Interview: Chef Damaris Phillips

Bourbon & Beyond Festival takes place in Louisville, Kentucky and is a celebration of food, music and really good alcohol. Unfortunately, the second day of the festival may have been canceled due to heavy rain and flooding at Champion’s Park. But chef Damaris Phillips was gracious enough to re-schedule our interview and photos so that we could chat and discuss her hometown of Louisville, bourbon, cats and Dolly Parton.

Since I have a natural aversion to cooking at home even though I binge watch Food Network, we discussed some easy go-to meals to cook at home which you can find on here on her official site. We also discussed some favorite travel destinations, which include India and an interest in hitting the high seas, on a Carnival cruise. All around she is just as nice as she is on TV and I understand why America has fallen in love with this Food Network Star.

You live in Louisville and have always represented Kentucky so well on all of your television appearances. What do you tell people to do around town when they come to visit you?

I definitely tell people to try to get to at least one distillery, either in the downtown area or drive a little bit and hit one of the rural distilleries. Ideally, people should go to two so they can see the difference between the ones in town and what places like Woodford looks like. It is different but very, very fun.

What is your favorite bourbon?

That is like asking somebody who their favorite child is for different reasons. I can never pick one. Honestly, any bourbon someone gives me is a good bourbon. I try not to discriminate against a bourbon.

Do you have any favorite bourbon food pairings?

I use bourbon in all of my cooking. The truth is it goes great with any of the things you think of as Southern comfort food. It even goes great with casseroles. I think of drinking it like more of a cocktail, or think of it as you would think of wine. It goes great with literally everything. A little glass of bourbon with soup, unbelievable.

I just watched you last night Beat Bobby Flay at midnight last night with tuna casserole.

Well, I love tuna casserole. It tastes great with bourbon.

How does your work as a culinary instructor prepare you to judge for the top Food Network shows?

I learned to understand food a lot more, what was happening, why things were crispy, why some sauces were smoother than others, why one cake had a crumbly crumb compared to too chewy. I learned all that through teaching.

When you are judging, you want to point out what is going on, “You’re crisp is too soft”, and you also want people at home to get takeaways, to understand why the crust is too soft. You say, “You put it on the pan, and it was warm, and condensation happened, so now it is a little soggy.” That will happen, the science and fundamentals of cooking, you learn it in schools and in restaurants, but I really understood it and it became second nature because of teaching.

So you can give tips and critiques?

Yes, you can critique but “it’s not just soggy” here is how you can do it better next time.

What dish is your guilty pleasure?

I cannot resist macaroni and cheese. I cannot resist banana bread. It is impossible not to eat. Any kind of potato. I never feel guilty about them. I only feel happy. You know what I really love, cinnamon toast. I would eat cinnamon toast every single day if it was a diet food.

More and more festivals are starting to combine food and music, and it is awesome. If you could have a dream music cooking duet who would it be?

Got it, Dolly Parton. Done. As a woman from Kentucky, I can tell you she is the goal. She is just so elegant and a real entertainer, a true class act and kind. She is also still kicking ass with the music.

Are there any international destinations that have been an influence on your cooking?

I love international cooking and I love bringing all the spices to Southern food. It is one of my favorite things to take my Grandmother’s Mashed Potato recipe and then throw in harissa or berbere because I am obsessed with Ethiopian food. That is my go-to for updating what we consider a traditional Southern food. But my biggest influence is India. My husband and I just got back, and we are getting ready to go again. I spend time when I am there cooking with a group of women. We make everything literally from scratch, if we want paneer cheese, they go milk the cow. If you want a vegetable you go pick it from the garden. Learning that you can make a unleavened bread and Tirupati and do it every day, it changes how I cook at home. Now, I am never like, “Oh, I have to make biscuits. That seems hard.” It helps you get it together a little bit. There is a real joy to scratch cooking.

I have traveled extensively in India as well. It puts things in perspective here a little bit too, things aren’t really a big deal.

It really isn’t. People need to calm down about life. I think that we get so used to things being so convenient based here. Put us up against non-convenience and we see it as a bad thing instead of a very natural thing.

What is your favorite Food Network show to judge or participate in?

The one that makes me feel something special and takes me back a little is when I get to do Food Network Star. It’s when I get to come on and be a judge and offer advice and I am seen as successful at this seems full circle to me. The one moment that shows how much I’ve grown and changed. That is the one that gives the moments that you can feel the success.

I am obsessed with, not Bobby Flay, but Nacho Flay, his cat.

That cat gives you every reason to be obsessed with it. He is a cat but he is a superstar cat. He is beautiful. I follow him on Instagram. The sweetest thing about that is Bobby how much he loves that cat. My husband and I were visiting him in the Hamptons recently just hanging out and we asked Bobby if he was ever going to get another cat. He said he was his best friend. His cat is his best friend. It is his most endearing quality to Bobby. He loves that cat so much.

I can relate. My cat Tiger is 19 and I love him. If anything happens to him, I am not sure if I could get another one either.

We have three cats. With every cat, I thought I could only love that one. With every single one, you love them. Their personalities are so different. There is something so sweet and special about each one of them. That is how people feel about their kids.

Let’s talk Bourbon and Beyond, did you get to attend at all this year? You were scheduled to present on Sunday, which was rained out, unfortunately.

I only got to go for it a little bit this time on Saturday, for a short visit, we had friends in from out of town so we went over with them.

What was your favorite part about Saturday?

They do a wonderful job of making it feel cool. There are lots of places to discover, all the different bars, the way they set it up so you congregate in the big center and have all these places to discover. I think it just feels cool. I think they do a great job of having things to do. I think the different courses they do for you to learn about bourbon, for me, was the most exciting.

Did you see any music that was good?

Damaris: Of course. I wanted to see my best friend John Mayer, but I didn’t get a chance to. (If anyone follows @chefdphillips on IG you know about her feelings for John Mayer songs.)

Your show Southern and Hungry takes you all across the South. Are there any standout destinations for travelers?

I think everybody should take a road trip through the South. Every location is different based on whatever you are into. I love New Orleans. I love all of Louisiana. It is a really cool state to ramble around in. Whenever you start driving, you realize everywhere is like that. If you go to Knoxville, what a little surprise, but the drive from Asheville to Knoxville also just remarkably beautiful being in the mountains. You have to slow it down.

Everywhere is going to offer the chance to eat great food and meet people. It is not just about eating but the experience of eating. Whenever you are in Savannah, you are going to go eat but walking under live oaks, and for the first time feel like, understanding the draw of the Southern Gothic look, and understand it for the first time when you are under those trees.

The #MeToo movement has come to the food industry and outside Hollywood. Do you think it has changed the way the restaurant business works or will change it in the future?

I hope that as we are able to talk and as we are able to feel safe, the more everybody is able to share their experiences, it makes every work environment safer and healthier, a place people can be their best and feel more secure. I hope everything is changing. It is heartbreaking to think people were hurt for so long.

I think you don’t even realize until you start talking about it, you don’t realize what is normal. The greatest thing about talking is we are now able to see what is not appropriate at work, what is not an appropriate way to feel at work. You don’t know. The greatest thing about talking is we are able to, as a community of restaurants, come up with what is appropriate and what is not appropriate. It is never a bad thing to set up healthy boundaries for people.

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