A Family Affair: Jessie and Jaya Nicely, Founders of Compound Butter Magazine

At a time when the giants of the publishing industry have been forced to make cuts to their editorial offering, you would be forgiven for thinking that this might spell the end for the industry. The migration of content online, where video is king and paywalls perpetuate the hierarchical undercurrents of journalism, the future of print looked gloomy to say the least.

However, as is so often the way, many have come to realise that the grass is not always greener. Having experienced the side-effects of clickbait bingeing, which can induce feelings of malaise and indifference towards the myriad of social media platforms available to us, some are starting to toy with the idea of a digital detox, breaking up with their devices and returning, tail between the legs, to the tactile medium of print where notifications, likes and cookies are redundant currency.

Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, a new generation of independent titles, covering all manner of topics, from female football fandom, to alternative stories from the fringes of society and cultural journals dedicated to uncovering the anthropological reasoning behind our love of coffee, travel and cycling, print is back and is empowering a new generation of highly-engaged readers.

The more niche and specialist the subject matter, the better. This is where Compound Butter, a publication about food, art, and all the things in between, comes into the picture. Featuring the work of up and coming creatives from across the world, the magazine, created by cousins Jaya and Jessie Nicely, is a fusion of culinary chatter and mouth-watering imagery, seeking to get to the heart of our innate love and respect for food and the emotions that it evokes.

Our friends from across the pond took some time away from print to tell us about the inspiration for Compound Butter, the art of storytelling through food and art and the audience they want to entice with their flavorsome features and enticing editorial.

Can you tell us the story of how come Compound Butter came to be?

Jaya: We’re cousins, but we didn’t have a close relationship until we were both in our 20’s while I was still in art school in Los Angeles and Jessie had moved back to San Francisco after studying in Vancouver. Jessie has always had a passion for food and also worked in the culinary industry, which was a world I knew nothing about and actually felt intimidated by. She similarly knew little about the art world and we both got introduced to each other’s passions, friends and co-workers. 

Issue 3:  Booze Cruise

Issue 3: Booze Cruise

One of those shared passions was Lucky Peach (RIP) and while we loved it, we couldn’t help but think of what we would do differently. We floated the idea of starting a magazine ourselves, but the excuse to actually start one didn’t come around until I was given an assignment to create a semester long project for one of my classes. It could be literally whatever I wanted. I immediately thought this could be our chance to give this thing a go and Jessie was fully on board. At the end of the semester the first issue of CB was born. 

Jessie: In both of our industries we noticed a lack of female voices and we thought a magazine could be a great way to create that space. Also, a lot of existing food print media wasn’t necessarily that accessible to people outside of the culinary realm. We really wanted to find a way to collaborate together while also creating a platform for folks from a variety of backgrounds to share their work and CB turned out to be a great way to do that.

How does the magazine run day to day, how do your specific roles work together?

Jaya: Since Compound Butter isn’t our full time job we don’t work on it every day of the week, but we do make sure we keep up with our social media, orders and emails consistently. Every week we schedule posts, package and ship orders, and look over submissions or chat with people who would like to connect. When it’s time to put together a new issue we both handle different aspects; I contact and art direct the artists who will work on articles or whose series we’ll be featuring, and Jessie works with writers and edits their work.

Jessie: As Jaya said, we both work full time jobs on top of running the magazine, so setting clear deadlines and expectations is definitely important. Jaya is definitely more organized than I am, so I’m very lucky to have her as a partner and art director. We are pretty hands off when it comes to each other’s duties in terms of creating the magazine, but it’s great to know that we have the same vision and can turn to each other when we’re in a rut or need to make some important decisions about content. 

Navigating the intersection between art, food and pop culture, how do you decide on the themes for each of your issues?

Jaya: We try to pick themes that seem fun to us, but also are vague enough to not limit the submissions or make a really narrow-minded issue. We like there to be a variety in tone to all our pieces so everyone feels like they can identify with something. 

Jessie: When we first decided to start CB we sat down with a notebook and wrote out a few pages of potential themes. It was mostly just spitballing, with topics some inspired specifically by artists or writers we wanted to work with. Still, five years later that list is still proving to be useful as we turn to it pretty much every time we need to start planning for a new issue.

Each cover is so beautifully evocative and visually powerful, how do the two of you come together to create the design for the magazine?

Jaya: Thank you! Jessie pretty much leaves me alone to do my thing while designing the magazine, I think we have this trust in each other that we’ll each create awesome work. But for the cover we actually do go back and forth with ideas of what would be the best option. Just like how we treat the interior, we want the cover to be eye catching and stand out on a newsstand. Not only does it have to encapsulate the theme, it also has to be beautiful enough that someone would proudly want to display it on their coffee table. 

Jessie: Really, Jaya is a wizard when it comes to visual design. She’ll usually send over some mock ups of covers and we’ll talk about options and pieces we’re really digging from the issue. It can be really hard to choose one image to represent a whole issue, especially when the content is as broad as ours usually is. Still, somehow we always eventually land on that perfect cover.

Why did you decide to make this venture a print one?

Jaya: We both prefer physical print media over reading digitally. It’s definitely the pricier option, but there’s just something about holding the product of all your hard work in your hands that makes it so worth it. 

Jessie: My parents’ had subscriptions to a quite a few magazines so I grew up around them. Once I was old enough, I signed up for Spin Magazine and really relished being about to pour over each issue at my own leisure. There was something so exciting about receiving a new issue in the mail every now and then, knowing that each issue would have new stories and images.

After college, we discovered Lucky Peach and it really just blew my mind. It felt so perfect and really changed my idea of what a magazine could be. So when it came time for Jaya and I to collaborate, it seemed obvious that we should create a magazine and that it should be a tangible product. We wanted to be able to connect with our readers and provide a visual experience you couldn’t get online.

Green Acres from the Nature Issue

Green Acres from the Nature Issue

In terms of the print and media industries, where do you think Compound Butter fits, what space do you seek to occupy?

Jaya: I’ve always felt like we’re stuck in between being considered a book or a magazine, and in some ways that’s made it harder to occupy the print market. Because we only have new issues a couple times a year I think it makes us a bit more exclusive and more likely to be kept in a collection. 

Jessie: Print media is difficult. There isn’t a lot of money in it and the product definitions seem to vary depending on who you talk to. We aren’t a big enough publication to work with any major distributors so we’re kind of confined within a pretty niche market. We self-publish but our issues aren’t considered art books or zines, so even within independent print it’s hard to pinpoint where we stand. Our main goal is to produce something beautiful and long lasting, we don’t want readers to toss out their old issues when a new one arrives. It’s meant to be evergreen, a magazine that can hold its own amongst your coffee table books. 

Why do you think the subjects of food and art attracts so many opinions?

Beet dip with labneh from  Tejal Rao  for New York Times.  Photography: Bobby Doherty

Beet dip with labneh from Tejal Rao for New York Times.

Photography: Bobby Doherty

Jaya: Food and art are universal constants and everyone experiences them individually, which causes such strong opinions. We have to eat to survive, and we have art to make life worth living. The preparation and presentation of a meal can also be quite artistic and take a lot of work; just like the amount of effort that can go into making a piece of art. 

Jessie: Eating with or cooking for someone is one of the easiest and fastest ways to build a connection with them. Food is important, not just for survival but because every facet of it holds so much familial and cultural history. Our emotional memories of food can be recalled with as little as the smell of something cooking or a single bite of a familiar dish. So much of our identities is rooted in what and how we eat, it’s hard not to have a strong opinion about it when it plays such an important role in our day to day lives and interactions. 

The inclusion of personal essays, comic strips and bespoke imagery leads me to ask whether you wanted Compound Butter to be a collector's item? If so, for whom?

Image: Patricia Wall - The New York Times

Image: Patricia Wall - The New York Times

Jaya: When we first started the magazine I don’t think we intended for it to be anything more than just that, but with every issue it’s definitely grown into something like a collector’s item. I would like it to be for everyone, but our main audience seems to be more young women working in the art or culinary fields. I think we have a good amount of content that they can identify with, and as women ourselves we’re able to communicate that perspective more. 

Jessie: One of the things I love about Compound Butter is that it directly reflects Jaya and I’s curiosity. We’re always interested in other people’s experiences and opinions and I think that really comes through in each issue. Due to that, I think CB could be collected by other people that share our interest in viewing the world through the perspective of others. 

Storytelling is at the heart of the magazine, what stories do you both find yourselves drawn to?

Jaya: I love non-fiction and extremely personal pieces. I like to feel a bit anchored in reality when I read something. There’s also a side of me that will never turn down a good true crime read, although we’ve haven’t had anything like that in the magazine (yet).

Image by  Oriana Ingber

Image by Oriana Ingber

Jessie: I’m mixed race and find myself constantly struggling with the boundaries and definitions of my cultural and racial identity, so I think I’m naturally drawn to stories about self exploration and discovery via food/art and culture. I also love a silly anecdote, seeing a snapshot of someone’s life through a personal essay is always exciting, especially when it’s relatable.   

What print publications, books, magazines do you go to for inspiration?

Jaya: When I’m not working on CB I design book covers, so I’m always looking at what other publishing houses are doing or checking out the month’s new releases. On an artistic level I consistently love the covers from Farrar, Straus and Giroux and book designers like Alex Wallbaum. I’m inspired by what other independent magazines are doing of course, but honestly I’m kind of really digging GQ, Bon Appetit and Entertainment Weekly’s recent redesigns. For such major magazines I think they’re really pushing it and having fun with their design. 

Jessie: I also love Bon Appetit, their online verticals cover a ton of interesting content and their design is really on point. I am constantly reading Soleil Ho’s columns and reviews in the SF Chronicle and Tejal Rao’s pieces for The New York Times. There is so much food media being created on a daily basis that it can be overwhelming when looking for a place to start. Luckily here in LA we have Now Serving, a cookbook and culinary shop, which is constantly hosting events and talks with various chefs and cookbook authors. I go pretty often to see what other chefs and food writers are talking about, it’s a great way to stay current.

How do you stay creative?

Jaya: By not waiting for sudden bouts of inspiration. I think the best way to stay creative is to be consistently creating; to not expect to make something amazing every time, but not letting that stop you from trying to every day. 

Jessie: This is something I struggle with sometimes, I definitely hit blocks when it comes to writing. Often, if I’m really in a jam I’ll go into the kitchen and open up the fridge. Creating something out of the jumble of ingredients we have on hand can be really freeing and help me take a step back from whatever I’m struggling with.

What are your hopes for Compound Butter going forward?

Jaya: That it just keeps on growing. Every issue we work on expands our audience and touches more people, which is honestly the most gratifying part. It’s a great way to connect. 

Jessie: I hope we can continue to expand the collection of contributors we work with every issue. We are constantly meeting and connecting with incredibly talented people and it’s such an honor to be able to showcase their work. Hopefully we can keep growing and sharing their stories. 

You can by Compound Butter’s latest issue: Nature, now and have a peruse through their back issues here.

From The Pantry

Like the sound of Compound Butter then you might also like to sample some of these delectable publications:

Image by  Delaney Brown

Image by Delaney Brown

  • Put An Egg On It - “The tastiest zine in the world,” encourages us to get around the table and delve into the communal joys of eating. An assortment of cooking tips, childhood nostalgia and photographic essays inspired by the notion that every dish has a story to tell.

  • Gather Journal - “Seasonal recipes and exceptional ideas,” Gather documents the real-life stories behind an impressive spread of recipes and cultural inspirations.

  • Mood - Exploring the intersection between music and food, this magazine traverses the globe searching for individuals who love nothing more than spinning records and plates.

  • Ambrosia - Culinary stories from the world’s greatest chefs. Ambrosia frequents restaurants, eateries and even roadside dinners to pinpoint what sets the world’s cuisines apart.

  • Toothache - A food magazine for chefs by chefs that cuts out the fluff. Created by a small and dedicated team who live, eat and breathe culinary life, Toothache strives to be collaborative, giving chefs a blank canvas on which to add whatever inspiration, images and musings they so wish.