When people are like, “Oh, you’re not a chef, you’ve never worked in a restaurant,” I’m like, “Dude, I cooked for Martha Stewart for over 10 years. That’s the most difficult customer you’re ever going to get.” I feel like if I can impress her, I’m pretty confident.
I always loved cooking. It was something I enjoyed doing for fun even as a middle schooler. My dad would let me have dinner parties when my mom was at work, and just make a huge mess. I’ve also always been obsessed with Martha Stewart. I think at a very early age, I identified her as someone who had a lot of the qualities I wanted. I love the idea of entertaining and making things look beautiful. But then I put that to the back of my mind because it didn’t really seem like a career. Instead, I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon.
So I did that whole thing. I was working at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York and studying for my MCATS. I loved interacting with patients and a lot of the academic parts of it. And I liked working with my hands, but I didn’t like having to go to the same place every day and being in a room with no windows for many, many hours.
I don't think they were expecting me to turn down scholarships for medical training to go to culinary school.
My mom was an emergency room nurse for 35 years and she said, “If you don’t love it, you shouldn’t do it. You really have to be over 100% sure you want to do this or you’re going to be very bitter and miserable the rest of your life.” I was like, “All right, great. I’m going to go to culinary school.”
When my parents told me I had to love what I was doing, I don’t think they were expecting me to turn down scholarships for medical training to go to culinary school, but I’m so glad I did. They thought it meant I’d be working in restaurants for the rest of my life. But I said, “No, I want to work for food magazines.”
I was totally clueless about how to get into it because it wasn’t really a career that anyone I knew had. I googled “Martha Stewart internships” and there was one available. So I started interning with Martha during the day, and enrolled at The French Culinary Institute at night.
School was nine months long. It was a really crazy nine months, but I think it prepared me pretty well for life. I could survive anything after that. It’s what production schedules are like, so I was well equipped for TV.
The school put a lot of pressure on everybody to work in restaurants. That is their goal—to make chefs. So when they heard that I wanted to be a food stylist, they were like, “This is a bad move. You have to get your restaurant experience.” And Martha had said, “We can’t hire you right now. There are no positions open but we’ll take you on freelance or you can continue to be an intern.” At the same time I was offered a sous-chef position at The Breslin.
There was this old school French guy who was a total bully but he gave me the best advice of anyone in culinary school. I asked, “What do I do?” And he said, “There are thousands of restaurants, yes?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “And there is one Martha Stewart, yes?” And I was like, “Yes.” He goes, “There is your answer.” There have been many times where I questioned it, for sure, but I’m pretty happy right now.
The senior food editors would say, ‘We have enough to do. You go to the farmer’s market, buy whatever you want, and if [Martha] doesn’t like it, you deal with it.’
Whenever Martha was in the office, she would want to have lunch made for her instead of going out somewhere because it was pretty slim pickings. But cooking for her was basically the thing that no one wanted to do.
She’d be like, “Oh, we’ll have the kitchen make something” and all the senior food editors would say, “We have enough to do. You go to the farmer’s market, buy whatever you want, and if she doesn’t like it, you deal with it.” Of course, there’s also a huge mythology about all of her preferences and dietary restrictions. I felt like it was a good time for me to come in as this super confident and excited young person. It was an amazing opportunity to go to the farmer’s market and buy whatever I wanted and go to the lobster place and buy the most beautiful fish and just come up with different combinations all the time. But it was totally scary. Sometimes she would come down and eat it right in front of me, which was very intense.
I would sometimes call her assistant just to check in on what was going on that day. Occasionally you’d hear Martha in the background be like, “I’m in the mood for something light, fresh, and truly delicious.” Great. Or like, “This lettuce is too tender. From now on I only want crisp lettuce.” Okay. Or like, “I no longer eat tuna from a jar.” But that was it. She was never very specific with what she wanted. I think she liked trying new things.
I lived off her scraps for years. I ate so well. I was getting a lot of nutrients and a well-balanced diet. And I ended up with this repertoire of hundreds and hundreds of salads I’ve made over the years that I turned into my book.
My biggest source of inspiration is definitely the farmer’s market. Especially after moving out to L.A.—my mind is blown every time I go. I’m a visual person, so I get excited just seeing all the insane colors and shapes. Also interacting with the people who grow the food and being like, “Hey, what do you like to do with this?” Or, “Why is this thing special?” I’ve always thought having that extra level of connection with food is really important. I pretty recently just started growing my own food. But my mom and grandpa always had gardens, and it makes it feel more special.
I grew up in a very strange place—Shelter Island.
I grew up in a very strange place—Shelter Island. This is what I might argue is the most interesting thing about me. It’s an incredibly beautiful and special place, and obviously sheltered.
I didn’t grow up eating a lot of crazy stuff. I was cut off from all pop culture. I’m an only child and my parents stick to themselves, so I really had no outside influences until I started going to school. I still miss all of the TV references from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, and I’m still catching up on all my movies.
The North Fork was not cool when I was growing up. It was just farms and towns like Greenport—which is now an amazing place to go for the summer—were pretty run down and very different. I always say it’s an amazing place to visit. It feels like an escape from reality. But when that is your reality, it can make you feel trapped. You’re just not exposed to much.
I was, though, exposed to extreme wealth on the South Fork and the Hamptons. I had no idea it wasn’t normal. I knew I did not have it, but I didn’t realize how different and extreme it was from the rest of the world.
It’s funny, because my parents just came out to L.A. for the first time in 35 years and I took them to my friend Benny Blanco’s house in West Hollywood. I thought, They’re going to think this is so crazy. And they had no reaction. I was like, “Isn’t this crazy? This is Hollywood. Isn’t this what you saw on TV?” And they were like, “It’s a big mansion. Yeah. This is like Shelter Island. The hedges are a little taller.” So it was a really weird place. I think I was very aware pretty early on about that.
I basically spent a huge chunk of my early life hanging out with old rich ladies while my dad was cleaning up their lawn.
When I was a little kid, my dad had a lawn maintenance business and I would go along with him to his jobs. I basically spent a huge chunk of my early life hanging out with old rich ladies while my dad was cleaning up their lawn. I remember there was one lady who had a castle in Switzerland or something, and she would always bring me back crazy chocolates. They played little games with me and put on music and read things. It was very cool. Instead of hanging out with other kids and watching Saved by the Bell, I was eating Swiss chocolates.
For high school, I went to a very creative private school called The Ross School that had a really strange mix of people who for whatever reason were living full time on the East End. It was awesome. It had mandatory breakfast and wellness. So you had to eat breakfast and then stretch before you went into classes. Maybe that’s why I’m not much of a morning person, because I do still need to have my little breakfast routine before I can be a functioning human being.
I spent almost every single morning of high school hotboxing my truck and going surfing before class. It was probably the healthiest and most wonderful routine I’ve ever had in my life. I was getting super stoned, surfing completely blissed out on the water, eating a really good breakfast, and then writing for the rest of the day. I should have just stuck to that.
One of the big questions my editor asked me when I was writing my book—which has many drug references in it—was, “How important are the drugs to your story? Is this part of your identity?” And I said, “Yes!” I’ve always identified as a stoner. That is my personality. It is certainly a part of me and has painted a lot of my experiences and places I’ve ended up.
I think my peak stoner phase was probably five years ago, when I was working with Snoop Dogg and met my partner, Ben. It’s funny because Martha doesn’t smoke weed. I would really love to see that. She’s certainly gotten second-hand high off of Snoop Dogg, which happens to everyone in a room with him. I’ve seen that a little bit. But when I worked on all four seasons of their show, no one else from the Martha team felt like they could go in Snoop’s trailer. It was too much. And I was like, “See you guys later. I’m going in there.” That was the best. Everybody was like, “Please keep it together.” I had been interacting with Snoop for weeks and weeks at this point. But this was the moment I was waiting for.
I think my peak stoner phase was probably five years ago, when I was working with Snoop Dogg.
The first thing he asked me was, “Do you ever make edibles?” And I said yes. He’s like, “So you mean this whole time you could have been making edible Oreos? Oh man.” But then I found out he doesn’t actually eat edibles himself. He’s afraid of them, which makes me feel like I should be afraid of them too, because they can be so much harder to control. That said, things are getting easier now—my friends at Rose make wonderful gummies that will not get you messed up.
So we’re in his trailer and there’s this whole crew, and Snoop would light a joint, pass it, and keep passing it down until everyone in there had their own joint. I remember leaving the trailer and going to the wrap party and everybody asking, “Are you okay?” And I was like, “I’ve never been better. I feel incredible.”
We have the same favorite strain: OG Kush. But his weed is so crazy. He’d always give me some to take back when I was done shooting. I remember one time I had a birthday party in New York. There were probably 35 people at the party, and I brought out one Snoop Dogg joint and within 15 minutes everyone slowly got closer to the ground. Then everybody but three people cleared out. They were done. I had one friend take a hit of one of these joints and then eat corn salsa. He was like, “I’m 40 years old and I feel like I’m tasting corn for the first time in my life.”
To me, weed is part of creating the whole vibe and experience of a dinner.
Weed can be such an amazing thing. It can have such an impact on food and the experience of eating which is really something I’ve always enjoyed. To me, weed is part of creating the whole vibe and experience of a dinner. People come in, I’m probably still cooking, and Ben is out back smoking and filling up people’s wine glasses. It gets you relaxed and a little hungrier. Your eyeballs get a little bigger for everything that’s happening, the music’s on, and you’re suddenly like, “Oh, what’s this song?” It’s awesome.
It’s all about creating that whole experience and not about being as stoned as possible, which I think is sometimes the case when cooking with weed. Like I said with edibles, everybody has a different tolerance. So it scares me to be the person orchestrating this thing that could end up being a really bad experience for somebody. It’s much easier to pass them the joint and let them refuse it if they don’t want anymore.
It’s also hard with food because sometimes it doesn’t hit you for an hour and a half. So if you’re smoking and then chilling out a little bit and eating, that’s perfect because you’re going to be feeling it when you experience the food. When you’re eating it, you might go through the whole meal and then suddenly be like, “Oh my god. I’m now incredibly stoned after I’ve eaten all this okay food.” I’ve definitely experimented with it before, it’s just that all of my experiments have gone wrong. Making edibles that were just way too strong. It’s a science really.
I literally just have to stick my hand out the window to pick a lemon. It’s my paradise.
I’m very happy in L.A. I moved here during COVID. I came out for a shoot and ended up staying. It was a really easy transition for me. I just started focusing on my garden and cooking a lot, and I was working on the book and being able to be in my own pod. It was a really nice place to do it. It’s almost too obnoxious to mention, but I literally just have to stick my hand out the window to pick a lemon. It’s my paradise. I don’t know what took me so long.
There are so many things I miss about New York and we still have a place there that we’ve been renting out. But now I realize that the energy and pulse of the city that I thought I needed to survive was just underlying anxiety. I had trouble separating that anxiety from feeling alive. Right now, I’m seeing what life is like without constantly hearing a horn blasting through your window and almost getting hit by a messenger bike or a car.
The world knows I’m a stoner, but last year was our year of LSD exploration—which L.A. is great for. I’m excited to see what else happens this year. Ben and I have both been experimenting with some lower THC weed because the weed out here is so strong. It’s crazy. Ben had been smoking these things called Kingrolls that are like 62% THC and I think it just stayed in his blood. We’re almost in the latter half of our thirties and we’re trying to figure out a different approach.
Last year, I had two experiences on LSD where I was so scared I cried. One time was a terrible hiking experience. I feel like I shouldn’t even tell that story because everybody will be like, “That was dumb.” Because it was. The other one is when I saw a tarantula in Puerto Rico, which I think shattered every fabric of my being. While that was happening, while I was piecing back together my reality, Ben was swimming in the pool staring at the pool light. He was like, “You got to come in. It looks like a portal.” And I’m like, “I can’t handle you and your portal right now. I’m barely holding it all together.”
The best thing about the book is how so many people are actually cooking from it and sharing recipes. It was funny, Ben and I were walking my dog, Snacks, in our neighborhood the other day and a woman walked past us, looked, and then stopped. She goes “Oh my god, are you Jess Damuck, like Salad Freak? I love the book. It’s my bible.” And Ben was like, “Well, this is the moment. Everything is going to be different from now on.”