Julia Sherman’s job is salad. If you think that’s weird, consider this: She turned her love of gardening and cooking into Salad for President, an art project/blog, that allows her to write, photograph, cook, develop recipes, and hang out with artists and other creatives all day long. And oh yeah, travel. When she’s not inviting herself into people’s homes around the world for Salad for President – which culminated in a cookbook, released earlier this year – she’s scouting ingredients to bring back to the salad chain CHOP’T, where she works as creative director. Here, she talks about the craziest thing she’s ever smuggled back in her carry on, her travel photography tips, and how she turned her many interests into a full-fledged career.
Psst! You can hear more from Julia on the “You Are Here” episode of our podcast, Airplane Mode.
Tell me about your background, because you didn’t always work with food.
My background was a visual artist and a photographer. I always cooked and I always gardened and grew vegetables in my free time, and it became a growing preoccupation, but for all intents and purposes I was singularly focused on the art world. I never really thought I would work in food. But in my art world I was the person who was the best cook, and I was the one who was always hosting. My husband and I had an artist-run gallery in L.A. for a few years, so we would do a lot of shows there and then everyone would come back to my house and I would go in the garden and make a big salad. I’ve always loved salad. I love the process of putting the ingredients together but not transforming them necessarily. I love the visual element of it. I love that I can scale it up and scale it down and I love growing vegetables. When I started growing vegetables, the salad thing became even more distilled because I didn’t want to alter vegetables too much. I wanted to find ways to combine them and frame them but not cook them down into a sauce because I had just spent three months growing them and I really wanted to show them off.
How did you transition to making food your career?
I was constantly entertaining and using food and cooking and hosting as a distraction from the studio. We had moved back from New York, I got my MFA at Columbia, which is an intense program. After school I felt like the community aspect seeping away as everybody was more and more stressed about how they were going to create a career. It was a lot of competition and anxiety. In a city like New York, conversations amongst artists were less about the content and more about what gallery was showing who and whatever. In response, I just started cooking crazy amounts and finding that when I had my friends over for meals, we were having better conversations.
I started the blog when I admitted to myself that I really wasn’t happy.
How was Salad for President born?
I started the blog when I admitted to myself that I really wasn’t happy, that I didn’t see myself pursuing this track for the rest of my life. But I knew I wanted to make things all the time and I knew that I had to find a way. I do a lot of different disciplines, and I’m not the best at any one of them necessarily, but I love to write and I love to take pictures, and probably my best skill is just communicating with people and connecting with people and bringing them together—kind of playing that role of the host. So I started the blog and I really didn’t know what it was going to be. I was just posting my own recipes, and then my friends started asking if they could contribute. And I thought, “what if I started making this about other people? And I invited myself into their homes and I started taking pictures with them and developed the recipe together?” It really just happened naturally and then once I kind of figured out what the form was, I ran with it.
Making salad is a composition. It’s probably as close to abstract painting as I’ve ever been.
Do you miss the art world?
People ask me a lot if I gave up my studio and if I’m going to go back to making objects and showing my work, exhibiting my work, or making things that exist for exhibition. I never say no because maybe I will, but right now I don’t feel any yearning to. All of the creative energy that it would take me to do that, I’m able to pour into the design of a book or the concepting of an event. Whatever it is, it really feels like I’m using all the same skills. I am taking pictures every day and I am writing every day and thinking about aesthetics and putting things together. Cooking is very much a composition and making salad is a composition. It’s probably as close to abstract painting as I’ve ever been. It’s all very aesthetically driven. I definitely felt nervous—like, am I a food person now? I definitely felt really nervous to say the words “food blog.” I still don’t really think Salad for President is a food blog, and over time I’ve also realized that I just don’t care for these designations or genres. Everybody needs to do what makes them happy.
It’s very impressive and envy-inducing that you’ve turned your various interests into a career. I think a lot of people can relate to being pretty good – but not an expert – at many things, which can be pretty frightening.
I was definitely freaking out. It was a really crazy year of my life. I had just moved across the country to go to this really fancy, prestigious masters program. I was like, well, maybe I don’t want to do it. I also had to admit that I had been plodding along and doing everything I was supposed to be doing, and I was having shows, and everything was going really well in terms of my art career and I wasn’t happy. I think now, being a little bit older, I can say that I won’t be shocked in the next couple of years when I have the moment where I’m like, “alright, what am I doing with my life? I need to switch gears.” I’m very open and I don’t expect things to go according to plan anymore whereas when I was younger, I was really thrown by that. That felt like a failure; like things were going wrong because they weren’t going the way you thought they should. I don’t feel that way anymore. I think you take the pressure off yourself, and stop thinking that you have to know exactly what you’re doing all the time. Start to pay attention to the things that make you happy. When I was in the art world, I would cook as my way of relaxing, and that’s why I thought it could never be my work. That’s kind of backwards.
What is your day to day like?
I wish it was a little bit more predictable, but it’s not. I try to write. I shouldn’t say I write every day because right now I have like three deadlines that I have not had a moment to sit down and address. The funny part is that maintaining the blog has become the hardest thing because it takes so much time—setting up the appointments, shooting, developing the recipe, transcribing the interview, editing. It’s like a big project each time.
When I’m traveling I’m just trying to be present, but then I have to deal with my email.
And you also work on other projects outside of Salad for President as well.
Right now I’m a creative director at CHOP’T and that’s a big part of my life. I always have multiple windows open and I’m toggling between different projects. For CHOP’T, I do a lot of traveling to research local food, the way people eat, the different ingredients, and also shooting and creating content for their blog. When I’m traveling I’m just trying to be present, but then I have to deal with my email. And then when I’m home I’m either catching up on work for Salad for President or for CHOP’T, planning events, trying to write as much as I can for the blog, writing for other publications, and right now it’s a lot of event planning for my book tour.
How do you prepare for a trip when you’re trying to do more than just see a new place, but understand the culture?
My whole life at this point runs on my friends and friend network. Before a trip, I start thinking through the friends I know who are either from that place or have a friend in that place or have been there recently? I just start emailing people and trying to compile suggestions and asking for introductions. I really try to get as many personal introductions as I can in each place. Generally, people are so amused by the strange idea that I would travel around making salads with people that they give me the time of day. Art and food people are always excited to share the things that they’ve found when they’re traveling. It’s such a source of inspiration for so many of us.
It’s great to travel through the lens of a discipline.
And what do you do when you get to a new place?
When I go to a new place, I’m tireless. I start at 7 a.m. and I’m not back until one in the morning. I feel like I have to get content and I have to do so much. Something really useful that maybe people don’t think of, is to create a small project for yourself, whether that’s related to your profession or not, and pursue it on a trip. It’s great to travel through the lens of a discipline. I love textiles and so would travel the world going to weaving villages, to dye factories, places where textiles were the thing. For a while my husband and I were just really into that, and we would get on any bus to go to any place that was however many hours out of the city because we wanted to see how the textiles are made. Now, that’s vegetables for me. It’s kind of like creating your own brand of tourism because it never works out well if you just Google and go with the top five things on TripAdvisor. I think when you have a purpose – and it doesn’t have to be a job, but a purpose of personal interest – and you can follow your nose there, you’re going to get to that village and find the weird, small, tiny, hole-in-the-wall restaurant.
When I went to Spain I brought back an entire jamon in my suitcase.
What type of things do you bring back?
I’ll often bring back a lot of ingredients as inspiration. I brought back mole from Oaxaca, and I just came back from Vietnam and I brought these crispy rice crackers that have dried shrimp and chilies in them. It’s inspiration for myself and also ingredients for CHOP’T’s special destination salads. When I was in Baja I brought back this seaweed chip that everybody went crazy for, they’re made from seaweed and heirloom corn and they’re like tortilla chips but they’re healthier and they were crazy delicious. My suitcase is full of food when I come back. I just cannot believe I haven’t been caught. When I went to Spain I brought back an entire jamon in my suitcase. I carried it on and put a hat over the hoof.
What are some things that you always travel with?
I have a lot of camera gear, and a travel tripod. I always travel with comfortable shoes. I’m terrified that I’ll be traveling and my shoes will not be comfortable, so this is a huge preoccupation for me. I always travel with melatonin and with vitamins. I have anxiety about not having a sweater, sunglasses or the proper footwear, so I always have those, even though I’m trying to travel really light.
Do you have travel photography tips for people who aren’t doing it as their career?
Everybody should get the new iPhone because the camera’s amazing and you don’t need to lug around a huge camera and lens. If you’re a photo nerd and you do really want to take the big camera, be real with yourself about where you’re going and what lens is the most multipurpose. I never shoot with a flash when I’m traveling because I find it really rude and disturbing to people wherever you are. So it’s really important to me that I have lenses that can open up as wide as possible and let as much light in. My approach to photography is I need to be present in the moment—I’m not a fly on the wall, I’m a part of the scene. A lot of times I know I’m missing the good shot because I’m having a conversation with someone. I don’t want to look like we’re having a photoshoot. I want to have one lens and a camera and let it be as modest as possible. You want to enjoy yourself where you are and not be thinking about it.
Did you learn it the hard way?
In India, for the first month I was gripping my camera, being so careful about it whenever we were in cities—really, really nervous and paranoid. Then we got to this small, sleepy little Portuguese colonial town that seemed so quiet and safe and beautiful. We had taken an overnight train to get there. We went to the beach, then I fell asleep. I had my camera, I had my hands on it, but when I woke up it was gone. I had to go to the police station and it took like two hours for them to wrap their heads around what the cost of the camera was. I have to say after that I bought a bunch of disposable cameras and it was like I had been released from my duties. It was so awesome.