BEHIND CLOSED DOORS: The Culinistas

   

With her infectious smile and good time vibe, Jill Donenfeld became known around CAP as “Fun Jill” and she couldn’t have a more fitting title. She ushers any room to life and she brings this energy to The Culinistas, the company she founded in 2017 with her partner, Tiana Tenet. Tiana’s laser sharp attention to growth and scalability perfectly balance Jill’s creative fervor and together they are the backbone of their company.

With a fleet of private chefs who come, shop and conquer your fridge leaving it packed with meals for the week, The Culinistas is a modern and modular answer to those who’ve had enough of take out. We call this an uplevel. Better meals for all and way more time for, you guessed it, fun! Let’s take a look behind closed doors at the kitchen where The Culinistas test and try it all.

What is your food philosophy?

Balance. Nutrient-rich, whole food. Minimal waste. Vegetable forward. Transparency.  

What are your thoughts on how food relates to beauty?

Beauty is more tangible a feeling than any objective visual. And food plays directly into that. We emphasize a culinary agenda that pushes an ethos more than any specific diet. Our dishes help you feel good when you are eating them, and the day after.

What do you always keep in your fridge?

We recipe test, interview chefs, and make our own lunches every week, so our fridge sees a lot of action.  

We always have eggs, yogurt, tahini, and a bunch of tinctures and vitamins on the side door. Those are our doomsday necessities. We also have a snack bar of nuts from Malibu, dried fruit, and a bowl of apples, oranges, and bananas. Tiana and I eat a lot of grapes, so those go pretty fast. In any given week, we test six new dishes, interview several chefs, and host events, including a monthly dinner series here, 8x8, eight founders at eight o’clock, in our space so the fridge is generally stuffed with fresh produce from the farmer’s market and Eataly and fish from The Lobster Place, as well as glass containers of dishes made by prospective chefs that we have to taste test.

Please give us a breakdown of each shelf. Example here:

We shot our fridge on a Thursday, after a few days of recipe testing and chef interviews. Our fridge is multipurpose, used for recipe testing, interviewing chefs, and our employees for their own appetites.

Top shelf. White Moustache is our life blood on Mondays, when there is very little food in the fridge.  Monday before 4:30p, our culinary director is at the starting line of recipe testing, so there’s nothing for us to snack on. The Seed + Mill tahini is a new addition, we mix it into the yogurt. The delis on top are tequila shrimp salad, a recipe that we tested for our summer ceviche cycle that will be peddling around the Hamptons and available for parties from Memorial Day through Labor Day. On top is leftover miso tahini sauce from a spring salad we made.  We are just dipping our toes into miso. We try to keep the grocery excess low with our weekly clients, we don’t buy a lot of condiments, so pre-made sauces, vinegars, etc that will hang around the fridge. However, we are working on folding miso into a few more dishes this year, taking a time tested Japanese flavor and bringing it to more global cuisine.

Middle shelf. The deli on the middle shelf is leftover soppressata, red onion, and pecorino from our Calabrian Cauliflower. This is Tiana’s favorite dish, and I cannot explain how wonderful a feeling it is to have developed a dish that she likes so much. Pure joy. The two glass containers are from a cooking interview we did with a prospective chef. Squash & Chicken Meatballs is a new recipe, a riff on another chicken meatball that is very popular. It’s our dirty little secret that meatballs are one of our most popular items. The other dish is the finished cauliflower dish. These glass containers are what we give to our clients when they first request a chef. They are elegant as far as food storage goes, and they can go straight into the oven. Some greens and herbs in there as well, up for grabs to anyone on our team who wants to make a salad.

Bottom Shelf. The Brita was something Tiana wanted when we moved into the office together. I didn’t know about water filtering because I am a Pellegrino drinker but I think it’s a good policy to filter your water. Some half-used vegetables that someone will eat in the office. Pellegrino, but not for me since I don’t like it cold.

Drawers. Citrus & alliums are the only thing that we keep in the fridge over the weekend. Everything else gets cleaned out, taken home by staff, given to our neighbors, or composted.  We have to start Monday fresh since this is the most trafficked area of our office, one could say. The right drawer is more up for grabs vegetables. 

The door. The door can get overlooked because we are so focused on fresh produce but there are some gems. Tinctures on the top left for anyone coming down with a sniffle or scratchy throat or any other ailment. There’s oil of oregano, colloidal silver, black walnut, marshmallow root and elderberry. To the right is eggs, which we boil and eat with urfa for a high protein snack at least once a week.

The middle nooks are soy sauce, sesame oil, mustards, capers, and cornichons. Necessary umami-transporters. We have some marinated peppers and some peppadews. I think the peppadews are from a wonderful squid salad we made with olives and oranges. The orange goat jars are honey from Oilladi, which comes from Greek bees who feast on thyme blossoms. 

The bottom is wine from Union Square Wines, which is caddy corner to us. I’ve known the wine director, Jesse, since I was in college and it’s another instance of supreme joy that our staff feels a kinship to him and the shop and that we get our wine from him, and utilize their expertise to get recommendations & pairings for our client's dinner parties. Our clients appreciate knowing that there are hand selected experts & personal relationships behind our offerings. It’s part of what makes us stand out as a brand and a service.

The snack table. Sometimes the kitchen is too busy for us to get into the fridge so our snack table is the equivalent of our water cooler spot in the office. Any kind of nut you’ve recently read about is featured, as well as sprouted, activated nuts that I bring back from the Malibu farmer’s market. Dried fruit like figs, mango and raisins get eaten quickly as do the grapes. The grapes go fast, especially if Tiana is hungry. People tease me if I snap a banana in half, but sometimes you just want half a banana. We are pretty measured about the chocolate covered espresso beans and yogurt covered raisins.

Please share a favorite recipe.

California Dip

Inspired by a poolside dip in the Palm Desert, this one is dairy-free, using sunflower seeds as the base and layered with herbs and spices.

Serves 4 to 6

Prep Time: 20 minutes

Cook Time: 15 minutes

tbsp olive oil

3 garlic cloves, smashed

tbsp oregano

2¼ cups pepita seeds, toasted, divided

tbsp lemon zest

tbsp + 1 tsp lemon juice, divided

tbsp dill, chopped plus a few picked sprigs for garnish

1 tsp onion powder

½ tsp cayenne, plus more to taste

¼ cup water, plus more for consistency

Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Two 2-inch strips lemon peel, julienned

Dill, picked for garnish

Crudités, for serving

In a saucepan, simmer garlic and oil over low heat until garlic is tender, 15 minutes. Add oregano to the oil and fry until crispy, 1 to 2 minutes. Strain oil and lay out the garlic and oregano on a paper towel lined plate. Season with salt and reserve the infused oil, garlic and oregano.

In a high-speed blender, add 2 cups pepita seeds, lemon zest, 3 T lemon juice, dill, onion powder and cayenne. While the motor is running stream in water along with ¼ cup infused oil. Season with salt and pepper and adjust by adding a few more tablespoons of water if the dip is too thick. Spoon into a serving bowl.

For the pepita garnish: In a small mixing bowl, mix remaining ¼ cup pepitas, 1 tsp lemon juice, julienned lemon peel, remaining 2 tablespoons infused oil and season with salt and pepper.

Spoon pepita garnish over dip and sprinkle with a few sprigs of dill. Serve with crudités.

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