On a recent Saturday afternoon, Benny Blanco’s kitchen was a whirl of activity: Pink-orange fillets of salmon were being doused with salt, verdant green snap peas were being cut gently on their bias, a humming food processor was being fed handfuls of safety-cone-orange carrots to shred.
And there he was, in the middle it all, with his fingers in the tonnato.
Mr. Blanco walked the blender full of the creamy, pungent Italian dip — a mixture of tuna, mayonnaise, lemon juice and spices — over to Jess Damuck, for her to taste.
“More lemon,” she said after a moment of consideration.
“More?” he asked.
She nodded and he grabbed two lemons from the kitchen island, strewn with a Tetris-like maze of plates and platters.
This is a version of the dance that Mr. Blanco and Ms. Damuck, both 34, have executed with regularity for the better part of a year as they’ve prepared dozens of dinner parties for a small, rotating group of friends. Ms. Damuck is a recipe developer and food stylist, and Mr. Blanco is a Grammy-nominated songwriter and music producer; their shared love of epicurean pleasures yielded intimate backyard gatherings that filled a social void for a certain creative class during the days when Covid restrictions meant restaurants were shuttered and large indoor congregations were frowned upon. In a town that runs on velvet ropes and V.I.P. rooms, these low-key dinner parties have become a highly coveted invite.
Mr. Blanco and Ms. Damuck met through her boyfriend, the actor and director Ben Sinclair, of the HBO series “High Maintenance.” Knowing Mr. Blanco was a gourmand — in addition to his music career, he and the food personality Matty Matheson host a cheekily titled YouTube series — the couple invited him over the night she was testing out a challah recipe for her newsletter.
“When I came downstairs,” Ms. Damuck recalled, “they were standing there with all 10 fingers in the challah, and Benny turned to me and said, ‘I haven’t even tasted this, and I know it’s the best challah I’ve ever had.’”
“It was orgasmic,” Mr. Blanco chimed in. “I was looking at her boyfriend in the eyes, and you could have done anything to me at that moment.”
While these soirees are normally thrown for their own sake, this night was to fête the release of Ms. Damuck’s first cookbook, “Salad Freak.” As such, Mr. Blanco was acting more as sous-chef than mischievous co-chef.
“Normally I’d make it a little more heavy handed,” he said of the tonnato. “I’d add some spice, or something vinegary. Maybe I’d throw a whole chicken in there. But tonight we’re not going to do that.”
Ms. Damuck cut her teeth in the test kitchen at Martha Stewart Living magazine where, for many years, she was tasked with making the domestic goddess’s daily lunchtime salad. The endeavor often took many hours, and included trips to the farmers market and working within Ms. Stewart’s dietary preferences. “I remember one day she came in and said, ‘This lettuce is too tender. From now on I only want crisp lettuce,’” Ms. Damuck recalled. “It sent me into a total panic. No more arugula or baby greens. And butter lettuce you can’t wash like normal lettuce in a salad spinner. You have to take each leaf and let it rest on a sheet pan with paper towels.” She must have done something right; Ms. Stewart wrote the foreword to her book.
After the challah experience, Ms. Damuck brought over a watermelon and shiso salad to a barbecue at Mr. Blanco’s home in Malibu. From there these dinner parties blossomed.
“Meeting Benny and starting to throw parties with him was great because I was pretty new to L.A., and I got an instant friend group,” Ms. Damuck said. These gatherings range from a handful of people in Mr. Blanco’s backyard to high-concept dinners for around 30 guests, such as the steakhouse-themed party they threw in Montecito for New Year’s.
“Cooking with him is amazing, because he’s so enthusiastic,” she said. “He’s a really great cook, but it’s not what he does as a job, so he’s trying to soak everything up as you’re doing it. He’s never highly critical. You know, it’s not always easy to cook with other people.”
Together, they make for an amusing odd couple: She’s poised and deliberate; he’s frenetic verging on feral. He likes to plan the menu days in advance and obsess over everything during FaceTime sessions, while she likes to be more spontaneous yet thorough in her execution.
“She’ll be, like, washing pea tendrils,” Mr. Blanco said, “and I’m like, ‘This isn’t Martha Stewart, it’s my stoned friends.’” He recalled a time she sifted through a mountain of potato chips, hand picking the best looking ones for a picture perfect plate. “And then these people just shove them in their mouths after smoking a fat blunt.”
As the afternoon faded to twilight, friends began to trickle in from the entertainment, music and food worlds. The mix of unexpected faces is part of what makes these nights successful. On this particular evening, guests included the actor Dan Stevens in a matching pajama set; the musician Jessie Ware in from London; Molly Baz, a food personality; Karley Sciortino, a writer on sex and relationships; and Dave Burd, a comedian and rapper known to fans as Lil Dicky. Taken together in their tie-dyed Online Ceramics T-shirts, drooping sweatpants and Birkenstock clogs, the small assembly could easily be mistaken for a hippie-chic cult.
While the book party may have been a tad more formal than their usual gatherings (a recent high school-themed shindig featured Juicy Couture velour track suits), it still felt like a family affair. Mr. Blanco reclined on the floor, talking with Mr. Burd as everyone shuffled to the pillows on the lawn and ate.
“A lot of the people that come to these are used to really fancy, stuffy events,” Ms. Damuck said (Mr. Blanco himself had been to the Grammys earlier that week). “So we keep these casual.”
It wasn’t uncommon for guests to congregate around the table where dinner — salmon, lamb meatballs with labne, carrot salad with pickled raisins, braised leeks — was artfully arranged. During dessert of fresh strawberries and tangy strips of rhubarb atop a dense shortbread the singer Sia arrived in a patchwork dress and danced around the yard.
Toward the end of the night, Ms. Damuck was at the kitchen door, surveying all the bodies splayed out on pillows in their post-dinner satiety.
“I saw Dave Burd try his first vegetable,” she said. “He doesn’t like fruits or vegetables, but he tried endive and I think he really liked it.”
Earlier in the night, Mr. Blanco had proudly admitted that he loved to clean up after an evening like this — “I like to do all the things no one else wants to do,” he said — but he felt differently on this occasion. Instead, he made an early exit. Before sneaking upstairs as the last guests called cars, he turned and said in a stage whisper: “Shh. Don’t tell anyone.”