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    When Damaris Phillips started working on her cookbook, people told her, “Oh, you either have to have a vegetarian cookbook or you have to have a meat book. That’s how it’s always been done.” She’s telling me this while leaning against a windowsill in her Germantown house, a shotgun with exposed brick and the now-common renovation of one long front room that serves as both the living room and kitchen, separated by an island. The layout forces her to keep everything tidy. “Otherwise (it) would be a duh-sas-ter,” she says, pronouncing every syllable separately. 

    She has invited me into her home to discuss her new cookbook, which she describes as “modern Southern.” Titled Southern Girl Meets Vegetarian Boy, it tweaks classic Southern recipes — fried chicken, Hot Brown casserole, biscuits and gravy — to be vegetarian-friendly. (Nearly every recipe includes a small paragraph at the bottom, instructions on how to alter for meat-eaters, vegetarians or vegans.) She pulls the blue-spined book from an overhead shelf and flips through it, pages adorned with colorful polka dots, vintage text and drawings that would not be out of place on a kitchen towel. Phillips and her husband Darrick Wood (the Vegetarian Boy) are in a heart on the book cover, flashing big smiles.

    Five years ago, Phillips became known in town when she competed on the ninth season of Food Network Star. One challenge on the reality show had contestants make pitches for their own show; Phillips was a culinary matchmaker, teaching a hopeless stud to cook a meal for his sweetheart (“I can show ’em how to make a pecan pie that’ll make a girl cry”). The most difficult part of being on a reality show? “When you admit to yourself that you have a dream that’s bigger than other people think you can achieve,” the 36-year-old says. “It feels very vulnerable to admit. And then doing that publicly is even harder.” Fans voted Phillips the winner, a prize that included her own in-the-kitchen show. Called Southern at Heart, it filmed in Louisville and aired for five seasons. 

    Phillips’ busy schedule includes work on other Food Network projects, including The Bobby and Damaris Show, filmed at Bobby Flay’s Hamptons home, and a travel show called Southern and Hungry, which showcases holes-in-the-wall or hidden spots in the South. Being a Food Network face means about six months a year away from Louisville. “When I’m here, I’m 150 percent here,” Phillips says. “I love this city. I love my friends and family, and that’s why I’m here.” Her husband inspired the cookbook. “The truth is: Before I started doing this…I wasn’t concerned with how vegetarians got their protein,” Phillips says.

    “I try to be really conscious of where people are in their cooking and their skills,” she continues, explaining that half of the book includes pre-made meat substitutes and the other half is more complex recipes that make “meat” from wheat germ, beets or other plant-based proteins. “To create something that allows people to be flexible, and allows mix-a-vores to make dinners that don’t feel like you’re missing out, was really important for me.”

     

    Phillips always wears an apron in the kitchen. Before she begins her cooking demonstration on this fall day, she slips on a flax-colored apron, the fabric crunching at the collar and waist. She’s prepping a green/mustard-colored acorn squash, smashing the stem off against the counter with a pop like a Champagne cork. “That’ll go in our composter,” she says. “Whatever happens in the compost bin should stay in the compost bin.”

    She’s making roasted squash crescents seasoned with dukka, a chili-powder-like spice blend from Northern Africa. She’s a natural performer, instructing as she talks to the squash. “You just scoop (the inside) out and you just roast these little babies,” she says, carefully slipping the tip of her blade through the ribs of the squash.

    It’s apparent that history is important to Phillips: a roughed-up, well-loved stuffed animal sits in a soft arm chair in the living room; vintage board games form a stack in the corner by the front window; black-and-white photos of artfully arranged group photos (think WWII army regiment or 1950s high school graduating class) are framed in a gallery on her walls. An entire drawer is filled with kitchen towels and aprons, including a zippered plastic bag containing a folded white apron with a handwritten note about its original owner, an aunt or grandmother. When she brings up the historical role of meat in the Southern kitchen, she mentions that frying chicken was a practical way to cook the older hens that could no longer lay eggs.

    Each recipe in her book begins with a personal memory — like the time a boy broke her heart and her dad made it better with cornbread and sweet milk; or a scavenger hunt for the right type of canned jackfruit for pulled pork, resulting in a 20-can purchase from an Indian grocer. “I’m one of six kids — err, one of five,” she says, laughing. “I just added a child. My bad. That was weird.” Growing up in Old Louisville and, later, the Portland neighborhood in an apartment above her father’s funeral home, called Portland Memorial Chapel, she says cooking was almost a requirement in her family, whether it was snapping green beans, making biscuits or helping with Saturday-night burgers or Sunday-dinner chicken. “If you cooked, you didn’t have to clean,” Phillips says. “Everybody wanted to cook. My mom was a total genius.”

    After graduating from Atherton High School, Phillips always worked in the restaurant industry: a host and server at Lynn’s Paradise Cafe; a barista at Highland Coffee for nearly a decade; odd baking jobs before a brief stint in the Seattle coffee world. After a jump back to Louisville and a culinary degree from Jefferson Community and Technical College, she cooked for 610 Magnolia, Wiltshire on Market and Harvest before teaching baking and landing at Food Network. She says future goals include “a talk show — maybe world domination.” 

    In the kitchen, she moves on to a whole pineapple for ambrosia salad, slicing the skin away before cutting off thick chunks that resemble hunks of meat more than the doughnut shape found inside cans of pineapple. Her modernization of this citrus classic involves searing the pineapple. “Pineapple tastes better when it’s caramelized,” she says. A large dollop of coconut oil, her choice for oily texture and mouthfeel, melts in a big cast-iron pan. “That splatter is why I have to wear an apron,” she says as a chunk of yellow fruit sizzles in the hot oil. Phillips seems almost aghast when I reveal that my mom’s ambrosia salad has no marshmallows — literally just pineapple and mandarin oranges. “She never did a sauce?” Phillips wonders. “What about sour cream? What?”

    She flips the slices in the pan, looking for a brown glaze on the bottoms before slicing them into cubes on her wood-grain cutting board. “Cooked pineapple is everything,” she says, sneaking a few pieces into her mouth.

    “I believe sincerely that when you cook with people, when you transition from eating homemade food to cooking homemade food with people that you love, it will inevitably make you closer to those people,” she says. “I just love cooking with my husband. I like somebody sitting at the counter while I’m making biscuits and they brush the butter on top. Those things are what you keep with you. Long after you’re done eating biscuits and gravy — even though I can remember that for a long time.”

    This originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe to Louisville Magazineclick here. To find us on newsstands, click here.

    Cover photo by Mickie Winters

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    About Jennifer Kiefer

    Germantown transplant. Louisville native.

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