Q&A with Jill Donenfeld
It's tough to describe my friend Jill Donenfeld in just a few words. (Though impressive does come to mind...) By age 22, the personal chef and entrepreneur had already started her own business (The Culinistas) and written a cookbook (Mankafy Sakofo: Delicious Meals from Madagascar). Donenfeld founded The Culinistas in 2006 in New York City with the goal of bringing healthy, home cooked, customizable meals into the homes of busy professionals. The concept was a hit. Now, five years later, Donenfeld has expanded The Culinistas to Los Angeles and Chicago, and is coming out with her second cookbook: Party Like a Culinista (Lake Isle Press). Co-authored with fellow culinista Josie Gordon, the new book is all about parties: how to throw them, what to serve, and how to enjoy yourself in the process. Full of healthy and delicious recipes (like the Potato Kalamata Pizza below) and all sorts of tips on how to keep things stress-free, this is an invaluable read for anyone who loves to entertain–or is too intimidated to try. An avid foodie and intrepid world traveler, Donenfeld divides her time between NYC and LA, with regular inspiration trips abroad. I caught up with her last week and we chatted about her cooking, her new book, and the best foodie finds from her summer travels.
You started your personal chef service The Culinistas back in 2006, when you were just out of college...what inspired you to launch this business?
My family. I grew up eating with my parents and brothers around the dinner table every night. I didn't realize it was a luxury until I moved to NYC at 18 and experienced families living a much more scattered and disparate lifestyle than mine. A few families for whom I babysat asked me to come cook for them and that was the foundation for the company.
When did you first start cooking? What are some of your favorite things to cook?
My first memory cooking is of course with my mom. Cookies. But it was in high school that I got really into it. I used to make brownies a LOT. That usually resulted in my whole crew coming over to the house and hanging around the kitchen for hours on the weekend... ah, heaven.
Of course, you can't make brownies for dinner (at least not every night). I like to cook simply: big stir fries, pasta salads, quinoa salads. I love grilling shrimp and salmon. I use a lot of fresh herbs and spices I smuggle back from various travels. I have a stock pile of cardamom right now that I brought back from Tamil Nadu so I am working my way through that.
You are quite the world traveler, which I know provides inspiration for your cooking. This summer alone you were in Paris, India, and all over the U.S. What were some of your favorite foodie finds?
I was in India during their mango season and had the pleasure of indulging in many varieties, which was just mind-blowing. One day we lined up six types and sliced into them all for a taste test. I also got pretty into coconut oil while there - for cooking and for your skin and hair.
In Paris, I found fresh goat cheese at the Marché at Raspail on Sundays. By fresh I mean like loose, ricotta-textured goat cheese. That was breakfast pretty much every morning. And I was loving MINUTY rosé. But not for breakfast - at least not everyday.
The lobster on the East Coast was legit this summer and I was a maniac, going to Five Island in Maine and Luke's in Manhattan. And it seems like romaine hearts became widely available recently. I've been incorporating those sweet leaves into salads, and serving them as scoopers for appetizer-y dips and spreads and egg salad.
Your new cookbook Party Like a Culinista comes out this weekend (Oct. 16) and specializes in healthy, fun party foods. Tell us a little about it.
I wrote it with Josie Gordon, who's worked with The CULINISTAS since it's inception. The book is full of easIER, healthIER recipes, divided into short menus packed with little tips and tricks.
You're a party-planning pro, both on the catering and hostessing end. Any tips you want to share with us on how to have a stress-free party?
I always try to see things from the guest's point of view–they are there to have fun. And they will have fun if you have fun. So get into it! Also, having wine and a snack ready for the early birds is good so that you can finish up cooking–that can be a big help. Homemade popcorn is always my go to.
Now for the question I love to ask everyone: If you had to throw an impromptu dinner for eight tonight, what would you make?
I have a whole chapter about that! But since I'm answering these questions from gorgeous, sunny Sag Harbor I'll say: Cucumber and herbs salad (lots of herbs. Use herbs like lettuce!). Grilled clams and grilled corn with tarragon aioli. Fried zucchini and eggplant with citrus zest. Or just grill everything.
For the pre-dinner nibble, roast a few heads of garlic, pick up two baguettes, two soft cheeses, and serve with castelvatrano olives.
Dessert: raspberry whipped cream with any sweet thing you have in the house: cookies, brownies, ice cream, blueberries...whatever.
POTATO KALAMATA PIZZAServes 8
1 pound whole wheat pizza dough (see Note)
1 pound fingerling potatoes
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon fine grain sea salt
1 sprig fresh rosemary
3/4 cup kalamata or black olives, pitted
1 tablespoon fine extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
Preheat the oven to 400°F. Roll the pizza dough into circle about 14 inches in diameter with a rolling pin and place on a parchment-lined cookie sheet.
Slice the potatoes 1/4 inch thick using a mandoline. Toss the potatoes with 2 tablespoons olive oil and the salt. Spread them out on a rimmed baking sheet and top with the rosemary sprig. Roast for 45 minutes, stirring halfway through.
In a food processor, combine the olives with the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil to make a quick tapenade. Pulse until mostly smooth.
Spread the tapenade evenly over the pizza dough. Layer on the potatoes. Discard the rosemary.
Reduce oven heat to 350°F and bake the pizza until the crust is browned, 10 to 12 minutes. Sprinkle with chopped parsley and drizzle with fine olive oil.
Whole wheat pizza dough can be purchased in many grocery stores. You can also check with your local pizzeria—they may be willing to sell uncooked dough. If you can’t find whole wheat in a pinch, the next best thing is white pizza dough made with organic ingredients.
Though we don't include cheese on our pie, some people might like some shaved Parmesan or pecorino. Add them as soon as the pie comes out of the oven.
*Recipe reprinted with permission from Party Like a Culinista by Jill Donenfeld and Josie Gordon (Lake Isle Press).