Jess Damuck On Making Healthy Food Exciting
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Jess Damuck On Making Healthy Food Exciting

The LA-based chef is back with a brand-new recipe book

After a decade spent working with Martha Stewart, recipe developer and food stylist Jess Damuck decided it was time to strike out on her own. She moved to LA and developed her own brand focused around beautiful, nutritious dishes – going on to write a bestselling cookbook, Salad Freak. And now she’s back with another: Health Nut, which is all about giving traditionally ‘healthy’ food playful and interesting spins. Jess tells us more below.

Interview with Jess Damuck

When did you first become interested in food and how did your career progress from there?

I don’t remember exactly when I first got a copy of Martha Stewart Living, but I know that right away I was drawn to the idea of creating not just recipes but a whole world and experience with food. I think I started cooking out of my American Girl Doll Cookbooks when I was around seven. My dad would let me make a huge mess in the kitchen while my mom was at work and invite my friends over for little dinner parties. 

Tell us about your new book, Health Nut. What can we expect?

Health Nut is my love letter to Californian health food. Moving to Los Angeles was always a dream of mine, and I have really loved every minute of it – it’s been an experience of truly soaking in the culture and history, and honestly there is a lot of nostalgia for how it must have been to live here in the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70s. I became really inspired while reading about the health food pioneers of Los Angeles like Gypsy Boots and the Nature Boys and Jim Baker – AKA Father Yod of the Source Family. It was outrageous at the time to serve the bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables available here, and strangely I think it’s actually still kind of outrageous to think that you can eat like this without being able to go to the farmer’s market every week or spend a lot of money on specialty ingredients, but that has really become my personal mission. 

What’s your food ethos?

It’s cool to care. I don’t like the attitude of ‘I just threw this together’ because I do not think that’s ever the case. Even if you’re just trying to get dinner on the table, there is time and intention behind it – and that should be honoured. There’s choosing what you’ll make, looking through cookbooks or finding a recipe, grocery shopping, and preparing. I think that the act of cooking something for yourself or people that you love should really be celebrated more than it is because, no matter what, it’s always an effort!

What’s the food scene like in LA?

I have to say I don’t go out to restaurants very often! There are a few favourites like Found Oyster and Saffy’s, and really incredible Thai food, taco stands, and specialty food stores where you can find really incredible ingredients (I love going to the Armenian markets in Glendale.) 

What are the most important things you learned from Martha Stewart?

To always be curious, to constantly be a student – a sponge – and to learn everything you can. That, and to never take shortcuts. We used to say in the test kitchen, ‘make it nice, or make it twice’ and it was always a lesson to just make it the correct way the first time and not take any shortcuts. 

 

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A post shared by Jess Damuck (@jessdamuck)

What does healthy eating look like to you?

Real whole food ingredients. I like to use as much produce as I can, and try to eat very little processed foods. I really don’t deprive myself of anything I don’t think, but I always pay attention to the amount of sugar I use, and never really buy store-bought salad dressings, sauces, or sweets — instead I try to keep fresh spices on hand, use lots of herbs, and good-quality oils and ingredients like tahini. 

How important are aesthetics in food?

Well, I’ve been a food stylist for over a decade, so the way food looks is hugely important to me – not just when cooking, but I’m also thinking about that when I develop recipes. I’m often inspired by a certain colour, shape, or just imagining what a dish will look like. Or I’ll make a piece of ceramics with a certain dish in mind.

What are your top tips for making food look good?

I think this part can be really intimidating to people, but there are lots of little shortcuts. I think the biggest trick is trying to keep fresh herbs and citrus on hand to use as a little garnish or pop of color on a plate – it goes a long way.

When did you discover your love for salads? 

I have really always loved salads and vegetables, but it was while working for Martha Stewart that I really became inspired by salads, and sort of reimagining what a salad could be. I made Martha lunch very often right out of culinary school and it was a challenge, but also a dream scenario to be able to have access to the freshest ingredients and try to impress my idol.

Top tips for upping our salad game?

Always make your own dressings! It is a game changer and easier than you would think.

What’s your food heaven and food hell?

Food heaven is being able to make an entire dish with produce from my garden, food hell is probably macaroni and cheese (I’m lactose intolerant), or most of what I see on TikTok, honestly!

Lemon chicken bowl

© Linda Pugliese

Which chefs do you admire?

Obviously Martha. I also really love Diana Henry’s recipes, writing, and just her simple elegance with food. Deb Perelman from the Smitten Kitchen is one of the OG bloggers who I have so much respect for; her recipes are accessible, delicious and always work. Adeena Sussman is also an incredible recipe developer. And for restaurant chefs… That’s a little harder! I really admire Joe Beddia at Pizzeria Beddia in Philadelphia because he is so completely dedicated to mastering one thing at a time and doing it all in his own way. 

Most memorable meal of all time?

I had the opportunity to eat at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana in Modena with a big group of people from a film my partner Ben was a part of and it was such a special experience. I loved Massimo’s over the top presentation of every dish. 

Top three ingredients to cook with?

Olive oil, lemon zest/juice and tahini.

Favourite dish to cook for a dinner party?

People won’t come over any more unless I promise to make them the Sweet Potato Bread with Miso Tahini Butter from my cookbook Health Nut

Health Nut: A Feel-Good Cookbook by Jess Damuck (Abrams, £25). Out 28 March 2024.