Enter Food Network award winning cook and blogger, Priyanka Naik who has made it her mission to blend her cultural heritage into her cooking style while educating people on how vegetarian food can be healthy, fun, AND satisfying.
A Staten Island, New York native born to Indian parents, Priyanka has made a name for herself as a self-taught cook whose specialty is bringing together ingredients, flavors, and cultures to create original vegetarian dishes in an Indian Twist on Global Classics. We chatted with Priyanka to learn more about how she has integrated cooking into her corporate career in tech, what identity means to her and staying inspired during the coronavirus pandemic.
Tell us about your upbringing in Staten Island, New York as a first-gen kid.
I definitely didn’t have a typical first generation Indian upbringing. Staten Island is primarily Caucasian — Roman Catholic Italian to be specific. And we were different. We looked different, spoke different languages, and most importantly, we ate different food. Little did I know how much my upbringing would affect my outlook on food, cooking style and appreciation for my culture. I grew up with both my parents instilling Indian values in my sisters and myself by teaching us Kannada before English, taking us to India every year to see our family and cooking regularly.
Give us a little overview of what you do and how you got started cooking.
After two years of studying Biology on a pre-med track at Boston University (obviously, I’m brown there’s no other way), I realized I was much better at Economics without having to really try (lol!). So I switched my major and upon graduating I began a career in consulting. I started my blog shortly after graduation because two years prior to that I became a full time vegetarian and realized that there were hardly any vegetarian options on menus. That’s when it occurred to me that the Western culture was just not privy to all the amazing vegetarian food we can make! I launched www.chefpriyanka.com in an effort to share all the amazing things one can do with vegetarian food! After growing this on my own and teaching myself about the digital landscape (and at the time using Twitter to grow my platform since that was the only public social media platform available!), I decided that I wanted to shift my career into the tech space to continue learning about this world and how I could use it to grow Chef Priyanka. I worked for a hot second at Publicis and from there I went to Bloomberg LP where I led the Data Science team for a few years, then to Conde Nast to lead Product Development, and finally now I’m at Twitter leading our API/Technology Partnerships for the US.
Throughout my corporate/tech career, I incorporated food in every step of the way. At Bloomberg, I used their pantry ingredients and challenged myself to make breakfast and lunch. I developed a social media culture platform called Bloomberg Pantry, where I provided thousands of Bloomberg employees with ideas on how they could leverage their office pantry ingredients to create fun dishes. From there I landed a spot on Food Networks Cooks vs Cons and I won the show in 2017, beating out two professional and one amateur chef. After that, my platform and recognition in the food industry really began to take off.
How do you identify and why is your identity important to you?
My identity as a first generation Indian is important to me and defines who I am from a moral, ethical, and professional standpoint. Had it not been for my background, I would not have been such an avid cook, interested in traveling (I’ve traveled to 35+ countries to date), or have such an appreciation for the world and animals. It’s important to me in this country, because America is built off of immigrants, so if I wasn’t adding something different to the mix, then what would my value be?
How do you infuse your Indian background into your cooking style? Tell us about your “Indian Twist on Global Classics.”
My style of cooking is all vegetarian and I define it as an “Indian Twist on Global Classics.” My cooking is a culmination of my first generation Indian upbringing in Staten Island, NY paired with my avid travels. I like to show that Indian food is accessible, versatile, and more than just Chicken Tikka Masala (which isn’t even Indian, it’s British) because Indian food is regional. So for instance, one of my most popular dishes is my Masala Chickpea Bruschetta, which combines my love for Italian Bruschetta (we grew up eating a lot of) and a classic Maharashtrian dish – Chole (spicy chickpea dish). I love playing with flavors and combining cultures.
God, where do I start?! Vegetarian food is NOT an afterthought or a side dish. The Western palette and thought around food is: MEAT, carb, and then a small vegetable. And that is not the way the rest of the world eats, and certainly not India. So it’s frustrating to see so many celebrity chefs and restaurateurs in this country still not expanding that misconception and changing the way people think about food.
What do you want people to take away from your work in tech, as a chef and a woman of color?
I want people to see that you can pursue multiple facets of your life through hard work and passion. Sounds cheesy, but it’s true. I didn’t start a blog or start cooking just for the purpose of getting on TV or building a brand. I started cooking because I loved to cook – it brings me happiness, it’s therapeutic and it’s a way for me to express my love. But I also didn’t want to give up my career, because let’s face it, I went to a top university and paid a lot of money to do that, so I was determined to make my return and build a career. And lastly as a woman of color – I don’t want me being brown, Indian, or a woman to be my defining features. I want people to see what I have to offer from an intellectual, creative, and cultural standpoint.
What exciting things do you have coming up this year?
So many exciting things are coming soon! I will be featured on a brand new show on Quibi called Dishmantled! In fact, my episode is used for the preview found here! I will be hosting a brand new show called “Dish It Healthy” airing on Tastemade, which is available across all streaming devices! I will be a featured chef on “Like A Chef” a series by Tastemade and Amazon coming Fall 2020 and I am writing my first cookbook, details coming soon!
As the coronavirus spreads around the world, work and life as we know it has changed. How are you staying creative and inspired during this time?
This is tough. As someone who is generally a homebody and cooks a lot, I would get a lot of my energy from going to my day job at Twitter, seeing friends, cooking at events, and being on shoots. With all of that on hold, I am investing more time in developing cooking videos and sharing the recipes, tips, tricks and just generally trying to inspire people in the kitchen. Staying positive is key and filling your time with doing things that you enjoy is key as well! I did my first IG LIVE on Friday 3/27! More to come!
Photography: Courtesy of Priyanka Naik
MARCH 29, 2020