The first installment in FAROUT’s interview series, THEWHO.
Chef Nikki King Bennett’s cut her culinary teeth in New York’s raw food scene back when raw food was still new: she was the foodie behind the menu at the cult vegan hotspot Pure Food and Wine.
Now, over a decade after pioneering trend-setting vegan delicacies, Bennett’s applying her knowledge as executive chef at Plantable, the plant-based food delivery system that introduces newbies to a more plant-forward diet.
But this isn’t a draconian diet that tells you what to eat. Plantable’s all about education and guidance: In addition to supplying members with ready-made dishes that put innovative spins on familiar ingredients, Plantable offers nutritional coaching and support.
In this conversation, Bennett spills the beans on a number of topics, including:
o Her very personal motivation for helping people eat healthier.
o The ways Plantable is confronting packaging waste.
o How she uses restrictions to innovate.
o The reasons big corporations should use food delivery systems such as Plantable.
o And why white lentils are the sizzling ingredient for dishes hot and cold.
FAROUT: What motivates you to help people eat plant-based and how did you get into what you do?
Nikki: I never knew that I wanted to do food when I was growing up. I moved to New York and I was working at Tiffany and Company - it's a great company, but I hated my life. I was vegan at the time, and I was curious about cooking in general, and wondered if there were any vegan culinary schools. So, I looked and found Natural Gourmet here in New York.
I remember my first day there: I grew up in the South, and Southern cooking is kind of known to be unhealthy, so my goal initially was to make healthier alternatives of my family's recipes and the type of food I grew up with.
Then, fast forward 12 years and seeing the trend catch on, and then my mom passed away from a preventable disease.
FO: I'm so sorry.
Nikki: That has motivated me even further. Diet plays a huge part in health and wellness, and that’s what continues to motivate me. I truly believe that mostly vegan is the best way for people to eat, or mostly plant-based. If everyone ate more like that, we'd be a healthier society.
FO: What's your day-to-day like as Executive Chef for Plantable?
Nikki: The day to day is mostly leading the kitchen. We have a pretty small team, so I'm still very active in the cooking of the food and overseeing that, but I have two awesome co-chefs who help with that, so really, it's development of menu items.
FO: Have you been with Plantable from the beginning? Did you help invent the original menu?
Nikki: Yeah! The owner did a pilot prior to me coming in, so she had a few recipes in her repertoire. But since then I've added, and my chef de cuisine and sous chef have added, too.
FO: What's your approach to planning the menu? What are your considerations?
Nikki: Coming from the restaurant environment, it was tricky to get into this more health-focused space. Not that what I was doing before wasn't health0focused because it was, but it was — you know, a meal out at a restaurant is kind of an indulgence, so I took the recipes back to the basics of fiber, protein, and vegetables.
FO: And it needs to be frozen.
Nikki: And it needs to be frozen, yes — so nothing fresh. Everything has been cooked, but it has to be reheated, so there were more limitations than I expected. I worked in raw food for a while and I felt like that was restricting, so I was like "Oh! I can cook this is great." But, again, it's still restricting.
FO: Plantable describes itself as a wellness platform. What does this mean?
Nikki: The owner, her vision of the company is that Plantable makes the hard part of eating healthy easier for you. We're not here to tell you what you can and can't eat as far as protein goes. But if you're new to healthy eating, if you're new to vegetarian cuisine — let us do that hard part for you, at least initially. We provide the cooked meals and vegetables in an interesting way that maybe you haven't considered.
FO: That’s great!
Nikki: Most people just slap a piece of protein on the grill and just serve it with a side salad. But if you're trying to eat in a more plant-focused way, some people get a little stumped by that. Plantable shows them new produce and new grains that they maybe haven't tried.
Nikki: The other aspect of wellness for the business is we work with a cardiologist. He's on our board, and he makes sure that we're fitting the needs of the medical community. We have a lot of people being prescribed Plantable as an alternative to medicine. That’s not saying that Plantable replaces medicine, but for people who don’t need full medication to treat something.
FO: Food really is like medicine in this case.
Nikki: Yeah. Additionally, we work with nutritionist to make sure our food is the proper break down of what our bodies need. We're very focused on macros of food.
FO: Do you have an approach, such as a percentage of protein or fiber that you guys like to hit, like certain numbers?
Nikki: We aren't restricted. We're okay with carbs. We're okay with fats. We're okay with protein. We aim for a carb-to-fiber ratio of 5 or below. This keeps insulin in check. That's the most important part. We're not scared of carbs and we try to impart that on our customers. It's a very hard habit to break.
FO: Yeah, it is.
Nikki: People are so used to saying, "No carb.” But if you have the right break down of carb-to-fiber, it's okay.
FO: What are customers’ most common goals?
Nikki: Weight loss is still a huge factor for a lot of people. But our main focus of the business is to cut people's addiction to sugar. Sugar is the enemy.
FO: We just published an article in FAROUT about that very topic. It was really interesting to learn about what brands are doing to reduce sugar in their products. What do you use for sweetness at Plantable?
Nikki: We don't use any sugars, but we use apples occasionally in fall items, and we use raisins occasionally, if we do need sweetener. Alternatively, we use carrots a lot.
FO: Oh, carrots!
Nikki: Roasted carrots to provide some sweetness.
FO: Because they become caramelized.
Nikki: Exactly. So, we don't use any added sweeteners.
FO: Personalization is a huge trend in the wellness category, especially regarding diet. With this shift away from a “one-size-fits all” approach and more toward a functional medicine-based approach based on an individual’s specific nutritional needs - Is it Plantable's perspective that everyone would benefit from being vegan?
Nikki: It's Plantable's perspective that everyone benefits from eating more plant-forward. So, do it for a month and see how you feel, because you will feel better — most people do feel better on a plant-forward diet. But we're not here to dictate that you eat that way the rest of your life. It's not to make everyone be vegan. It's just to be open to a more plant-forward diet.
FO: How does your team address food waste in the kitchen, and packaging waste? One of the big reasons to promote a plant-forward diet has to do with individuals' health, but there’s also environmental benefit…
Nikki: We're very fortunate. Food waste in the kitchen, we have very little. One, because we're frozen meals, so we can hang on to our product for longer. Additionally, our building has whole composting system for food scraps.
FO: And packaging waste?
Nikki: Packaging waste is a huge concern. We’ve made great strides to do the best we can, but our food is still packaged in 3 mil poly bags, which are technically recyclable but sometimes in New York and in California there are certain caveats. But we are actively looking for replacements for those. Otherwise, we have recyclable insulation; and we have corrugated boxes that can obviously be recycled. But we're very aware and are actively trying to make our products as recyclable as possible.
Nikki: The good thing about our meals is their very flat, so they don't take up a lot of space.
FO: And they're all together and ready. When it's a meal kit you're supposed to cook yourself — it is insane. You get these little plastic containers, like 20 of them, with one little tablespoon of chopped onions or something. It's absurd.
Nikki: The U.S. is really far behind. Europe is banning plastic use within the next six-months-to-a-year, I think. They've already come up with interesting solutions. We just haven't gotten there yet. Plantable’s actually talked to a few companies based out of Europe that have better options: There's a lot of corn starch, there's sugar cane, there's bamboo options. We're working toward that.
FO: What food trend are you most excited about? What's the ingredient everyone needs to be trying?
Nikki: White lentils. White lentils are fun.
FO: I didn't know those existed!
Nikki: They're actually black lentils that have had the skin removed, but that makes them really appealing as a grain substitute. We make risottos with them, and we make a grain salad, but it's a lentil, so it's got the fiber.
FO: What does the future hold for Plantable?
Nikki: We'd really like to partner. Originally, the idea was to work with big corporations’ HR to incentivize their employees to eat healthier. I think we're going back to that goal of strength in numbers: finding these HR departments to prove there is better output and people feel better when they eat healthier.
FO: Also, they'll be healthier; they'll use fewer sick days; they will use your health insurance less — so really the interests are aligned. Then you guys are able to have more impact.
Nikki: The environment is changing. There are even health insurance companies who are allotting part of their benefits to healthy eating and eating platforms like what we’re doing. There’s a lot of insurance companies doing that, and it's only going to grow.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.