Our hometown Food Network chef and regular columnist will even pack one for you. The secret ingredient in her Bluegrass Supper Club carry-out picnics, her media success and growing hospitality brand isn’t bourbon, bacon or her big smile. It’s the sense of purpose that she puts into every blissful bite.
Written and Styled by Christine Fellingham | Photographed by Kylene White
When you see her on Food Network, she is the radiant girl next door with a southern accent who can comfortably hang with Guy Fieri, disarm sarcasm-and-barbecue master Bobby Flay and put a delicious and do-able southern spin on classic comfort foods that makes you believe you really can throw that dinner party — tonight. Off the air, Damaris Phillips is just as charming and effusively upbeat. She is not a woman to walk into a room with the personal assistant, swagger and expensive handbag of a one-woman mini media empire. “I got this bag at Citi Trends on Preston Highway, y’all,” she says at an editorial meeting where the team raves over an adorable camera-shaped purse she has slung over her shoulder. “It’s where I get all of my pool-ery and my most fun accessories. It’s where I stop if I’m going to Vegas and don’t want to look like a librarian. It’s hit or miss but I’ve gotten some of my best boots there.”
She’s low-key, no-fuss and likely to be toting her own props for a photo shoot (in our case, pulling her own collapsible wagon full of picnic fare even on a hundred degree day) and wearing a vintage outfit from her fave local vintage store, The Nitty Gritty, while offering you a sparkling lemonade or a helping hand.
While she made her name in food and hospitality and is incredibly skilled at both, what Damaris is serving up is authenticity. She is a woman living in the present, rooted in her Louisville past and remarkably able to infuse purpose and pleasure into life’s big and little moments.
She comes by this ability naturally, of course — but probably not for reasons you would expect. Her mother was not Martha Stewart and hers was not a pinkies up and napkin on laps kind of upbringing. Rather, she grew up in a tight-knit, hard-working family of seven who lived over their funeral home in the West End. “It was definitely a unique upbringing,” she says. “Of course, you don’t realize that it’s really not typical while you’re in it, but I did know that we didn’t get away with stuff that my friends did.”
It wasn’t just an unusual environment; it was an unusual environment that also required some very specific behaviors that impacted the worldview of Damaris and her siblings and shaped her into the effortless and exceptionally thoughtful entertaining expert that we see today. “It was different. We couldn’t be loud. We didn’t get to run around a ton. We didn’t listen to loud music. We didn’t even roll our eyes and slam doors,” she remembers. “We were made very aware that it wasn’t appropriate for us to be laughing and running and jumping around or watching television when there are people downstairs who were grieving their loved ones,” she says. “So we would play board games or cards; we found quiet ways to entertain ourselves. I don’t think we did it without being reminded by our parents. It was probably a little like, ‘You all, there are people downstairs mourning. Get your shit together.’ We learned to always be thinking about other people and their needs.”
The funeral business also brought opportunities for developing life skills. “From a very young age, my mom would send us up the street to buy deli meats and my sister and I would arrange trays for the families. Then we’d make a pan of brownies and slice those up and arrange them on a plate. It was my first catering experience,” she laughs. “We worked together as a team. We cleaned up after funerals … It wasn’t like it was my dad’s job, it was the livelihood of the whole family.”
In addition to fostering an incredible work ethic and a close family bond, life above a funeral home also instilled a deep appreciation for everyday pleasures. “There was this foundation of realizing that this life is temporary,” says Damaris. “It’s a fact that almost all humans are running away from and we grew up with it staring us in the face. We knew that there was real actual grief and sadness in life, but because it exists, it allows you to have so much joy. There was never a moment that we didn’t realize that even as very little kids.”
Eventually, when Damaris was in high school at Atherton, the family moved to Old Louisville and out of the funeral business– the chemicals involved in that line of work having left her father with some chronic heart and lung issues. Her mom went to work and dad took over the domestic tasks.
Food, family rituals and the birth of fifth baby Dylan kept the seven Phillips close. “We would never wake up to an alarm,” Damaris says. “My dad made us breakfast every single morning. And he would bring us coffee in bed with honey and goat’s milk. That flavor combination is like heaven.”
“A tomato with salt is enough… and cracked black pepper. And there is nothing that I can do in this entire world to make that fresh, ripe tomato more delicious. It was already made perfect.”
Coffee in bed wasn’t the only delicious ritual. “There were five kiddos and our life wasn’t extravagant, but there was a lot of treating with food,” she says. “It felt so big. We would be watching a movie and dad would whip up some fudge and you’d have to wait for it to set up. Or it wouldn’t set and then you’d have spoon fudge, which I love. Or I’d say, ‘Mom I’m craving s’mores and she’d say, well, we don’t have the stuff for s’mores, but we’d have saltines, fluffer nutter and peanut butter and she’d broil them and it would be delicious. They had to budget and be intentional with their money. That’s the reason that substitutions are so easy for me. It’s the way I learned to cook.”
Eating out wasn’t something this future chef got to do often, “But, occasionally, we would go to Spaghetti Factory after church and I just remember being like, ‘This shit is rich. Genuinely.’” And then there was the weekly extravagance of Sunday brunch. “Every Sunday of my childhood, my parents would get up and make scrambled eggs, bacon, home fries, biscuits and gravy and orange juice. That’s just what we ate on Sunday. And we would all sit down together. So when we wanted to impress people, we would say, ‘You can come to brunch!’”
As much as food and comfort loomed large in her family history, it wasn’t her first thought for a line of work. “I was always a good but lazy student. I got A’s without working at it, so I didn’t. I worked in restaurants all through high school and afterwards. At one point, I was working at Lynn’s Paradise Cafe which I absolutely loved and going to JCTC and I decided I was going to be an elementary school teacher and wear really cute outfits. Then I was going to be a set designer and I thought, ‘I’m going to have this super-cool, funky look.’ Then, I was going to wear wide-legged power suits and be a communications major. It was always more about the outfits I was going to wear than the career.”
Damaris also worked a long stint at Highland Coffee House which was a seminal experience for her. “I love the culture of coffee,” she says. “I loved helping people start their day — this gorgeous ritual around getting to know the customer. Knowing their drinks so they felt seen. Having just a little bit of a conversation. Making matches and watching people get married and their kiddos grow up. It was a beautiful and magical place.”
Eventually, she moved to Seattle in her twenties with a boyfriend who was a surgical resident and she spent her days working at a cupcake bakery and reading recipes in the library, then going to farmers markets and cooking incredible dinners and desserts. “I had all these hours to myself and realized that this is what I want to do when I’m alone,” she says. “And one day I was watching Food Network Star and I said, ‘I can do that.’ Damaris then sat down and made a list of what she had to do to become a Food Network Star. Seriously.
The list included everything from the obvious to the minute: getting a culinary degree at JCTC for starters, but also working in restaurants all over the country to gain her culinary chops and respect in what she recognized as a male-dominated industry. She arranged mentorships at restaurants in six major cities including the vaunted Le Bernardin in New York and 610 Magnolia here — working with Edward Lee. She got adult braces because … television. She did a few open casting calls for Food Network and then settled into a job at JCTC as a culinary instructor. “I worked with Coby Ming at Harvest (whom she had met years ago at Lynn’s) in the prep kitchen with this gorgeous local produce and I would get to hang out and prep and go to school and teach. My schedule was wonderful. I had the weekends off. I had a 401K and job stability. I was living the dream and I felt like I had made it.”
Then, weirdly, Food Network called her. “I was about to turn 31. I still had my adult braces on and the casting agent called and said, ‘We have an audition tape from a few years ago. We would like to know if you’d like to come in for an audition,’ ” she says. This audition happened to be the very week Damaris was planning to be in New York for her birthday. She landed the gig on the competitive reality cooking show and she won Food Network Star of 2013.
The win catapulted her to media darling as the star of her own Food Network show, Southern at Heart, co-star of Bobby and Damaris, and frequent guest on Beat Bobby Flay, and Guy’s Grocery Games, in addition to a show on Cooking Channel, Southern & Hungry. She has also published a cookbook, Southern Girl Meets Vegetarian Boy.
Through this rise and the traveling that came with it, home was always Louisville. “I’m a relatively grounded person, but that root and center comes from my family and my home and that’s why I choose to stay here,” she says. “It would have been better to move to a city that was more entertainment focused but my mom’s not there (her father passed away) and my sister’s not there and my niece’s dance recital isn’t there. Sometimes, when I’d be gone for so long, when the plane touched down, I’d almost start to cry.”
Today, she and her husband of seven years, Darrick (yes, he is the vegetarian boy), and their seven rescue cats have settled into a beautiful, but not flashy Highlands home with a guest house turned studio in the backyard where she now shoots her own show Southern at Heart for YouTube. It’s a comfortable, carefully-curated environment filled with vintage furniture and brimming with meaning. “I love items with a history,” she says talking about some linen monogrammed napkins she acquired on one of her hunts. “Somebody loved these napkins and painstakingly stitched and ironed them — and that’s not me, but I am going to honor them and put them out at a party and, no, they’re not my initials but I love that these napkins that were so important to someone continue to be treasured.”
Making Louisville her home base has also allowed her to team up with longtime friend Coby Ming on Bluegrass Supper Club — where the pair “curate food centric experiences that delight, unite, and celebrate their community.” Those experiences include weekly picnic baskets complete with quirky activities that you can order and pick up on Fridays, Sunday suppers for two and ticketed monthly Supper Clubs that center around a surprise theme and location, highly-engaged servers and guests and fresh food. Every project Damaris touches resonates with that lesson learned in her unusual childhood that each moment is to be savored. Her ability to make the mundane magical and to find bliss in the simplest experiences is humbling.
It explains her deep — almost spiritual — belief in, of all things, picnics. “If you have a picnic once a week you will be happier,” she says. “If you slow down enough to sit in nature and eat by yourself or with someone that you care about, you will have a strengthened relationship, you will be more connected with nature and you will leave that experience more alive. Doing something natural in nature is a recalibration of our humanness.”
And it’s the reason she has chosen to make Louisville her forever home and take on the unofficial role of our ambassador. “Nothing makes me prouder than helping people understand this city and this state,” she says. “It is very complex and we do have a dark history and a lot of growth and healing that need to take place. There are a bunch of stereotypes of Kentucky that I’m proud NOT to represent. But there are also some that I am proud of. We are welcoming people and the salt of the earth and we’re a little bit of southern and a little bit of midwestern and the living is easy enough here that you can still pursue your dreams. I like introducing people to all of that.”
Bourbon Ranch Dressing or Dip
1/2 cup sour cream
1/4 cup buttermilk (Omit if you are making ranch dip.)
1/2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1/3 cup picked parsley leaves, finely chopped
1/3 cup picked cilantro or dill leaves, finely chopped
6 chives, chopped
1/4 Teaspoons garlic powder
1/4 Teaspoons onion powder
1 1/2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice, to taste
1/2 teaspoon fine salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1-2 tablespoon bourbon
In a large bowl, whisk together the sour cream, buttermilk and mayonnaise until smooth. Add the chopped herbs, garlic powder, onion powder and stir to combine. Add the lemon juice, salt and bourbon. Stir to combine and season with pepper and more salt if needed.
Bourbon Blackberry Lemonade
2 oz bourbon
1 1/2 tablespoons seedless blackberry jam
2 oz lemon juice
4-6 ounces sparkling water
Lemon wedges for garnish
2 fresh blackberries for garnish
1 cup ice
Add the bourbon and jam to the bottom of a 16 ounce glass. Stir to combine.
Add the lemon juice and sparkling water. Stir gently.
Fill to the top with ice and garnish with a lemon wedge and two blackberries.