For many people sustainability is more than a trendy topic; it’s a conscious lifestyle. From the clothes we wear to the food we eat, there are several avenues to starting and maintaining a sustainable life. For Chef Nyesha Arrington, conscious choices are often arranged on a dinner plate. The former Top Chef contestant and owner of Native, a Santa Monica-based restaurant, is very passionate about making food "do more," the importance of the family dinner table interaction and being kind to Mother Nature. 

PHOTO: Grub Street

Arrington recently teamed up with Unilever, a consumer goods company whose focus is to work with brands and create services that help make sustainable living commonplace, for their "Make Meals That Do More" campaign. Arrington spoke to 21Ninety to share a serving of her life and why sustainable living is so important to her. 

21NINETY: In your recent partnership with Unilever, you get to address one of your passion topics and that is sustainable food. Tell us a little more about why this collaboration is so important to you and why we all should be on board with sustainable food choices.

NYESHA ARRINGTON: Soon we are not going to have a choice to choose sustainable or not. We HAVE to change as a society to not abuse our planet and its resources. Choosing sustainable product not only allows life to thrive but directly impacts healthcare and disease prevention. My greatest passion has always been about cooking great food for others. Cooking is one of the most powerful things we can do for our families, our communities and our food system. That’s why I am proud to partner with Unilever and its new program, "Make Meals That Do More," which encourages healthy eating habits, teaches cooking skills and promotes sustainability in food. Whether it’s shopping locally or seasonally, choosing responsibly sourced ingredients or reducing food waste, eating sustainably all comes back to how we make our meals. And I love showing that it is easy and delicious for anyone to make food that’s sustainable for people and the planet.  

21N: You also hosted a sustainable dinner soiree with Unilever for their "Make Meals That Do More" campaign. What was that experience like for you?

NA: It was a thrill to create a custom menu around the theme of a sustainable dinner party, and then bring together nutrition experts, farmers, foodies and Unilever to talk about what it means to eat sustainably. We used local produce and seafood ingredients as we do at Native. For our dessert, I created a cake that combined local strawberries with Unilever’s Growing Roots, (in particular their) coconut curry organic coconut and seed snack. It’s a delicious line that’s donating half of its profits to supporting urban farming initiatives around the country.

21N: How do you implement sustainable recipes at Native?

NA: At Native, we are passionate about creative cross utilization. Our menu items are consciously created in order to use all parts of the vegetable and items that tend to (have a) good environmental impact.  

21N: So as much as we all love to eat out sometimes it may not be an option. How can we bring healthy, 5-star meals to our own kitchen?

NA: I feel like cooking in the home can always be fun and inspirational when you have half the work done beforehand. I love to save trim from vegetables and use them in stock, soups and sauce bases, then freeze. Having these items on hand, you can easily head down to (the) farmers market and add on some fun sustainable pairing of seasonal finds. 

21N: For all the parents out there, how do you suggest they get their kids involved in the cooking process?

NA: Growing up I always helped in the kitchen. It was a fun way for the family to bond and connect over recipe building. Involve kids by letting them do the "fun" things, like cracking eggs and peeling vegetables.

PHOTO: Tastemade

 21N: And speaking of kids, do you have any tips for "hiding" veggies in recipes to assure they are getting the nutrients they need?

NA: I love to make vegetable-based sauces and butters! 

21N: Unfortunately so many families have moved away from the traditional dining room table dinner and seem to go their own ways or have distractions like their phones and televisions. In your opinion, why should families get back to those traditional "gather round the table" dinners?

NA: This is what I am most passionate about! Eating together at the dinner table allows for decompression time after facing the day. The family table should be a place where people can come together and laugh, cry and connect. 

PHOTO: Half Korean

 21N: You have competed on shows like Top Chef, you own a restaurant, have studied under master chefs and travel the world, but what is your favorite childhood cooking memory with your family?

NA: My favorite memories are making dumplings with my grandma, sister and mom. we would lay out newspaper on the table and have various fillings to create mandu (Korean dumplings).

21N: Growing up, was your family as passionate about sustainable choices as you are now?

NA: My dad was extremely health conscious growing up — he would always be doing a cleanse or a fast, and teaching us about clean eating. My mom was the opposite. She used a lot of canned vegetables and was not very into cooking sustainably. 

PHOTO: Half Korean

 21N: What tips do you have for someone who is looking to transition from industrial food items to sustainable food items?

NA: We as humans need to remember where food comes from. It does not come from a factory, it comes from the ground. Food comes from Mother Nature. Whether eating for pleasure or eating for fuel, we must never forget to celebrate our earth.  

21N: What is one benefit you have seen in your life from using sustainable recipes?

NA: I have become a steward of the land. My philosophy has changed greatly over the years. Implementing sustainable choices has impacted my life in such a positive way. Growers and ranchers inspire me to use the things they grew locally, which creates community and legacy.

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