I catch Nina in her cooking studio in Amsterdam on what’s set to be a busy Friday afternoon; a number of the other contributors to the Grassa Lab are assembling to display and share what they have created so far. We chat over the noisily running food processor that contains a mixture of fresh grass and some other ingredients that Nina will later use to create a mozzarella type cheese. She’s excited to be participating in this low food lab. “I like to push boundaries, especially from a sustainability viewpoint. I’m really impressed with everyone’s creativity, it’s a lot of fun.”
Creativity and authenticity have been keywords throughout Nina’s career. She started out as an art director for fashion magazines but soon realized that she didn’t feel at home in the fashion industry. Instead she found herself irresistibly drawn to the food industry. “I had always dreamt of making my own cookbook”, she recalls. “So when I was looking for a new direction, the food industry made sense.” Adding: “not that I ever formally trained as a chef.”
I like to push boundaries, and inspire people to eat vegetarian.
So how did she end up in the kitchen? “Well my journey started at a free culinary magazine for customers of Swedish supermarket ICA, the most read publication in Sweden. I would come up with an idea for the chefs, like a theme, and we would then work closely together until the recipes were perfect.” While at first she would only instruct the chefs she gradually became more hands on until she felt confident she could create recipes and cook them herself.
She opened her restaurant, Chez Nina, in Amsterdam in the summer of 2022. The menu is completely plant based, with vegetarian and vegan dishes that are as much a feast for the eye as for the tastebuds. “Food is a real means of self expression for me. I cook and create recipes, but I am also still an art director at heart, so I want my dishes to look as good as they taste. And more than anything I want to inspire people to eat vegetarian.” Time seems to be on her side there. Interest in vegetarian and vegan food is growing, aided in the past couple of years by an urgent call to reform our agriculture for the sake of the environment.
Convincing people to switch to a plant-based diet is no easy task, but Nina’s playful, non-preachy approach seems to work. At Chez Nina’s, she baffles many a die-hard meat eater with how enjoyable and satisfying vegetarian food can be. Smiling: “I have hosted more than a few hard line carnivores in my restaurant.” Still, the reality is that the majority of people really like their meat, and eat it up to five times a week. “Busy lives mean the time people want to spend preparing meals is limited”, she muses. Having worked in media she believes they are uniquely equipped to persuade people to eat more plant-based food. “But keep it light and make it fun.”
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The other lab contributors have nearly finished laying out their results for the lab. Nina professes to be the most intrigued by the food scientists’ results – their angle being so completely different from her own. She was surprised how easy it was to create her ‘grazzarella cheese’. It demonstrates how versatile and adaptable grass protein is, which she sees as a real advantage: “Wouldn’t it be great if grass protein was licensed for human consumption, and made easily available? Considering the growing interest in nutritional value of food, I wouldn’t be surprised if that took off. I mean, you could even just put it in your smoothie. I can see that happening.”