Working for Martha Stewart Turned This Cookbook Author Into a ‘Salad Freak’
Jess Damuck teaches me how to swirl yogurt in a bowl. “Push the spoon out and rotate the bowl,” she instructs me from her home in Los Angeles. Instead of pushing, I pull and push the spoon outwards. The yogurt is poured onto the plate. Even over Zoom, I can tell Damuck’s bowl looks flawless.
It isn’t surprising. Damuck’s first cookbook. Salad Freak comes out March 29, worked with Martha Stewart in some capacity for more than 10 years, starting as intern while she was in culinary school and climbing the ranks to food stylist and recipe developer, and one of her early duties was preparing the homemaking mogul’s lunch. More often than not, Stewart requested a salad, and she’d dole out some vague instruction, like, “I’m in the mood for something light and fresh and truly delicious today.” So Damuck would head to the farmers market or sometimes the fishmonger and then painstakingly pick out the droopiest leaves from a head of lettuce before building her salad.
“It was a duty that gave a lot of people anxiety because Martha has really specific tastes,” Damuck, 34, says. “But I was so excited to do it because it allowed me to get closer to Martha. I consider myself a perfectionist, so I really, really wanted to impress her.” Her most nerve-wracking presentation came when she constructed a shaved zucchini salad with pecorino cheese and slivered almonds. Shortly before serving it to Stewart, Damuck was warned by some coworkers that Stewart didn’t enjoy raw zucchini or “wet things” in her salad.
“Martha came down to the kitchen and it was just the two of us alone,” Damuck remembers. “I was standing there, terrified, thinking about how wet the zucchini was. Then she made some observations, but they weren’t about the zucchini. She was like, ‘I don’t usually enjoy both nuts and cheese in my salad.’ That’s about as harsh a criticism as I got. But she ate the whole thing.” Damuck had found her calling. Her creations came to be known as “three-hour salads” because that’s how long it took to shop, create, and curate the final product.
Most of these recipes are delicious! Salad Freak do not take that long, though they’re not quick and simple either. Damuck’s monthly recipe newsletter is titled Some FussyThere is a reason. “Just ‘throwing something together,’ that’s a fallacy,” she says. “If you’re going to do it—if you’re going to make a grocery list, and go to the store, and invite someone over to eat your food, make it special.”
Damuck is furious at the tendency in media to promote shortcuts and hacks in food media and feels that we need to lose ourselves in mundane tasks like dicing onions or washing carrots. Her bookshelf contains many guides for spirituality and self-improvement. She has a passion for mindfulness and meditation. “I don’t think salads are self-care Each and every one, but also they are,” she says.
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It’s a good time to publish a book about salads, albeit fussy ones. Although buying and eating mostly vegetables and fruits has always been less expensive than regular meat purchases, this country is now slowly shifting towards eating more fruit and veggies. Healthful eating advocates like cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi and former First Lady Michelle Obama, who now produces and stars on the nutritionally minded children’s show Waffles + MochiRecently, they have helped to make cooking at home more mainstream.Based on a survey done in May 2021The International Food Information Council. A quarter of Americans have reported that they get more protein from vegetable sources than their counterparts. than they did the year before, a trend that’s fueled the growth of the $29.4 Billion in the plant-based food industryThis includes Juggernauts such as the Impossible Foods
Some of Damuck’s recipes include meat, but they are decidedly plant-forward. “I just want to try to make people really excited about fresh food. Look, even I don’t make it to the farmers marketEverywhere week. But it’s easier than ever to make the effort to eat well,” she says citing the accessibility of CSA boxes and the affordability of companies like Imperfect Foods that ship home cooks misshapen but still-tasty fruits and veggies For about the same amount as the grocery shop. SHe advocates seasonal eating and divides his cookbook into fall, winter, spring and summer. “It sounds pretentious, but I try not to eat tomatoes when it’s not the peak of summer,” she says. “When you eat ingredients at their absolute freshest, you don’t have to do anything to them to make them great.”
But it’s not just about taste for her. Throughout the book, she offers “styling tips” on how to make your food look its best. She still works as a freelance food stylist and has staged aspirational photos for Chrissy Teigen’s cooking website, Cravings. Damuck is a firm believer that variety in color and texture can make a meal more enjoyable, especially a simple one like salad. The book offers a tip: Fold your zucchini ribbons before putting them on plates to increase volume. “Honestly we know as much as people love eating, they love posting food on Instagram more than that,” she says. She even recommends a special curved serving spoon for plating dishes to create “a very chef-y swoop,” admitting in the book, “this is where the list may seem to get excessive, but I ask you to swoop and swirl many things.”
While I am a defender of the much-maligned category of one-use kitchen tools—I show Damuck three different citrus squeezers during our call—I must admit I’m skeptical that even salad acolytes will be willing to shell out for the special spoon. Then again, this is probably why I’m still failing to plate the yogurt in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Then I stop trying to be Instagram-ready and just add the chard and eggs along with honeyed chilli oil. It may not seem like what you would expect from a salad. “I’m admittedly stretching the definition,” says Damuck, whose book also includes a salad based on a Nashville hot chicken sandwich and a “pizza salad,” which is basically greens piled on top of pizza dough.
Damuck, an on-and-off vegetarian (currently, she’s omnivorous), has been interested in vegetables and cooking since childhood. “I feel like I’ve always had a filing cabinet of flavors in my brain and it happens like a musician knows all the notes and can make music with it,” she says. She attended Ross School in East Hampton as a teenager. Quail Hill Farms partnered with Ross School to create a food program which encouraged her interest in sustainable eating and seasoning. “I was thinking about the way you can get addicted to sugar, I feel like I eat so many vegetables that when I don’t have them, I crave them,” she says.
Stewart’s passion for vegetables became an obsession when she started working. “Unless you get to the farmers market at 7 o’clock in the morning, you can’t get your hands on that specialty pink radicchio,” she says. “I’m often up, before brushing my teeth or having coffee, driving over to the farmers market dazed to make sure I can grab the best product before someone else snatches it up.” Before she moved from New York to L.A., Damuck says, most of her friends were other food stylists and recipe developers. She met her California neighbors after she had returned from California’s recipe-testing session for her book. This was when she began to get out of the kitchen and make new friends.
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Damuck ventured out from under Stewart’s wing in 2015, but she still works as a freelancer for the icon often. They are close friends. Stewart wrote the preface to the book. They guest-starred together in an episode of Damuck’s partner Ben Sinclair’s HBO comedy, Maintaining High Standards in which Stewart declares a weed cookie decorated by Damuck to look like a snowflake “truly delicious.” Stewart recruited her to work on the VH1 series Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner PartyDamuck credits Damuck with making Snoop Dogg’s first crouton. Damuck learned from Snoop that the best way for crisp bacon was to put the pieces in a heap on a plate rather than cooking them individually. A friend gifted Damuck a kitchen towel with Stewart’s face on it for the holidays last year, and she proudly displays it on her oven’s handle.
Though she’s spent her career in the food world, Damuck is the rare non-celebrity cookbook author who has never worked in a restaurant. People underestimate her sometimes because of that. “They’re like, ‘You’re not a chef. You’re a food stylist,’” she says. “And I’m like, ‘I’ve cooked a million meals for Martha Stewart, and that’s the harshest critic I can think of.’”