Pipe Dream spoke to Priyanka Naik, a self-taught sustainability chef who cooks Indian vegan cuisine. Her work and recipes can be found in her Washington Post column, “EcoKitchen,” alongside her personal blog, Chef Priyanka. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: How long have you been cooking and what inspired you to become a vegan chef?

A: “From a life and hobby standpoint, I’ve been cooking since I’ve been little, so in middle school and since then, but more so professionally, probably for almost eight years or so now. I’m self-taught, so I did not go to culinary school — it was an intentional decision to do that, mainly because of culinary school. Well, a few reasons. Culinary school is European and really mainly French and Italian-derived. The style of cooking that they were teaching there and the techniques, while all of that is very useful and impressive, it wasn’t really the reason why I became interested in cooking. I became interested because it was a huge part of our family. We were the only ones in the [United] States from India, my home, otherwise my whole entire family was in India. The best way to stay in touch with our roots was through our language and through our food among other parts of our culture — they weren’t teaching that in culinary school.”

Q: How does your culture inspire your dishes?

A: “Because I am first-generation in America and I’m born and raised in New York City, the way we stayed in touch with our culture was through food, language, clothing, conversation and all that kind of stuff — so my background has a huge influence on my culinary style because we’re also kind of among a minority Indian group. I would say in this country, we don’t fall within Prajapati or Punjabis or one of the bigger Indian diasporas that are settled in this country. So our food, our cooking style, our language — it’s all different. We can’t get that type of food to eat in a restaurant here at all. And actually, most of the food we eat and make is vegan by default. There’s no dairy in it. There’s no non-vegetarian, or anything like that. It’s been a huge influence because it’s taught me the versatility in vegetables and legumes and in grains and really making vegetables the star of the plate.”

Q: What influence has your frequent traveling had on your approach to cooking?

A: “I’ve traveled to 40 countries now and I’m hoping to do a few more this year — I think it’s not until you go physically to those countries and really experience the food and the cultures of the people and see the things that you can actually learn about that culture. The best way for me to learn about cultures is through food and their approach to food and also through learning about their agricultural systems. The food, I learned an immense amount about just how [other cultures] approach cooking. I’ve been to Italy a few times and I grew up on Staten Island, it’s like heavily Italian-American, but the food in Italy is completely different. You know, it’s actually very vegetable-focused and it’s not really fish-focused and not really dairy-heavy like [it is here]. I’m not saying that [Italian-American food] is not good. I’m just saying it’s such a different approach. They use so much more eggplant and fresh vegetables and peas and things that I really love. Just seeing their approach to how they actually manipulate those vegetables and use them is so eye-opening to me because I wouldn’t necessarily see that here.”

Q: What advice do you have for people trying to implement eco-friendly cooking practices?

A: “My advice for really anything is to lead by example. [What] I would say to younger adults and younger generations is, regardless of what access you have to social media and how things are changing and whatnot, I think the essence of seeing your friends do something always influences you — so that’s why leading by example becomes very important, which is kind of how I use social media. To me, my social media community is my friend group, essentially. I’m showing examples of what I do in the hopes that I’m showing them something new and helping lead them in a certain way. I think if someone cares about being more eco-friendly, I would advise them to start doing it and show their friends.”

Q: What do you hope students take away from your TEDx Talk?

A: “I hope that students, or really anyone who is watching, will feel that they can make a difference with what I have to say. The whole premise of my [TEDx] Talk is, ‘Here are things we can do as individuals that actually move the needle and make a change and make it a better environment — not only in our lifetime, but in generations to come.’ You don’t need to be rich, you don’t need to buy anything fancy or do anything crazy. Everything I’m providing are tips and solutions that anyone can implement at any stage of their life. I hope they take away the feeling of hope, that we can individually make a difference and make that one small change that can collectively make an impact.”