Well Done

Cookbook Author Jess Damuck and Music Producer Benny Blanco Dish on the Challah That Started Their Friendship

Photography by Johnny Miller. All images courtesy of Jess Damuck and Benny Blanco.

Los Angeles’s buzziest dinner parties are thrown by a seemingly unlikely pair: Martha Stewart’s former personal salad chef and the producer of Britney Spears and Katy Perry’s biggest hits. Yet Jess Damuck, the author of the best-selling cookbook Salad Freak, and pop-music producer and actor Benny Blanco have much in common, including the desire to make addictive, refreshing work and a love of backyard gardening. Both of them also have new cookbooks out this spring.  

Damuck’s Health Nut, published today, aims to help readers make the most out of the organic section of the grocery store. Blanco’s Open Wide, which will be published in April, is a testament to kinship built on great food and even better dinner parties. (He developed it with Damuck, who is a co-author.) The duo got on the line with CULTURED to discuss their friendship origin story, Martha Stewart’s pet peeves (note: never serve her a wet vegetable), and why we should ditch bottled lemon juice once and for all. 

Peach Shortcake. Photography by Linda Pugliese for Health Nut.

CULTURED: Jess, who is this upcoming book for? 

Jess Damuck: It's for anyone who is into eating healthy but wants it to be accessible. I want to eat food that makes me feel good, and that's what this book is about. It's a throwback to ‘70s California health food. There's a lot of tofu and carob and brown rice and vegetables. 

CULTURED: Benny, please describe your diet.  

Benny Blanco: Here's how I look at it: if 75 percent of your meals are perfect, healthy, delicious, then [for] the other 25 percent, you can be a total gremlin. When I drink, I want to forget my name and wake up in a pile of something. I think me and Jess eat pretty similar. I might eat a little healthier than you during the week. I really like bread. I eat a lot of seafood. I eat a lot of veg. 

Damuck: We eat a lot of Japanese fire food. 

Blanco: I have a garden, so I cook mostly from the garden. 

Beet Burger. Photography by Linda Pugliese for Health Nut.

CULTURED: I'm curious how you became friends. 

Damuck: I'll tell the story. My partner, Ben Sinclair, works on the show Dave with Benny, and he kept coming home from set and being like, "There's this funny guy, Benny. He's a music guy, and he loves food." I was shooting my book Salad Freak at the time, so Ben was showing Benny all these photos and Benny was losing his mind. Eventually it got to the point where Ben didn't have any more content to show Benny. So he's like, "I think we should just have him over for dinner and really impress him so we can be his friend."

Blanco: Do you remember what happened the first night? 

Damuck: Yes, of course. I was testing a Passover menu, and Benny walks in. I had no idea who he was. I pull a Challah loaf out of the oven and go get this fennel honey butter. When I come back, Ben and Benny each have all 10 fingers in the Challah and look at me. And Benny says, "I haven't even tasted this, and I know it's going to be the best thing I've had in my entire life."

Blanco: I was moaning. It was uncontrollable. Everything was so warm and she had this honey; it was so good. 

Damuck: I say that was the moment I knew we'd be very good friends. Ben's plan unfortunately backfired because I think we end up hanging out so much more than he and Ben get to hang out. 

Photography by Jenelle Fong.

CULTURED: What’s one cooking rule or belief that you stand behind? 

Blanco: Don't cook with anxiety because it's going to get in the food. 

Damuck: Always squeeze fresh lemons. You don't want to juice them ahead of time, you don't want to buy it in the bottle. Whether you're making a cocktail, a dressing, adding it to a dish, whatever, it makes such a huge difference. And it shouldn't sit in your fridge overnight. It really changes the flavor. That's a rule I learned from Martha [Stewart].

Blanco: Oh, it's gospel if Martha says it?

Damuck: Yes. 

CULTURED: You made Martha Stewart's lunch every day for many, many years. Did she have any rules that you had to live by?  

Damuck: She has a lot of rules and that was part of what was really fun about making her lunch every day. It was about maintaining a certain standard of freshness above anything else. It was an amazing opportunity right out of culinary school, getting to go to the farmer's markets in New York City every day and talking to the farmers to find out, what's in season only for a couple weeks that I could try out? It reshaped the way I thought about food and cooking and entertaining.  

CULTURED: Was there anything in particular that she did not want to see on a plate?

Damuck: She doesn't like wet vegetables. So if you shave a vegetable like carrots or cucumbers, you can pop them into an ice water bath for a few minutes to really crisp them up. But then you have to make sure you pat them dry really well. And also some things can get very soggy, very quickly. I notoriously once made a raw zucchini salad, and I put both almonds and pecorino cheese in it. She usually doesn't like nuts and cheese in a salad, or wet things, but she made an exception. So that one I put in Salad Freak because that was breaking all the rules but it really worked. 

Mushroom Carnitas. Photography by Linda Pugliese for Health Nut.

CULTURED: What are some things you feel need to be in place for a dinner party? 

Damuck: Benny really likes to have a theme. He's more of a planner than I am. I sometimes don't know until I go to the farmer's market that day exactly what I'm making. 

Blanco: Who doesn't like to plan? That's why I'm making a cookbook. My cookbook is teaching you how to throw a good dinner party. What type of wine are we gonna serve? Are we gonna smoke weed [or] does it give us anxiety? My friends are here, and it's midnight and I want them to leave. How do I kick them out and still make them love me tomorrow? 

Damuck: Because I come from the Martha world, I am obsessing about details up until the last second. Benny is planning really far ahead of time; he couldn't be more laid back by the time the guests arrive. I tell this story all the time. A couple of years ago, I helped Martha bake 3,000 Christmas cookies for her Christmas party. It was three of us making all these cookies, and it was crazy for a week. Then like five minutes before guests started to arrive, she came running in and she was like, "I don't think there's enough cookies." And I was like, "Oh my God, the queen herself still has that feeling."

Blanco: We're all just waiting to see someone's Oh!  face. You feed someone a bite of food, and you just want them to be like, "Mmm, Oh!" When I'm making a song, the first thing I do is play it for someone and watch their face light up. I think food is the best social lubricant in the world. I always have so much trouble figuring out what to do with my hands or arms. If you have food in your hands, you never have to say hello or goodbye to someone, you can just wave with your elbow.

Photography by Johnny Miller.

Damuck: I met Benny when I first moved to Los Angeles, and I became part of his community—he's been building this really amazing community of artists and musicians and all kinds of people for years. He really knows how to get a good group of people together. I think that's a big part of it too. 

Blanco: We'll teach you how to get better friends. 

Damuck: I have never collaborated with anyone before really, let alone a friend. And the first couple of days [working on Open Wide] I was like, Oh my God, we're going to kill each other by the end of this. I think Benny asked me up until the last day of developing, "Do we still need to use a measuring spoon today?"

CULTURED: What’s one recipe you think encapsulates the spirit of both of these books?

Damuck: Sweet potato bread with miso tahini butter was the first recipe I developed for the book. It won't get any better than that. 

Blanco: I love my chicken cutlets. Everyone loves chicken cutlets, but these have like a little bit of hot peppers on them, some honey, parmesan, olive oil, and fresh cracked pepper. There's something about it that sends you to another world. 

Damuck: I'm trying to think of what we really lost our minds over… you love stuffed cabbage.

Blanco: Stuffed cabbage, oh yes. Oh, the latkes with caviar and creme fraiche. I don't know. Fuck you, just go buy the book.