A rich conversation on food sustainability and how dietitians can help families gather around the table for more home-cooked meals was on the agenda on a beautiful summer night at Native restaurant in Santa Monica, California. A group of Los Angeles-based media dietitians took part in the farm-to-table dinner and discussion. This special occasion was sponsored by Unilever’s Make Meals That Do More program—targeted at encouraging healthful eating habits, teaching cooking skills, and promoting sustainability—at Chef Nyesha Arrington’s beloved restaurant, which she calls “an expression of love through food.” Nyesha is a well known chef on television as an alum on Bravo’s Top Chef, winner of Food Network’s Chef Hunter, and a judge on Esquire Network’s Knife Fight. She’s no stranger to the culinary award scene either, having been named one of Zagat’s 30 Under 30 (Los Angeles’ hottest up-and-comers) and Los Angeles’ Chef of the Year.
Yet Nyesha’s culinary aesthetic goes well beyond the glitz and glam of awards and the television spotlight. She was born and raised in Southern California to a multicultural family, learning about cooking from her Korean grandmother. Nyesha is passionate about treasuring food traditions and passing them down to the next generations, so her partnership with Make Meals That Do More seems like a match made in heaven.
On this evening, Nyesha shared her culinary vision, focusing on how we can bring Americans back to the table for home-cooked, delicious meals, as well as strategies for lowering our environmental footprint. Her pet peeve: food waste. She has found all manner of ways to avoid food waste in her restaurant, from freezing “mature” (past their prime) vegetables for broths and sauces to making “compost granola” out of dried “mature” fruit. No wonder the dietitians were entranced by her messages on this magical night.
The RD Lounge (RDL) had a chance to sit down with Nyesha for a one on one that night, discussing her best thoughts on how we can lead our clients back into the kitchen to embrace simple, delicious, wholesome meals.
RDL: Why do you think our cooking literacy has declined over the years?
Nyesha: I feel like people are more about instant gratification in this era. People want it fast, on the go. There are lots of fast casual brands that have popped up, making food access quick, which is the common denominator for our food choices. But when you practice mis en place, where you set yourself up for the week of cooking, and you cook efficiently and effectively, it is a less daunting task. Increase your knowledge of cooking, and look at the people around you who can show you how to execute cooking. If you think, I’m going to cook this, and it’s going to be a big mess, it won’t happen. But if you do it on the front end, by stocking good ingredients, and prepping for your meals, then all you have to do is go to the farmers’ market to add fresh ingredients to your dishes.
RDL: What are some of the major barriers people face when it comes to getting dinner on the table each night?
Nyesha: I think we are, as a society, a huge working class. People are tired after work; they don’t have time to give a thought about cooking for their family or themselves—it’s daunting. But I think that planning, where you have a nice setup of foods and ingredients on hand can be inspiring for people to cook. I am seeing more people who get this and want to cook so they can get in the kitchen and create more food memories.
We need to take away the roadblock associating cooking with arduous work. Instead, we should be linking cooking to creating family memories, and providing good fuel for the body. The No. 1 barrier is that people are not looking at cooking as a joy and fulfillment.
Taking a few steps on the front end can really make cooking easier. I like stocks and stews, these are foods that hug the soul. My boyfriend is a chef as well, so we will take kale and blend it with water, and make it into ice cubes, so that when you cook, you throw a chicken into the oven, take out a kale cube and some stock, add olive oil and make a really delicious sauce, but it took just five minutes. Knowing hacks like this is really important. Make cooking fun. You can steam quinoa, add kale ice cubes, olive oil, and lemon juice. My thing is that I tend to buy things that are super perishable, and I don’t want it to go to waste. So I dry fruits and vegetables if they are getting mature. These textures are satisfying.
RDL: In your mind, what are some of the most powerful benefits of getting people back into the kitchen cooking?
Nyesha: The most powerful benefit is that you create a family legacy by cooking, and heritage is everything because it makes us human. Mankind—the human race—is heavily engaged in food dialogue. In our lineage, the common denominator is food; we talk about it every day that we are alive. My grandmother is from Korea; she came here as an immigrant and I learned about her food culture and people through her cooking. This is how she shared her life—through food. When I was 4 years old—I remember it like it was yesterday—she taught me about eating and foraging foods, which left an impact of foods on my soul, mind, and palate. I like to call it “food dates”; these are such powerful visceral memories. When we think about those intangible things; the sheer impact of food memories are so powerful—they are authentic, and they precede our lifestyles. We can share these beautiful recipes with our kids so they never die. Different families have different dialogues with foods and ingredients that become part of their recipes and culture—people celebrate them like they do music.
RDL: What are some of your best tips for helping people make the most with their meals?
Nyesha: Product sourcing is really important. People can belong to a CSA [community-supported agriculture program], where they bring fresh food to you. It can be imperfect produce; it does not have to be premium. You don’t have to go to the grocery store, and you do not have to schlep it home. I’m very passionate about the use of byproducts, finding creative and inventive ways to use stems, sauces, and stocks. My menu has leeks, a favorite aromatic, versatile vegetable. But most people discard the green part, as it can be very fibrous. But I dehydrate it by leaving it in the oven overnight and make about 200 leek chips, then crush them into a green powder that tastes like sour cream and onion chips. I use this as a dust over fish skins, which is also a byproduct. I fry fish skins, like a chicharron (pork rind), and it is one of my signature dishes.
Food waste is something I’m really passionate about. I talk about it on TV shows, such as Top Chef. In my restaurant we use everything, and I feel like I am responsible for that. After all, the animal gave up its life for us to use it. I love to serve smaller portions, which can be a challenge to educate guests, as some people don’t get smaller portions; they want the American experience of gorging. People want to celebrate when they go out to eat, but they forget about celebrating the artistry of the chef.
We need to come together at the dinner table and understand why we engage together over food in the human connection. That’s why I call my restaurant Native. What is the common denominator? Food. I’m a native Angelino, and that is the commonality.
As a chef, food has gotten simpler over the years; it is more thoughtful. We are simply stewards of the land, and we have forged amazing relationships with grocers and artisans over the years. They birthed this beautiful corn and leeks we eat, and they add creative artistry and make my job easy. Being responsible and understanding why this is on my plate, and what is the food’s story is important. It centers us. How can I use every part of the meat, so that nothing hits the trashcan? We make vegetable crackling, with peels from random vegetables that are dehydrated. We use rye berries to make a vegetable porridge served with these veg chips.
I’m a texture girl, and I think that the first bites of foods should be compelling for people. It’s the palate experience—on the front end it might be soft, and then it might have saltiness, chewiness, and an acid finish, and hit different flavor notes. I use that as a canvas to create delicious compelling food.
Nyesha’s Lentil Soup
Nyesha shares one of her favorite healthful, easy, plant-based recipes.
8 oz lentils du puy
1/4 cup olive oil
1 T minced garlic
1 onion, minced
1 large carrot, chopped
1 T tomato paste
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
1 quart water
1 sprig thyme
2 bay leaves
1 tsp olive oil, or to taste
1 tsp red wine vinegar
- Place lentils in a large saucepan; add enough water to cover by 1 inch. Bring water to a boil and cook until tender, about 10 minutes; drain.
- Heat olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic, onion, and carrot; cook and stir until the onion has softened and turned translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in tomato paste and season with salt and pepper.
- Pour in lentils, 1 quart water, thyme, and bay leaves. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes.
- Cover and simmer until the lentils have softened, 30 to 40 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add additional water if the soup becomes too thick.
- Drizzle with 1 tsp olive oil and red wine vinegar to taste.