses and an orange dress and smiles on a red carpet, at City Harvest Presents The 2024 Gala: Magic of Motown held at Cipriani 42nd Street on April 10, 2024 in New York City.
Source: Getty Images

Priyanka Naik at City Harvest Presents The 2024 Gala: Magic of Motown held at Cipriani 42nd Street on April 10, 2024 in New York City.

GREEN MATTERS: How did you first become vegan and an environmentalist?

PRIYANKA NAIK: I am first generation Indian American, I was born and raised in New York City, and that is one of the primary influences on my culinary style, and also the set of principles and ethos that I follow. We’re Maharashtrian and very strictly vegetarian. We didn't even eat eggs. We weren't even allowed to bring eggs into the house in India. So the idea of not eating meat or animal products was very familiar to us.

I ended up going fully vegan seven, eight years ago. I started doing a lot more research on how everything we do impacts the environment. And I thought that the one thing I could do as a person is change what I buy, cook, and eat. And I was already vegetarian, so I decided to go vegan.

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GM: Can you talk about your style of low-impact cooking, which weaves in your Indian culture?

PN: I grew up going to India every year, and we would see all of these different things being dried and processed, like chilies, mango peels, and watermelon rinds. My aunties and my mom and my grandmother at the time would be like, “We're making a pickle out of this. We're making a chutney out of this. Or we're drying these chilies.”

So I was exposed to a lot of that low-waste lifestyle in cooking. As I forayed into doing more research on how our choices impact the environment, and how much waste goes into the landfill here, it was really shocking to me, because I don't think we should be doing that, especially in such an “advanced” country and culture. We clearly have ways that we can prevent this. I can’t individually change the system, but what I can do is be more thoughtful in my own kitchen. So that means using all of the produce, composting when I can, repurposing leftovers.

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GM: What inspired the low-waste series on your Instagram for Earth Month?

PN: It was a no-brainer to leverage Earth Month to highlight low-waste recipes. For me, Earth Month is every day. I thought that I could use this month as a way to further push the idea of low-waste cooking and getting people back into the kitchen, thinking more creatively, and having fun with their food.

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GM: What is your mission as a creator?

PN: My mission is something called the three Es. The first is entertainment, whether it's something dramatic, something funny, something yummy.

The second E is education. Now that I've brought them in through the entertainment, the purpose of that content is actually educating them on something.

And the third E is empowering. I've now introduced you to the fact that carrot tops are edible, this is the way you wash them, and this is what you could turn them into. I'm now empowering you to go do it yourself in your own home.

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GM: What has been your favorite accomplishment of your career?

PN: First is being invited as a TEDx speaker. I've always watched TED Talks, so being invited to speak on how to achieve a more eco-friendly life was very, very cool.

And second was being invited by the W Maldives to develop their first vegan and sustainable menu. Because they're so small, and they're an island nation, they're very heavily affected by global warming. I felt very humbled to be invited to develop their first sustainable menu and to explore their farms to see what's Indigenous to the islands. I tried to create a menu only based on what they grew. It was a welcome challenge.

GM: What are you working on now?

PN: Right now, I'm trying to figure out my second book. Because I'm so passionate about this, I am writing a guidebook on how to live more eco-friendly.

This article is part of Green Lovers’ 2024 Earth Day programming, It's Giving... Earth Day: A series about the people and organizations who are “giving” Earth Day 24/7. We hope these stories inspire you to embody the spirit of Earth Day all year round.

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