The 30-minute chef
MV cook devotes herself to helping Americans get food on the table — fast
With a degree in history and a minor in political science, Jess Dang never expected to have a career in cooking.
"I graduated from college and didn't really know what I was going to do," she said in an interview in her Mountain View house. "I just never considered food as a real option for a career. ... I think a lot of that was because of growing up in the restaurant industry. You see how hard it is; you see that restaurants fail; you see that you work crazy hours."
Her father and uncles owned and ran family-style Chinese restaurants in Bethesda, Md., where she grew up, but Dang didn't spend much time in the kitchen. "I more enjoyed eating the food and I've always been an avid eater," she said. "That kind of motivated me to learn how to cook later on in life."
The motivation has now led to a career. After working for years in the corporate world, Dang decided to focus on cooking, and devotes her time to her blog, "Cook Smarts," and weekly newsletter, "Weekly Eats."
Her focus: giving recipe suggestions for 30-minute meals, with hopes of educating home cooks and saving them time. She runs the professional-looking blog through WordPress and takes all her own photos of her dishes, as well as shooting cooking videos.
Some of Dang's inspiration for cooking efficiently comes from her time at Stanford University, which brought her to the West Coast in 1999. During her senior year, she lived in a co-op of 50 people where everyone would cook and clean.
"I had schoolwork and classes to go to and I had a couple hours to get this large meal together, thinking about the most efficient way to prepare this meal," she said. "When you're preparing food for 50, we're not just usually preparing one pot. There was always a meat option and a vegetarian option and side dishes."
Before her senior year, she had also discovered a love for Italian cuisine while spending the summer in Florence.
"I came back after that summer excited about cooking Italian food because that's what I had learned. It's funny, because people always assume I cook Asian food," she said, alluding to her Chinese heritage. "I grew up eating it, but not necessarily cooking it."
After she graduated in 2003, she took the corporate career path, but continued to enjoy cooking. Even today, a rack in her house contains a mix of Bon Appetit magazine and business periodicals.
In 2006, while working as a consultant at a small boutique firm in Palo Alto, she unexpectedly wound up on a Food Network reality-TV show. "It was one of those things where I worked in front of the computer many hours a day and I enjoyed coming home and using my hands. I would often have the Food Network on the background while I was cooking. That's when I heard the calls for the auditions."
On a whim, Dang auditioned for "The Next Food Network Star," and was cast. While she was the first one cut from the show, she said the experience was a blast. She realized she wanted to pursue cooking further.
"It was a real signal of 'this is something I really enjoy,'" she said.
Dang started a boutique catering company called Clementine Culinary Productions. "I did that for a while, but it was a little too behind-the-scenes for me. I thought about: 'How can I combine my passion for problem-solving, food and teaching?' That's when I came up with the idea of Cook Smarts."
She decided to focus on an issue that had been bothering her. "I was asking 'Why are there so many resources around food, yet so many Americans have a really stressful time in the kitchen and can't get dinner on the table?' I didn't know the answer to that question.
"That's when I decided I was going to put together the service of providing in-home cooking lessons so that I could go into people's homes and help troubleshoot it."
Last year, she gave in-home lessons from January through August, where she got a glimpse into different ranges of cooking skills.
"I worked with a gentleman who was probably in his 40s and didn't know how to turn a stove on. In a couple lessons, we got him searing proteins and roasting vegetables and making a soup. That's really gratifying. It's nice to know you've been a part of their lives."
The next phase was creating a newsletter that could be sent out to people without having to give the in-home lessons. "I thought: Here's a way I can start reaching people and test some ideas of what people would want in a meal-planning service, without having to hire a developer or really build anything technical."
Dang's own home situation helped her be creative with planning meals. Her husband is a vegetarian who participates in Ironman Triathlons, and she has a history of diabetes in her family.
"It's kind of like a puzzle. It's like, 'OK, I've got these issues and he's got these restrictions and we still want a well-balanced meal.'"
Later in the interview, Dang moved into the kitchen and began cooking peanut sesame noodles. She swiftly chopped vegetables and created a peanut sauce while explaining that she features two or three meals a week on her blog. All are intended to be made in 30 minutes, including preparation time.
Dang also prepared fish tacos with panko-breaded tilapia, a dish she said was the most popular dish on her blog when she first started.
Nowadays, she's creating shorter video clips for her blog after people told her that her five-minute videos were too long.
"For January, I packaged a four-week challenge, a 'new you in the kitchen' challenge, so every week you get an assignment to watch cooking videos and take those cooking skills and make something," she said.
Outside her own kitchen, Dang has also taught two semesters at Redwood High School, a continuation school where she instructed teen parents in cooking. She called that activity her most rewarding of 2012.
Her next goal is to create a smartphone app that will allow people to customize her recipe suggestions. "I enjoy that every day is different and I kind of get to put on a different hat and learn something new."
Info: Jess Dang's blog is at cooksmarts.com.