Holistic Chef Niki on Plant-Based Cooking, Culinary School, and a Burning Passion to Improve the Lives of Others

Well well well, it has been an incredibly LONG time since I have published an interview on my blog–what in the world, has it been more than a year? Whatever the purpose of this hiatus may be, I could not have been more excited to re-ignite the collection of interviews once again!

There are just far too many magnificent influencers that inspire me at all cylinders. Given that I am a food science student concentrating in culinary arts who, like many others, is extremely passionate about health and nutrition, nobody can gain too much knowledge on the subject. This is why the one and only Niki Connor of Holistic Chef Niki is truly one of the best experts in the industries of cooking, health, nutrition, food, and personal training.

Niki is truly a diamond in the rough pertaining to culinary experience and understanding the roots of one’s body to strive towards living the highest quality life from inside and out. With her service as a personal chef as well as a health and nutrition coach, her knowledge is so abundant and her spark is just purely contagious. She genuinely is such an inspiration to me and I know for a fact that you will learn from her experience and wisdom as well.

  • Thank you so much for partaking in this interview, Niki! First and foremost, how would you introduce yourself to people first discovering you and Holistic Chef Niki?
    • Thank you for having me, Cassie! I enjoy your content and positive attitude! -I’m a professional chef specializing in plant-based cuisine, a certified health and nutrition counselor, and a vegan who is passionate about health, fitness, and food.
  • Where did you lay the foundation of wanting to cook for people? Were you always passionate about food and recipe development?
    • It’s kind of a long story, but explains how I got to where I am now…
      • I was living in New York working as a health and nutrition counselor after graduating nutrition school, and most of my clients started coming to me complaining about the poor food choices at their offices, their lack of healthy cooking skills, etc. I didn’t have any professional training at that point, I was self-taught and had simply fallen in love with cooking and making healthy dishes delicious, so I started preparing meals for my clients. But, this was in a very home cook-style meal prep, not like a real chef. I discovered how my palate and passion for food and helping others enabled me to create dishes that clients enjoyed, but I wasn’t moving forward because I didn’t have formal training, such as knife skills, so I moved back to California for culinary school.
      • I had also created a food line of a variety of hummuses with my herb and spice blends as well as my guilt-free cookies, and once my home kitchen was approved, I was literally preparing 20+ hummus and cookie orders at a time in my tiny studio apartment in New York and they were being delivered to VOGUE. How did that happen? My sister was an editor at VOGUE at the time before furthering her career in fashion, and she would bring dishes I’d prepared for her to the office. She started sharing them, and her coworkers started placing orders with me. I didn’t have any formal training or even a website, I had to wing it! I partnered with a delivery company that delivered my treats. But, once I left New York to return to California, I decided to put the line on hold because I would like to further my brand I’m building first. ‘All of my dishes were created from scratch by me, but when I don’t get to cook the way I eat and must prepare dishes for clients where animal products are required, not all of those recipes are mine besides the sauces and marinades. I always credit the chef, as all chefs and cooks should!
  • Culinary school is known to be incredibly fast-paced, competitive, and emotionally strenuous. On top of that, many people don’t become a chef right after they graduate. How would you describe your personal experience in culinary school? Did you find it more or less difficult to find a job after graduation?
    • Culinary school was a very interesting experience, it was like an episode of ‘Chopped’ every day! I was already working as a chef but had terrible knife skills, so I had to find a way to learn the most in the shortest amount of time. While I was a decent chef by the time I completed culinary school, I threw myself into work as soon as I graduated and have been determined to become better every day. I still had pretty shitty knife skills when I finished school, it was when I started spending countless hours by myself improving my craft that I improved. I also had no desire to dedicate 2-4 years of my life to a school program where I’d have to study wine as well because I don’t drink. The program I completed was basically a two year program done in six months – not kidding. If you didn’t master a new skill the day it was first taught, well…too bad! The most important part was learning the French techniques, then being able to do my own healthier versions of dishes. Many people are doing online programs or taking raw food classes, and that’s great, but if you don’t cover all the bases in formal training, you won’t be an experienced and reliable chef. You can certainly become a raw food chef if that’s all you’re ever going to do, but I wanted to learn as much as I can. I’m a vegan who cooks meat for my job when asked, but I would never bring myself to butcher an animal, they didn’t make me do it in culinary school because they respected my lifestyle, so I braised tofu instead (haha). The chefs who didn’t go to culinary school often spent lots of time working in restaurants or were taught by a professional chef. I have no restaurant experience and didn’t grow up cooking, I kind of stumbled upon my talent. Admitting that I have a talent is not cockiness, it’s confidence and happiness. I think that people ought to embrace their God-given talents that bring them joy and use them to their liking, no matter what that may be.
    • Anyone can go to school and learn how to cook, but being a talented chef is something you’re born with. I honestly don’t know how I create some of the dishes I do or how I can remember flavors from when I was six years old as a child living in Japan, but it just comes to me. I’m in love with what I do and in spite of how crazy busy I am, no matter how much I cook for my career, I still make time to cook for myself and loved ones because I enjoy it so much! I never want to stop learning and improving myself as a chef and an entrepreneur, and it wasn’t until I graduated culinary school that I finally felt confident in what I was doing and put myself out there. I was referred to chef jobs by people who sometimes had never even tried my cooking or thought I had 10+ years of experience, I’d meet people socially and all they knew about me was that I’m a chef with a business card since I’m not well-known. I took it upon myself to go above and beyond in my work to exceed expectations. There was plenty of trial and error to get my system down, but now I’m like a different person in the kitchen than I am socially, I’m a total perfectionist and take my work very seriously. But, I’m not obsessed with following my recipes or others, I often create things on a whim and if they work, great, and if not, I go back to what I know will work. This is also why I encourage everyone to step out of their comfort zones more, because you never know how far you can go in your chosen career until you try! I have a long ways to go to get to where I want to be in my career, but I jumped ahead by doing my own thing my own way. ‘Instead of chopping onions for hours in a restaurant, I did it at home and chose to be a personal and private chef instead of work in the restaurant industry. Many people have a dream of being married to a restaurant, and I respect that, but since I’m someone who like wearing many hats, I’m not committing to something like that at this time in my life. I’m not a caterer either, but I’ve done events for 150+ people on my own because many people think that all chefs are caterers, and I threw together a team of assistants last minute to get the jobs done as best as I could! I use a sous chef and servers when cooking for larger parties and only hire people who have restaurant and/or catering experience because I need people who are reliable, can think on their feet, are well-trained, are used to a fast-paced work environment, and are ServSafe certified so that I know everything will go smoothly (for the most part).
  • Besides being a personal and private chef, you are also a health and nutrition coach. When and how did you discover health and wellness as critical aspects of your life and qualities that are worthy of sharing with others?
    • I’m not a certified personal trainer, but was a professional athlete in two sports and grew up in the gym, so I like to let the fitness professionals take on that task while I focus on the nutrition and cooking side of the program. Many people go to fitness professionals assuming they’re also certified in health and nutrition at a level where they are trustworthy and reliable in that field, but that is not always the case. This is why I like to team-up with others to cover all bases! After all, it’s 80% diet and 20% fitness! While I’m certified in what I do and have had great success with all of my clients, I’m not a doctor and can’t go as in-depth as I’d like to because of that, so sometimes I work with doctors in my field and focus on meal-planning and cooking for their clients. Aside from dinner parties, business luncheons, and traveling chef jobs, I’m also currently working with Dr. Philip Goglia and Gunnar Peterson to help a client prepare for a movie role. I prefer not to disclose the names of clients I work for unless they choose to share out of respect for their privacy. I actually pinched myself recently because I’ve only been a professional chef for three years, but my hard work is starting to pay off and I’m going to keep working hard to reach my goals.
  • Let’s be real: people would rather dig into a charcuterie board or bowl of pasta with red wine over a salad and green juice any day. How do you integrate health and nutrition with cooking delicious food for your clients so that they enjoy what they’re eating?
    • I firmly believe that my purpose on this planet is to help heal others, I put love into my cooking and that will never be replaced by a robot or TV dinner, I became passionate about healing others before attending nutrition school, and then furthering my education in health and nutrition as well as the culinary arts brings me different ways I can help with that. I find out what a client already enjoys eating and create dishes for them that are healthier versions so that they don’t feel like they’re being restricted and can still enjoy the flavors and textures of delicious dishes – that are also nutritious! I’ve worked with the pickiest of eaters, cancer patients, people with different health conditions, people who want to lose weight, gain weight, people who choose diets they won’t budge from (paleo, raw, keto, etc), the list goes on. When I’m presented a list of all the foods a client cannot or will not eat, I don’t see it as limiting, I see it as a way to challenge me to be more creative to prepare dishes that they’ll enjoy in spite of their limitations. You may have noticed that I don’t post a lot of my dishes on social media at this time, and that’s because none of my current clients are vegan. While I’m happy with the dishes I create for them, as a vegan who advertises myself as a plant-based chef, I choose not to share those dishes on social media, they are exclusive to clients. But, I will certainly be sharing more plant-based dishes and recipes soon! I got so busy so fast, it’s hard to get a moment to photograph my work, but I will be doing so from home when I can to make up for what I cannot share at work.
  • Something that makes you incredibly unique is how you can cater towards clients with different health conditions (cancer, inflammation, candida, etc.) along with countless types of dietary preferences and necessities (vegan, gluten free, Ayurvedic, etc.). How do you select the foods that they can consume and come up with recipes they can prepare on their own when necessary (since it takes a great deal of expertise and familiarity with all ingredients before making any recommendations)?
    • When it comes to cooking for clients who have dietary restrictions, I stick to food groups that are most supportive and create dishes around that. When I’m working with a nutrition client who is not local and/or has not hired me as a chef, I create custom weekly meal plans for them based on their individual needs during their program as well as guides for dining out and traveling. When I have a chef client with dietary restrictions, I find out in the beginning and always submit my menus in advance to ensure that they are approved by the client and any allergies or food sensitivities are avoided.
  • Another unique aspect of your lifestyle is your sobriety, which is super interesting given that there are many chefs in the industry today who have and might currently be dealing with drug and alcohol abuse (a dark but niche part of the industry). I personally don’t like the taste of alcohol either, but what are your reasons for abstaining from alcoholic beverages? Why do you believe so many chefs, cooks, and unfortunately culinary students are prone to excessive alcohol consumption?
    • Thank you for supporting the lifestyle! I used to drink and use drugs, I basically lived college life in high school, so by the time I hit my 20’s, I was over it and changed my life for the better. I started drinking when I was very young, but never did so heavily, my body resists alcohol. I could have one drink or four, I react the same way and feel sick for days. So, five years ago, I decided to quit alcohol for good, and not only did it make me healthier and happier, but it also showed me who my true friends were. In my opinion, food and alcohol go hand-in-hand as far as comfort goes, and that is likely why many chefs who are around both all the time can get sucked into a lifestyle of overconsumption. I think that the right dishes can make you feel good without harming the body or being paired with alcohol. I don’t sell a specific diet, I promote a healthy lifestyle that’s suitable for each individual I work with and it brings me joy when clients tell me that they’re inspired to drink less or eliminate alcohol entirely when they start to reach their goals and feel great without it. I partake in plant medicines such as medicinal cannabis because it has enabled me to eliminate medications I was taking for anxiety and sleep.
  • Who are some chefs, cooks, and/or other famous food experts/artists who inspire you?
    • I was a fan of Anthony Bourdain (R.I.P.) because he had a dream job of mine and was interested in learning from others as well as being honest about his own experiences. I have always been a Martha Stewart fan because she built an incredible brand and has sort of reinvented herself most recently, which I admire her for.
  • Ultimately, what has becoming a chef taught you and how has it fulfilled your life?
    • Becoming a chef has taught me perseverance, patience, becoming more intuitive, and cooking is a place where I can use my creativity. I used to draw and write quite a lot growing up, but when I stopped I thought I’d lose my creative inspiration, now I’ve found that I’m using it in my cooking more.
  • What is next for Holistic Chef Niki?
    • While working multiple chef jobs and health and nutrition counseling jobs, I’m also building a brand because I’m passionate about educating others on living healthy lifestyles as well as cooking in a way that is more simplified and enjoyable. I’m all about honesty as well, there is no product or person who could turn me from sharing the truth or go against my personal beliefs and desire to help others.
  • Do you have any advice for aspiring chefs, cooks, culinary students, or really anybody who just wants to learn how to improve their cooking skills for their health?
    • I encourage everyone reading this to follow their own paths and not give up when they know in their heart they are meant to do something. Comparing yourself to others will bring you frustration rather than joy, applaud yourself for your accomplishments and stay focused on achieving more of your own personal goals to make yourself happy. If you enjoy something from the bottom of your heart, it won’t feel like work or school, it will bring you joy, but you must be willing to make the time to work hard at your craft. I also teach cooking classes to clients who don’t hire me as a chef as well as others who want to improve their cooking skills for themselves and loved ones.

Thank you so so much to Niki for providing her words of wisdom in this interview! If you want to check out her services and social media, start with all her handles linked below:

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