Why Jessica Knoll Strives to Eat Intuitively

"It's okay to have a relationship with cooking that changes and evolves over the years."

Great Ones is a celebration of humans we admire — and an exploration of why they cook, not just how. Jessica Knoll is the author of the best-selling books Luckiest Girl Alive and The Favorite Sister, as well as a screenwriter, producer, and occasional op-ed columnist for the New York Times. For the latter, she wrote a viral story titled “Smash the Wellness Industry,” critiquing it as a “dangerous con” and detailing her journey to relearn how to eat freely and intuitively. At home in Los Angeles, she showed us how to make her favorite breaded chicken cutlets while explaining her perspective here.

My family has always really loved food; my mom is a great cook. I took an interest in cooking pretty young — around 11 or 12 — and I really just cooked things that sounded delicious to me. I was very intuitive about it. I lost touch with that intuitive sense for a while in my 20s because I was worrying and watching what I ate. I've been working hard over the last couple of years to kind of get back to that childhood sense of appreciation and pleasure around food.

I started out working in magazines, but I always thought that I would write my own screenplay and my own book someday. One day, after many aborted attempts to write a book, something just clicked, and I was off. That turned out to be Luckiest Girl Alive, my first novel, which was very successful and allowed me to quit my job at magazines and focus on writing novels full time. It was optioned for film by Lionsgate, and I right away knew I wanted to be the one to adapt it myself. I wrote my second book, and now I'm adapting that for TV. 

Cooking plays a role in my writing.

Cooking plays a role in my writing; in Luckiest Girl Alive, there's a lot of food talk because that book was written at a time when I was struggling with food and my body image, and I was restricting a lot. When you deny yourself food, you become obsessed with food, so it was constantly on my mind. It's probably one of the reasons that women connected so strongly to that character, who was very preoccupied with food.

And in The Favorite Sister, my second novel, I have a character who is kind of the opposite — someone who has decided she's not going to deny herself the pleasure of food, and so she eats with abandon whatever she wants. I went from opposite ends of the spectrum, which I did in my real life as well, so it's reflected in the stories that I told at both of those times in my life.I thought, on some level, writing about the wellness industry might strike a chord, but I didn't think that maybe it would resonate as broadly as it did. The response was a little overwhelming, to be honest. I felt this was such a personal piece, and I was so proud of it, and I'm so proud of the progress that I've made over the last couple of years.

I tried to respond to people within the first couple of hours, and then I just let it be its own thing out there in the world. I heard that it was the most read article on the New York Times for a day, and that absolutely blew me away. 

I’m now understanding that it's okay to have a relationship with cooking that changes and evolves over the years.

I’m now understanding that it's okay to have a relationship with cooking that changes and evolves over the years. When I was younger and living on my own, I would cook for very special occasions. I didn't really know how to cook just a Tuesday night dinner. I started cooking more after beginning on this intuitive-eating journey. 

I felt very overwhelmed by the prospect of cooking because I had it in my head that any meal I made had to be this really special meal, and I found it exhausting and overwhelming. So I'm pleased that over the last year, I would say, I've really relaxed in the kitchen. I’m not as bound to recipes, and that’s also made cooking so much more enjoyable for me.

I’m not as bound to recipes, and that’s also made cooking so much more enjoyable for me.

Here, I made chicken cutlets, breaded and pan-fried. I also made an arugula salad with shaved Parmesan cheese and a shallot-honey vinaigrette. Normally, I just dump the salad all over the cutlet.
My husband is Italian, and I didn't even know what a chicken cutlet was before I met him. I'd never had that before. When we first started dating, we used to go to his grandparents' house — old-school, New Jersey Italian — and his granddad would always cook chicken cutlets. He got them so thin, and the breading was so perfect and so even.

His granddad is no longer with us, and knowing how much my husband loved chicken cutlets, and loved this memory, set me on this course of making the perfect chicken cutlet.

Even if you buy chicken cutlets already butterflied, they’re still not thin enough, so you have to pound them even thinner. This step I find makes such a big difference: Salt and pepper both sides of the raw chicken, and put it in the fridge, just on a cutting board, for 10 or 15 minutes while you get the stations set up — the eggs, the flour, the bread crumbs. If I don't take the time to salt and pepper the raw chicken before I dredge it, the flavor changes.

It also blew my mind to order the stations as flour, then egg, then bread crumbs. It’s made a big difference in how the breading sticks. 
I used to be like, "Oh, I'm going to try and make it healthy," and I would only put a tablespoon of olive oil in the pan. No, no, no. You need an inch of oil in the pan or don't bother doing it. So intuitive eating has also helped me improve my chicken cutlet recipe because I now use the appropriate amount of oil to get it that gorgeous golden-brown color.

Otherwise, I love making a big lasagna on a Sunday night and I know I have it until Wednesday, and all I have to do is toss a green salad and heat up the lasagna and dinner is done. I've just about perfected my searing fish. I would really love to get into baking.Photos by Aliza Sokolow