Imagine a sprinkle of Mumbai magic and a dash of Staten Island sass—that’s how vegan chef, author, and TV personality Priyanka Naik is making a mark on the culinary scene. By combining her Indian roots with her New York know-how, the Food Network champ is on a mission to showcase the versatility of vegan cuisine and the richness of South Asian flavors.
Naik’s commitment to her Indian heritage profoundly influences both her culinary approach and lifestyle. She even prioritized learning her native language, Kannada, before English. As a teen, Naik discovered that dining out as a vegetarian in one of the world’s largest cities, NYC, was difficult, with menu choices limited to salads or side dishes.
This made her realize that maybe the Western world wasn’t fully aware of the incredible culinary possibilities that exist with vegetables. In 2011, Naik launched her website, Chef Priyanka, to teach people about vegan food. “I truly believe that if you involve people in your process, let them ask questions, and make it relatable, they’ll want to know more,” Naik tells VegNews.
“South Asia/India is massive, and we’re only scratching the surface,” Naik adds.
Naik’s passion for vegan cooking turned her into celebrity status by way of her 2017 championship on Food Network’s Cooks vs. Cons. This competition featured two professional chefs and one home cook vying for a $10,000 grand prize. Naik’s triumph over two seasoned chefs came with her innovative vegetarian nacho cheese pav bhaji, a twist on Maharashtrian street food she affectionately dubs an “Indian Sloppy Joe.”
Since then, Naik has shifted her focus to developing vegan recipes and has showcased her culinary skills on various platforms. She made appearances on Quibi’s Dishmantled and the Today show, among others, and hosted Tastemade’s Dish It Healthy, underscoring her creativity and the increasing popularity of plant-based cuisine.
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When the pandemic struck, Naik took to her IGTV series, Cook with Chef Pri at 3, where she filmed, produced, and starred in episodes, sharing enticing recipes such as dark chocolate rose pistachio bark and stuffed jalapeño poppers with vegan barbecue rub with her 168,000-plus followers.
Breaking food stereotypes
Naik was born and raised on Staten Island, NY but her roots are from the Maharashtra region of India. While North and South Indian cuisines are well-known in the United States, food from this region—typically characterized by seafood, rice-based dishes, and dry chutneys—is not yet as popular Stateside, and Naik is working to change that.
“South Asian food is bomb and I don’t want to gatekeep that,” Naik says.
Naik has not only taken her place among culinary superstars, but she has also opened doors for a new era of inclusive and diverse representation in the world of food and entertainment. The American culinary scene could be forever changed by the bold flavors and inspiring message brought by this vegan South Asian chef with a mission.
“The Western/American world (primarily) views vegetables as an afterthought, a side dish, and something they don’t want,” Naik says. “My experience on Food Network, on live daytime national TV, and more has made it abundantly clear that we need to change the perspective people have on food [and] vegetables.”
Namely, Naik wants to show people why vegetables should be the star of the plate, just as they are in many cultures around the world, and break the common perception that a “complete” meal is a three-segmented meal encompassing meat, potatoes, and overcooked vegetables. “One key aspect of South Asian culture that helps break some of the molds is showing how we and many cultures around the world eat family style, which opens up your dinner table for an abundance of options,” Naik says.
Bringing vegan food to the world stage
Eager to continue sharing her culinary creativity, Naik expresses her aspiration to do so on her TV show. She envisions using her unique style of cooking, cultural influences, and personality not only to entertain but also to educate and empower people, encouraging them to explore diverse dishes and reconsider vegan food in a new light.
Recently, Naik collaborated with vegan eatery Café Gratitude in Venice, CA to host a pop-up dinner party. Representing the first time that Café Gratitude has partnered with a South Asian chef, the event offered a four-course plant-based Indian-Fusion tasting menu accompanied by live acoustic music.
Next month, Naik is participating in the 2024 South Beach Wine and Food Festival and FoodieCon, where she will be the only vegan South Asian chef in the lineup. Naik will be participating in various events, from interactive panels to book signings. She also plans to share her journey of transitioning from a senior executive in tech to a full-time chef and content creator in the panel titled “From Cubicle to Content.”
Amidst the glamor and energy of the festival, Naik aims to deliver a powerful message to guests. As a vegan chef, she wants to emphasize the importance of inclusivity in the culinary world. Naik seeks to break stereotypes surrounding veganism and South Asian cuisine, proving that these culinary experiences are not only diverse but also delicious.
“My presence on these stages among all of these talented chefs and culinary artists solidifies that vegan culinary experts need a seat at the table—to broaden the conversation, showcase the versatility in vegan food/lifestyle, and share the beauty of South Asian culture,” Naik says.