About Cook Smarts

Jess Dang, Cook Smarts Founder

Hi there!

Welcome to Cook Smarts. I’m Jess Dang, also known as the Chief Kitchen Cheerleader around here.

I started Cook Smarts in late 2011, but its history goes back to 1998; I was 17 and was just diagnosed with Hepatitis C.

For those of you who don’t know what Hep-C is, it’s a virus that attacks the liver and in some cases can be life threatening. I got it through a blood transfusion I received when I was born, and back in 1981, donated blood wasn’t yet tested for the virus. By 1998 when I was giving blood at my high school’s blood drive, donations were testing for the virus. As a result, I found out that I could have a life-threatening virus in a generic form letter from the organization that ran the blood drive.

Up until that point, I was just like any other teenager. I was in the middle of applying for college and determined to go places, but that letter made my future incredibly uncertain. Instead of finishing up high school like a normal senior, I began a series of unending doctor’s visits and tests. Till this day, I resent missing a Tom Petty concert because I was recovering from a liver biopsy. It’s not exactly how I thought Friday nights were going to go at 17.

Each test result came back with not-so-good news. The virus had progressed. I was at high risk for cirrhosis or cancer, and my doctors determined that I should start a year long course of medical treatment that some liken to chemotherapy. I made the decision to start treatment the summer after my freshmen year. I thought, “Hey, if life was going to get cut short, I deserved to have at least 1 year of college fun.”

Fortunately treatment went well for me. While the side effects were pretty standard and terrible – hair loss, fatigue, loss of appetite, depression, anxiety, cognition loss – my test results were good. If they continued to be good, my doctors said I had a good chance of leading a normal and healthy life.

Even with the good news, I wasn’t quite ready to believe that everything was going to be okay. Not surprisingly, my faith in life had been shaken up. Instead, I promised myself that if I lived to see 30, I would do something to help others lead a healthier life because I knew how much it sucked to feel unhealthy and helpless.

Until 30, I would try to live life as normally as I could. Every year, I anxiously went to my medical check-ups, but luckily my results remained positive. Birthdays were celebrated, and then I turned 30 in 2011. I had made it. To keep my promise, I resigned from my job at Visa one month later to start Cook Smarts.

Today, I’m healthier and happier than I could ever imagine. I’m now 2+ years past 30 and Cook Smarts has turned 2. I never imagined that it would become such an amazing community of home cooks like you, all hoping to achieve a healthier life.

For me, Cook Smarts is more than just a project or a company. It’s a testament that great things can grow out of difficult experiences. It’s a daily reminder of what health means and the joy that health can create.

I am truly grateful for this opportunity and the privilege to play a part in the health and home-cooked meals of tens of thousands kitchen heroes all around the world. I promise to always remember and honor the real reason why I started this community. I hope you’ll become a part of it, because I look forward to creating a future of continuing health and delicious meals together!

Always your kitchen cheerleader,

PS – I get lots of questions about:

I’ve tried to answer some of the most common questions I receive below. If you don’t find an answer to your question, I’d love to hear from you. I or one of our other kitchen cheerleaders will get back to you as soon as possible.

Common Cook Smarts Questions

What exactly is Cook Smarts?

Cook Smarts’ mission is to empower home cooks with the inspiration and education needed to live their healthiest and happiest life in the kitchen. We do this by creating lots of practical cooking resources (think the Home Ec class you never got to take), free recipes that work for your busy life, and weekly meal plans that also teach you how to cook. I’ve been lucky to find a great team of kitchen cheerleaders to help me slowly expand the content, products, and services we offer.

Why did you start Cook Smarts?

As I mentioned above, the need to start Cook Smarts was motivated by a personal promise. However, when I quit my job in October of 2011, I honestly had no clue what Cook Smarts was going to be when it grew up. All I had was a strong belief that the ability to cook simple and real food could contribute to a healthier and happier world. As someone who has always valued the power of education, I wanted to create a company that focused on giving people the smarts and tools they needed to succeed in the kitchen and take control of their health.

You can learn even more in the video below:

How did Cook Smarts start out?

As an ex-management consultant, I love helping others solve problems, but the first step to solving any problem is to really dig into what’s causing it in the first place. Lots of people feel that cooking is difficult, but why? I was lucky enough to spend Cook Smarts’ first year exploring this question. I provided in-home cooking lessons to moms, newlyweds, bachelors, widows, folks experiencing new illnesses, divorcees and also taught a regular cooking class to teenage moms at a local low-income high school.

Jess Dang teaching cooking 3

I loved teaching and learned so much from my students. Every single one wanted to do better in the kitchen but felt like they lacked the knowledge, time, and confidence to make it happen. From my teaching experience, I knew I had to build a product that addressed all three of those challenges.

Is that how the idea for your meal plan service started?

Yes! Our meal plans help every home cook build their knowledge with short and fun videos that teach you how to efficiently chop and prep everything for each meal. This saves you time and gets you feeling a lot more confident in your cooking ability! Plus, by giving you a plan every week, you don’t have to spend time searching for new recipes and you get to learn a lot of new dishes and cooking techniques that you may not have on your own.

How do you come up with the meal plan ideas?

I’m not going to lie – coming up with new meal ideas that fit a lot of eating needs and forming them into a cohesive meal plan where ingredients get used up efficiently is not easy. I go through a lot of meal plan creating block, but my inspiration comes from so many places: menus of restaurants I frequent, scrolling through Pinterest, browsing through magazines and cookbooks at the library. These all provide great starting points to get my creative juices going. I also take time every week to just scribble in my notebook, thinking about seasonal ingredients and how best to pair them. Sometimes I can literally taste the meal before I even create it – it’s definitely hard but fun!

Is Cook Smarts just you?

Thankfully not anymore! So many people have been part of Cook Smarts growth. You can meet the entire team here.

Where are you located?

Cook Smarts outgrew my Mountain View, California garage in the fall of 2013. I have been lucky enough to benefit from free office spaces in Palo Alto including the Samsung Accelerator and AOL’s First Floor Labs. Starting in June of 2014, you can find a part of our team at Enerspace, a co-working space in Palo Alto, California.

Are you a start-up?

I don’t consider Cook Smarts a start-up. I want Cook Smarts to do big things for the world as we grow up, but I do not plan on raising any money to make this happen. I’m having a fun time ‘bootstrapping’ and chugging along.

Are you hiring?

You can always find the latest about our team needs here. Even if there’s nothing right for you, feel free to contact us here. I do keep resumes on file.

On ‘Learning to Cook’

How did you learn to cook?

I am a completely self-taught home cook. I officially started learning to cook between my junior and senior years of college while doing a summer abroad in Florence, Italy. If I can do it, you can too! Believe me, I have no special talents in the kitchen and have had plenty of kitchen and dinner disasters, but I just kept on trying. My approach to learning to cook can be summed up by a quote from the great (and my idol) Julia Child: “No one is born a great cook. One learns by doing.” Since my time in Florence in 2002, I’ve just tried to do as much as I can in the kitchen.

I want to learn to cook. What steps should I take?

  1. Build up your knife skills: Try to find a basic knife skills class around you. If you can’t find one, check out our Knife Basics 101 video. Practice your knife skills as often as you can and learn to prep ingredients the correct way. No one is a master on day one, but you’ll start to feel more comfortable over time.
  2. Don’t just follow recipes: Recipes clearly are a great way to start but don’t just go on auto pilot. Take time to understand the underlying cooking formula or method behind the recipe. Are you sauteing? Are you roasting? That way you’re not just learning 1 recipe but a set of underlying skills that you can carry forward. Also if a recipe doesn’t turn out right, don’t fret or give up. Try to troubleshoot and learn from your mistakes, and get right back into the kitchen.
  3. Cook for friends: When you cook for friends, you take cooking a lot more seriously. You might easily skip out on making yourself dinner, but if you’ve invited friends over for dinner, the pressure to make something is there. Keep it simple though and make something you’ve already cooked before. People are just so happy to be invited over! Here are some more tips on throwing a dinner party.
  4. Get going before you buy “stuff”: You don’t need a lot to get started – a sharp knife, a skillet, a sheet pan, a cutting board, and some prep bowls will get you through a lot of meals. Don’t use, “Well I don’t own this yet as the excuse to not start cooking.” The stuff will always be there for you but time isn’t going to wait. You can also set milestones to reward yourself too. When you’ve made this many meals, you get to buy yourself “x” for the kitchen.
  5. Get the right mindset: Think about your current job or a hobby you really enjoy, like skiing. You were once a beginner – your first day on the job or your first day on the slopes was probably not an easy one but you got better and eventually you even got good at it! Cooking like anything in life is just another skill that you’ll improve upon over time if you practice. Some people will pick it up faster than others, but don’t compare yourself to them. This is your personal journey, and I promise it’ll be one that leads to healthy and happy times for you and your family. Go forth!

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What cookware do you recommend?

I have a mix of kitchen equipment ranging from all price points. The most expensive items I own are a few All Clad pans (I purchase irregulars from this website when they have sales twice a year) and my Global knives. However, I have lots of incredibly inexpensive items like my beloved cast iron skillet and $15 wok from an Asian grocery store, which are also great workhorses. My advice is to stock your kitchen with the right things that fit your budget and then take care of them. Here’s a list to the cookware items I recommend you build up to over your cooking journey.

My two equipment no-no’s are:

  1. Do not buy pots and pans in sets! You rarely need everything in the set and then you just end up with clutter. Buy stuff a la carte based on the serving amounts you typically cook for. If you’re not patient enough to wait for a sale, that’s what those 20% off Bed, Bath, and Beyond coupons are for!
  2. Do not buy 1-use items! Cherry pitter? Avocado scooper? Apple corer / slicer? Unless you make cherry pies, guacamole, or apple tarts professionally, just walk away.

‘Get to Know Jess’ Questions

Did you do anything else food-related before Cook Smarts?

Food has always been a consistent theme in my life. I grew up in the chaos of the restaurant industry because of my family but never really cooked growing up. However, after my summer in Florence, cooking became a growing passion for me. I lived in a co-op my senior year just so I could cook for 50 people on a regular basis. I planned entire vacations around dining destinations and try to throw dinner parties as often as possible.

Jess Dang cooking with Rachel Ray on Next Food Network Star

In 2004, I was chosen as one of the 8 finalists on Season 2 of ‘The Next Food Network Star’. As the 24 year old guinea pig, I was – not surprisingly – the first one kicked off the show, but that experience pushed me to learn more in the kitchen. After the show, I started a food blog called ‘the petite pig,’ launched a boutique catering company called ‘Clementine Culinary Productions’, and hosted a supper club at my San Francisco apartment twice a week. However, I always kept my day job, and it wasn’t until Cook Smarts that I dove full-time into food and cooking.

What did you do before starting Cook Smarts?

Aside from all the fun food projects I just mentioned, I had three jobs between graduating college in 2003 and starting Cook Smarts in late 2011. I spent my first year out of school teaching English in Suzhou, China to 120 first graders and a group of art and music teachers.

Jess Dang teaching English in Suzhou China

From 2004 to 2007, I made financial models for pharmaceutical, oil and gas, and utility companies to help them make better business decisions (it’s a lot more fun than it sounds!). From 2007 to 2011, I worked at Visa (as in “Life takes Visa”) as a business strategist (eh, no one really knows what that entails including myself), where I had the privilege of working with and learning from the BEST. TEAM. EVER.

Do you do anything else besides cook and work on Cook Smarts?

These days, I do very little aside from Cook Smarts. I spend most of my downtime trying to convince my uber healthy, ex-Ironman, vegetarian husband to have a drink with me. I also love traveling, having friends over for dinners, staying active (I am one of those weird people that loves burpees), and watching anything on TV that will make me laugh or cry (in a happy way).

What’s your favorite thing to cook?

Quick, simple meals that hit the spot. I take huge comfort in making a hearty bowl of noodles filled with fresh veggies (broccoli is my absolute fave) and tofu. During the summer, grilling pizzas is my favorite way to entertain. It doesn’t involve a lot of planning or work, and it’s such a crowd-pleaser. I also love soups. It’s such an easy way to combine a huge batch of healthy ingredients and make a lot of leftovers at the same time.

Who’s your hero?

My grandma. She was the strongest person I’ll ever know. I started Cook Smarts two months after she passed away, and and I know she would be really proud of what it’s become.

Let’s keep in touch!

Starting a Cooking Instruction Business Questions

I want to build a cooking instruction business. How should I get started?

My advice is to get a website up advertising your services. Be sure to let your personality shine through because people are paying to learn from you! Creating a website can seem daunting, but there are so many great companies offering simple solutions like Wix, Squarespace, and Weebly just to name a few.

Next I’d find a few early-bird students in your network who you can offer lessons to either for free or at a huge discount. My first lessons were with my boss’ wife and a coworker of my husband’s. Start with people you know and ask them to leave you a Yelp review so you can start collecting testimonies and building credibility.

Once you’re ready to invest some advertising dollars, you can start using Google Adwords or Facebook Ads. I also recommend partnering with local businesses and groups – grocery stores, fitness studios, cookware stores, moms and weight loss groups are all great options!

How much should I charge?

That’s really up to you but don’t get forget to factor in the time it’ll take you to prepare for the lesson and travel time (if you’re doing in-home lessons). I had each of my students answer an extensive survey, and I personalized each lesson for their needs. Each one of them got a binder with the materials I created just for them. It was definitely time-intensive, so I charged $225 for each 2 hour lesson. This did not include the cost of groceries as my students were responsible for picking those up for the class.

What other resources have helped you start your own business?

Even though I was in business for 7 years before starting Cook Smarts, the challenges of starting and running your own business are nothing like the corporate business world. As a result, I’ve found a lot of great resources to help me get smarter (though I make plenty of mistakes!) about entrepreneurship and building a product. My top 4 are:

  1. Lynda: This service is absolutely amazing. There are amazing video tutorials on just about all creative aspects needed to start an online business.
  2. Marie Forleo: Her videos are incredibly inspirational and unique, and I even enrolled in her B-School this last spring.
  3. Amy Porterfield: If you want to learn how to create effective Facebook ads, she’s a genius!
  4. Pat Flynn: Sound business advice from a proven online-marketer.

Photography and Video Questions

Who takes your food photos and shoots your videos?

I still do the bulk of the photography, video shooting, and editing although I hope to pass the torch to one of our team members soon. In the past, I’ve had help from my friend Colin Campbell, my wedding photographer Noah Hawthorne, and an amazing production intern Stephen Chao.

What equipment do you use for photography?

When I started my food blog in 2005, I bought a Nikon D40. I then graduated to my husband’s Nikon D90 when I started Cook Smarts. When I launched our meal plan service, I wanted to get a lot more serious with our food photos, so I upgraded to a Canon EOS 5D Mark III. The majority of our photos and videos are shot with this 35mm lens. Other photography equipment I’ve invested in are this sturdy tripod, these lights, and a remote. We keep the look and feel of our photos really simple. The background usually is just a white Lack table from Ikea. Our photos are then edited using Adobe Lightroom.

How did you learn to take food photos?

A lot of trial and error. Food photography is incredibly difficult and those that do it well are amazing talents. As for resources to get you started:

What video equipment do you use?

For videos, I use the same camera as I shoot my food photos with, my Canon EOS 5D Mark III. DSLRs these days have great video ability too, so you can use just 1 camera for both photos and videos.

What I do is set up my tripod with my DSLR attached and this teleprompter to keep my filming efficient. I’ve written out my script ahead of time and I just copy and paste it into a free teleprompter app from my Google doc. I then place my iPad (you can use any tablet) on the teleprompter, hit play and you see your lines in this reflective glass. It’s so cool, and you’ll feel just like a newscaster!

I also use this lav mic to keep my audio clear and crisp. It just plugs into my smartphone (I have an Android) and I use an app called Titanium Recorder to make the audio recording. There are lots of options for both Android and iPhone – just do a search for HD audio recording, and it’ll turn up plenty of results.

Once I import my video and audio into my computer, I use either iMovie or Camtasia for Mac to edit the videos.

How did you learn how to film and edit your videos?

Again a lot of trial and error but I highly recommend listening to this podcast of Amy Porterfield interviewing Caleb Wojcik who teaches people how to make videos. You will learn so much!

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