For someone who graduated from college just last year, Ohio native, Soho-transplant Jill Donenfeld has really made a quick study of the New York food scene. As the founder of The Dish’s Dishes, Donenfeld oversees a team of kitchen ninjas she calls Culinistas™ (she also holds the word’s trademark)- who prepare meals en masse and in-house for clients using raw materials from greenmarkets, organic bakeries, and the subterranean caves of Murray’s Cheese, among other hand-picked sources. Donenfeld is also a soon-to-be cookbook author and the current writer of a weekly food intelligence one-sheet (available to DD clients). Gothamist sat down to talk shop with The Dish’s Dishes entrepreneur #1 last week at Jacques Torres on Hudson Street, and left with a recipe for squid salad.
Where are you from, and how did all this Dish’s Dishes stuff get started?
I’m from Cincinnati, and grew up cooking with my mom and dad. In Ohio we had family dinner every night- I guess it’s a Midwestern thing. Then I moved here for college, and ate in the cafeteria maybe twice- it was awful. The rest of my family lives here, so I knew that this cafeteria experience was really not why I’d moved to New York; I started eating out a lot, going to a lot of restaurants. After a few years of doing that, I started writing some reviews for Time Out New York and my college newspapers. Then after a few years of that, I realized I hadn’t been cooking that much, so I became the personal chef for a family I had been babysitting for. One thing kind of led to another, and all of a sudden, there were maybe four families I was cooking for. I was kind of going crazy because I was still in college. When I graduated I was asking myself what I wanted to do, because I had graduated from Barnard, and not FCI or CIA, so I spent a summer reworking the business model of what became the Dish’s Dishes.
So you don’t do any of the kitchen work anymore-
No, I don’t. If we have a large event or cater a large party, then I’ll be the captain, and I’m very involved- I’ll go around and taste everything to make sure it’s perfect.
What’s the biggest party you’ve catered so far?
We just did a 45 person Seder for the Soho Synagogue. That was the biggest thing we’ve done so far.
How old are you?
How many people are getting service from the Dish’s Dishes on a typical day?
We’ll do eight clients or more on Mondays. That’s our biggest day, because everybody wants to have their cooking done for the week.
Your website says you wrote a cookbook in Madagascar-
Yes I did- it’s coming out in two weeks. I went to Madagascar in 2005 to write a cookbook-
Because there really are no Madagascar cookbooks out there, and there’s no Malagasy food in New York. There’s not a lot of documentation of those recipes, and it’s a very different cuisine- a mish-mash of African, Asian, Indian- so you get things like curries, noodles, seafood on the coast; in the mountains it’s all meat. The book is beautifully illustrated by the same person who does the drawings for the Dish’s Dishes, and it’s going to be available on Amazon and on Barnes & Noble’s site.
The cooks who work for you come from an impressive array of places- Jean Georges, Babbo, Cookshop, Five Points- where did you find all these people?
Well, it sort of happened by accident. It turns out that a lot of the people who work for me are kind of like these minions of celebrity chefs, but generally I just do a lot of interviews, post at FCI and ICE, and on The Strong Buzz. It’s a really intense interview process, because my service is a very personal service- you know, you’re going into someone’s home, so not only do you have to be a really good chef, you have to have some front-of-the-house skills. Part of the secondary interview process is going to my friend’s apartment and opening the refrigerator, which contains a mix of ingredients, and saying, “Here. You have an hour to make two dishes, and then make sure the kitchen is spotless.” But the difference is that the food that the interviewee makes has to hold up for a few days- it’s a different type of cooking, than, say a restaurant where you’re eating the food five minutes later. My Senior Culinista™ and I do some taste testing, but mostly my friend comes home later, back to her apartment, and eats the food. She calls me with the results.
Where do you like to eat out in the city?
I love Raoul’s, and I love Blue Ribbon Bakery. I love Balthazar, even though Bruni gave it that bad review recently on the blog. I really have become quite the neighborhood brat ever since I moved to Soho, and I really want to go to eat out at all these new restaurants, but I can’t seem to leave the ‘hood.
Is there a popular restaurant dish clients often ask to have made from them?
Yeah, sometimes our clients will say something like, “I had this really amazing asparagus and quinoa salad at Raoul’s.” So what we’ll do is go to Raoul’s eat it, and the Culinistas™ are so good that they can basically guess any ingredient or spice in a dish.
Anybody ever kick you out of their restaurant because they’ve figured out what you’re doing?
No, because we are super-stealthy.
Where do you see the Dish’s Dishes going in the future?
We’re focusing on the core business right now, but very shortly we’re going to be adding delivery service. What I like about what we do right now is that there’s no mystery involved- we cook in people’s homes, so it’s not some mystery lunchbox like the Zone diet, but there is some demand for delivery. And I do have this arsenal of chefs, so it makes sense that we’ll do more catering of some kind in the future.
Do you have any secret provisions-shopping tips?
When you go to Murray’s Cheese, talk to Cielo. He’ll let you try a thousand things. I think that’s the tip I am going to give. Oh, and you should always get mozzarella from Joe’s on Sullivan Street. And, sometimes they give samples, too.
In addition to running The Dish’s Dishes and writing cookbooks about food in Madagascar, Donenfeld spent some time a few years ago in Vietnam, learning how to cook. She shared this recipe with Gothamist.
Warm Squid and Pineapple Salad
2 teaspoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon garlic
1 teaspoon ginger
½ teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon nam pla (fish sauce)
1 tablespoon of sweet and sour chilli sauce
½ cup of chopped Thai chili pepper
½ cup of chopped pineapple
½ cup of chopped tomato
½ cup of chopped onion
1 tablespoon of tomato puree
1 tablespoon of water
Fresh cilantro, chopped
1. Clean and slice squid. Set aside.
2. Heat oil in a wok.
3. Stir in garlic and ginger. Add squid, fish sauce & sugar, and saute for 1 minute.
4. Add the chili sauce, the chili, the chopped pineapple, the chopped tomato, and the onion. Saute for one minute and then add the tomato paste.
5. Saute for about 3 minutes and then add water.
6. Top with the cilantro and serve warm. The veggies should still be a little crunchy and the squid just cooked through.