Chef Nina Clemente’s first trip to an LA farmer's market in 2007 sealed what in hindsight had always been her life’s destiny: to cook and educate others on clean food. Born in Italy and raised in New York, her childhood home was characterized by mindful, healthy eating, rooted in the Southern Italian culinary tradition. After straying momentarily from this lifestyle in early college, Nina returned to her health conscious roots and began to cook for friends and clients with the intention of bettering lives by combining nutrition with delicious flavors. Following stints at City of Angels staples like Curious Palette and Osteria Mozza, she went out on her own and now caters events, cooks privately and spreads her knowledge throughout California and beyond. Here, the chef dishes on how she rediscovered her healthy self on the Amalfi Coast and why you’ll never find her microwaving a frozen meal.
Live The Process: What’s your wellness story?
Nina Clemente: I really have to thank my parents because wellness was such a big part of my lifestyle [growing up]. I wasn’t even aware that my life was any different from most of my friends’ until I was about eight. I was at a sleepover, and my friend’s mother asked if we wanted pasta for dinner and pulled out this aluminum container with this creamy, broccoli mess inside and I was like, “Huh???” And then she popped it in the microwave and called it a day, and I was really traumatized! I actually avoided sleepovers after that because I was so afraid of what I was going to be fed.
I did have one year in college where I went away to school and was exposed to all the processed junk food with salt and sugar. I became addicted to it. It was terrifying! But now, as an adult, I know it’s important to stay conscious and indulge in moderation. I am Italian, so I love pasta and bread—and I eat these things, but I eat high-quality products and make the food myself most of the time. I drown my pasta in good extra virgin olive oil, not cream and butter. I’m grateful that being mindful and healthy is so ingrained in my lifestyle and always has been.
LTP: We're all seduced by the dark side sometimes. What's your biggest obstacle or temptation in staying healthy and on your wellness path?
NC: You know, I count myself lucky because my palate developed so that I fiend for vegetables. Maybe it’s the Italian in me, but I love bitter and I love sour! I don’t crave sweet. There’s so much sugar in every single thing Americans eat and people don’t even realize it. It’s crazy! Everything has sugar added—bread and even juice!
But I would have to say that my guilty pleasure is chips. Again, I [let myself] indulge in high-quality foods too. I have a piece of bread drenched in olive oil with two eggs every morning. Most people really panic about bread, but I just can’t live without it.
LTP: What tips would you offer people who aspire to live fuller, more holistic lives?
NC: I would say just listen to your body. I feel like that’s something that isn’t talked about or addressed. But your body will tell you what you need. A lot of people really go to extremes and either restrict themselves or completely overindulge, when a happy medium is really just about...figuring yourself out.
People tell me they can’t cook. And listen, I grew up in a New York City apartment with a tiny kitchen, but it really is so simple. It’s all about training your palate, and that’s really so much easier than people think it is.
LTP: What inspired you to change the way you live your life?
NC: I used to spend summers in my mother's hometown of Amalfi, Italy, so that’s where I went after my first year of college. The house there is 200 stone steps up into the mountainside and has tiered little gardens, where amazing wild produce grows. So, between the exercise and the organic food, I got back in shape promptly. My body and mind felt lucid again and I decided I would never go back to my sluggish GMO-packed days of processed food. It still is a challenge to turn down the occasional junk food, but it’s also incredibly empowering to be mentally strong enough to make the conscious decision to just walk on by.
Luckily for me, it’s a choice. It breaks my heart to hear how some people are eating, and I try to be proactive in changing that. I think it’s really unfair that organic food is more expensive—though obviously there are reasons for that. Organic farmers have to pay more to produce their crops. Huge corporations that make processed foods can pay celebrities who are role models to endorse their newest flavor of chip and everyone makes millions, but it’s really the people who suffer for it. That culture really distresses me; I grew up on great food and that’s a rarity now, so I want to try to counteract the ways mainstream corporate America is making and eating food.
LTP: What does happiness look like to you?
NC: Well I am pregnant now, so first I would say a healthy baby. Other than that, I don’t know. My father taught me that it’s a very American idea that we always have to be happy. For years I used to be obsessed and ask myself, “Am I happy?” But without a range of emotions, happiness wouldn’t exist. To me, I guess happiness is really about feeling healthy and good.
LTP: What does it mean to you to "Live The Process" and how do you do that every day?
NC: I love getting people to try new things. The other day, a friend of mine said she didn’t like sunflower seeds, but she’d only tried eating them handfuls at a time. When I got her to taste just one, she noticed the texture and the flavor more and liked it. Converting someone to a new vegetable is the best feeling ever to me. When parents tell me their children don’t like vegetables, I say, “There are hundreds of vegetables; I bet you can find one they like.” Your palate partially develops in the womb, and I can tell you my baby is going to love savory and bitter things!
Generally though, I try to stick to balance and consistency. I know what’s in my food and my body and I mostly make it myself. I seek out the best foods and try to find my happy medium. I try to help people learn to do the same.