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The art of writing a good cookbook goes deeper than the recipes that occupy its pages. It requires a voice that holds both a sense of immediacy and timelessness, and that has a spirit that inspires whoever is reading to truly enjoy their time in the kitchen. Recipe developer and food stylist Jess Damuck’s debut cookbook, Salad Freak, is not just an instant classic; it’s a must-have kitchen staple that explores her obsession with salad and spotlights how the small and simple details of a salad make it such a joy to indulge in. We chatted with Damuck about what her creative process looks like, how her time working closely with Martha Stewart still inspires her cooking today, and more.

Artful Living | Jess Damuck on Martha Stewart, Cooking and Salad Freak

Photography by Linda Pugliese

What do food and cooking mean to you?

Making food for people is my love language. I picked that up really early in life. My grandfather was an amazing cook who really showed his love through making food for the people he loved most, and I feel the same way. For me, I built my community by gathering around the dinner table, being present with people and spreading joy through what I’m creating.

Where do you source inspiration?

You know it’s interesting, my answer to this used to be traveling. I would try to take a few trips abroad or throughout the United States every year and bring back inspiration from other places. But throughout the pandemic, that wasn’t really an option, and I think it made me pay even more attention to what was available right at home, including growing my own produce, which has been an incredible experience for me. Also, making an effort to get to the farmers’ market does wonders, and it makes you appreciate the ingredients available.

Artful Living | Jess Damuck on Martha Stewart, Cooking and Salad Freak

What was your creative process like developing Salad Freak?

It was an opportunity I had been waiting for for a long time. I’ve had so many experiences coming up through magazines art directing, food styling and recipe developing, and to be able to combine all of those different skills for something that was 100% mine was just the most amazing experience. What I think I love so much about Salad Freak is it really is full of salads I make all the time. I wanted to create the perfect sum of accessible salads that would make people feel really excited, and those salads had to be ones that I was excited about.

Making a cookbook is something that can take years, but my editor wanted the book in three months. And not only did I get her the manuscript in three months, we completed the images the next month. I loved how quick the process was because I couldn’t agonize over anything. Something either needed to work or I’d let it go and try something different. And I think because of that, the recipes are probably better because they’re all things that work well together. I didn’t have to nitpick or get too crazy about anything.

We shot the book at my house in Los Angeles with a small crew during the height of the pandemic. My photographer, Linda Pugliese, came from New York City and I food styled, prop styled and creative directed it. I loved having my hands in everything and really making it the book that I wanted.

Artful Living | Jess Damuck on Martha Stewart, Cooking and Salad Freak

How did it feel to have Martha Stewart write the foreword to your debut cookbook?

That was such a huge, huge moment for me. The day I received it, I didn’t know what to say to her. I found myself just having to sit with it for a bit. And finally, I wrote her back telling her that there is no part of me that could have ever imagined that she would write the foreword to my first cookbook. To have her support and, even more than that, to know that she really loved the book is the absolute biggest thing to me.

I also believe that you can see her influence on every page of the book. Working with her at Martha Stewart Living was so creatively thrilling. And I tried to soak up every moment like a sponge while I was there. I got my start there while I was in culinary school, so I’ve been working with Martha for quite a long time. And every time I work with her, I learn something new because she’s just the most curious person. She knows a little bit of everything and always wants to learn more, try new things and see what other people are doing. And it’s something that’s contagious and that I really admire about her.

Beyond salad, what other healthy obsessions do you enjoy in life?

You know, everyone always asks me if I eat salad every day. And I always try to. I love eating a lot of fresh produce. Like this morning, I had a smoothie that I threw a ton of spinach into. Why not have as many greens and vegetables as possible? It makes me feel good.

I’m currently addicted to Kettl’s Soba Cha buckwheat tea and can’t get enough of it. It’s the most wonderful toasty tea that I have every night as part of my daily wind down. A cup of it plus some dark chocolate is the perfect indulgence.

Artful Living | Jess Damuck on Martha Stewart, Cooking and Salad Freak

Do you have a favorite Salad Freak recipe?

My favorite salad and the one I make most often is the Little Gems with Creamy Dressing and Petals. It’s so adaptable. There are hazelnuts in the recipe, but using any nut or crouton you have on-hand is totally fair game. The creamy and lemony dressing is so simple with just two ingredients, and it goes with everything. Whatever you’re making for dinner, this salad seems to go perfectly with it.

The seasonality here in Los Angeles is something I’m still getting used to. After living in New York City for such a long time, it’s sometimes freaky to be in a place where there isn’t that crazy shift of only having carrots and cabbage at the farmers’ market to suddenly having a spring awakening moment. But one of the first ingredients of spring that I get really excited about are peas. There are several Salad Freak recipes in a row that contain peas, and it’s because I just love them. They have such a unique taste and remind me of being a kid. I’ve been quickly sautéing some snap peas and adding lemon zest, salt and pepper. Charred snap peas are an excellent side dish or snack.

Artful Living | Jess Damuck on Martha Stewart, Cooking and Salad Freak

Any pro tips for hosting a great dinner party?

I have so many. [laughs] The first one is don’t try something new when you’re having people over. There’s nothing wrong with roasting a chicken or making a salad you’ve made a bunch of times before and that you know you make well. The biggest thing is that you don’t do anything that makes you feel super stressed out or unsure about what people are going to think. Everybody is going to be happy with whatever you make, so there’s no need to put any added pressure on yourself.

Another thing that I learned from working with Martha is that caring is cool. There’s a current popular mindset that’s centered around just throwing things together and making it as quick and easy as possible. You’ve already made the effort to invite guests over, so why not go all the way and take your time paying attention to the little details? Because I think they do really matter. I always make sure to have some fresh flowers on the table, cloth napkins and a fresh set of candlesticks. Those little details make people feel special. And it doesn’t need to feel super fussy.

The other thing is to always have a playlist ready. Music is a huge part of cooking and food for me. When I go out to eat, it’s something I pick up on right away because it plays such a crucial role in shaping the atmosphere and the overall vibe of the evening.

Do you have a go-to party trick?

I always like to have a little something on the table for guests to enjoy right when they arrive. One thing I like to do is warm some olives in a pan with some olive oil, a big strip of orange zest, fennel seed and chili flake. Most people are kind of surprised to have warm olives, but they’re wonderful and I’ve witnessed the flavor combination convincing some olive haters to go back for more.

Artful Living | Jess Damuck on Martha Stewart, Cooking and Salad Freak

What’s the No. 1 takeaway you hope readers achieve from Salad Freak? 

I really hope readers will start making their own salad dressings. I know finding the best produce out there can be really intimidating or time-consuming, but there’s nothing wrong with grabbing a package of lettuce and making your own vinaigrette, which will make all the difference in the world. It’s truly easy, and it feels like a small victory. I imagine anyone will eat more salads the moment they start making their own dressings.

Any final advice you can share? 

There’s a small mindfulness section in the introduction of Salad Freak, and I keep remembering to remind myself why I love what I do. If you can take a minute to really lean into the prepping of vegetables and embrace the meditative parts of the process, it can serve as a wonderful moment of self-care. And instead of this attitude of getting something together as quickly as possible, taking a moment to pause and be in the moment is what cooking is and should be all about.

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