Mar 19, 2021 • 37M

A Conversation with Jenn de la Vega

The recipe developer and chef talks about how she does it all.

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A weekly food and culture podcast from writer Alicia Kennedy, who talks to writers, chefs, and more about their lives, careers, and how food fits into it all.
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I met Jenn de la Vega at The Brooklyn Kitchen in 2017, when it was still in Williamsburg but wasn’t operating as its old self. She came on to do prep for a fundraiser there after Hurricane Maria, for a burgeoning nonprofit meant to keep the hospitality industry on the archipelago afloat. She was working, and still works, as an editor for the seminal food zine Put a Egg On It. Her attitude was so chill that she adapted easily to the work and the vibe—no questions asked, no ego fluffed. As I discovered in our interview, that’s how she does everything: with a plan, with chill, with good yet assertive vibes.

Jenn has catered extravagant weddings, developed recipes for cookbooks (namely with the brilliant Nicole Taylor), and made a big pivot from working in tech to do it all. Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Hi, Jenn. Thanks so much for coming on.

Jenn: Hi, Alicia. Glad to be here.

Alicia: How are you? How are things? Where are you right now?

Jenn: I'm in Brooklyn, New York. I would say sleep is not easy to come by these days. But I'm happy to report that I got my first vaccination last week.

Alicia: Nice! As a food service worker?

Jenn: As many things, yeah. [Laughter.] I'm glad that New York is moving along. 

Alicia: Yes, they are moving things along and that's very nice to see. 

Jenn: It is awkward. I'm sorry that I said anything because I do see people online being like, ‘I got vaccinated!’ and then people are like, ‘How? How did you do it?’ Also, persistence. It’s been refreshing.

Alicia: No.

I mean, for me, it's ‘everybody needs to get vaccinated.’ Who really cares how they go about it? We just need to freaking do it. 

But I'm happy to hear that you're on the road to immunity. [Laughter.] It's going a lot slower here, but I'm happy New York is on the mend. 

Jenn: Yeah. 

Alicia: Yeah.

Can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Jenn: Sure. 

I grew up in Hercules, California. It's a small Bay Area town on the coast of San Pablo Bay. I read some history recently, because I'm starting to write a little bit about this little town. And it used to be a dynamite factory in the 1800s, so it had a key part in a lot of gold rushing, I think.

Alicia: That's wild.

Jenn: I know. 

It was a lovely little town. And my grandparents, aunts and uncles all lived within 20 miles in El Sobrante, California, and what I ate as a child is very different from what was available and around. 

My folks loved food. My grandma had a bustling garden full of fruits and vegetables. I liked carrots because they were good for your eyes and my eyes were going at a very young age. I'm not sure how much credence to give to that, but carrots all the time. Fruit snacks and McDonald's. [Laughs.]

Alicia: Wow. [Laughs.]

Jenn: I know. I had every birthday up until I was eight years old at a McDonald's. They had the best playground. They even had like a program for birthdays, a whole activity day. I wish I had a photo of it because there's this purple character, Grimace. You remember Grimace? 

Alicia: You remember Grimace, yeah.

Jenn: But in the playground, there was a jiggly sort of thing that you stepped into. It had prison bars as a tummy. And if I only knew then fast food is a prison. It’s smiling and holding the bars, that's kind of my childhood. [Laughter.]

So I was picky, and really into the things that I saw on television, I was commonly sitting at the dinner table with my arms crossed, pouting, getting yelled at about never finishing my plate. So, here's a word for this in Tagalog. So I'm Filipino American and there's a word, takaw-mata, which means, ‘My eyes are too big for my stomach.’ [Laughs.] Or I am some kind of ungrateful American. [Laughs.]

So, mealtimes were not something that I looked forward to. I drank a lot of soda. I was severely underweight through most of my life. But I have this experience that I'm noticing among first-generation Asian Americans is that we're sort of stumbling through our own personal histories and trying to connect back to it. I call it my great cultural backpedaling. I sort of revel these days in inauthenticity. 

And I'm not really one person to define the food of the Philippines, just because my family is from there. I'm also from California and have lived in New York for 15 years. So I would say that the palate has widened since childhood, but it continues to be a journey now.

Alicia: Right, right. And how does being part of that diaspora reflect in how you cook, if it does it? 

Jenn: It’s sort of sprinkled in these days. I had an opposite reaction to all of the fast food and convenience food of my childhood. I thought that French cuisine and technique was the way to go, and then I dropped out of culinary school because it wasn't the way for me. I fell in love with Spanish tapas just because I had a small appetite. But digging into the history of that, it's dangerous and sad and really intertwined with Philippine culture. 

And so, that's sort of been the crux of my — the beginnings of my writing portfolio has been the history of the Philippines mixed with new techniques and things that we thought were the way to go are not really the way to go. [Laughs.]

Alicia: Right, right. [Laughs.]

And how did you even come to focus on food? I know you used to work in tech.

Jenn: Oh, yes. Ugh. [Laughter.]

I got into cooking for others in college, through dinner parties. I wasn't much into cooking for myself. In fact, I actually mess up a lot of cooking for myself today. Before technology, I was working in the music industry, and it was going through a paradigm shift as far as promotion goes. I was one of those people that sent CDs to radio stations and magazines. When it was shifting from CDs to digital, people were requesting mp3s over CDs, we were saving on postage. People were starting to lose their jobs. I was burning out. And to cope with that, I started serving grilled cheese out of my house on Sundays. And it was sort of a good time to quit one industry and jump into another headfirst. 

But as I said before, I did not love culinary school. [Laughs.] And working in restaurants, you don't automatically get health insurance. [Laughter.] And that made me accept a job in technology. 

I was between kitchen jobs, and a friend from music called out of the blue because I'm a very avid tweeter. It wasn't a job that had been defined yet. A community manager, a social media manager, was very new a decade and a half ago. And my only question for that person was, ‘Do I get health insurance?’ I didn't really care what the job was. I was like, ‘Do I get health insurance?’ And I did. So I worked at a startup under a big film company, technicolor. This is all in TechCrunch. If anybody's curious about it, you can go check it out. 

But I was using all this newfound money to build out my kitchen, because food is something I still cared about. I loved having dinner parties. And so I was starting to buy all those fancy ingredients I could never afford. I got a food processor, making my own hummus all the time. So it really leveled me up in my spare time. But I had zero, zero concept of saving money. [Laughs.] I had always come from this position of scarcity. It was a very hard lesson after I had left. 

But my job sat in the middle of social media and curation. The big selling point was a big human team working with algorithms, because algorithms cannot tech — tell you context or narrative, no matter how smart artificial intelligence is. It can read vocabulary. It can tell us search volume and sentiment, but not a complete story. And I thought that was incredibly fascinating and helped me a lot in the way that I talk about my work and other people's work online. 

But just the shorter story of it is, it went through some kind of acquisition. I tried to explore this career seriously, but I had no desire to move to upper management. My momentum as a chef on the weekends started to pick up. I was pulling doubles. You can't spin that many plates that long. And I made this really long, six month plan to leave to start my own catering company. And that's kind of where we were as of 2019, until everything changed,

Alicia: How have you changed your business model in the pandemic?

Jenn: Oh, my goodness. 

So I was slated, or was in the middle of negotiating eight weddings as of January last year. And thankfully, I had already started to freelance a couple years before that. And so thanks to a residency at TASTE Cooking, I was able to start my first public pieces about food. And I had always dreamed of it. I've always wanted to be a writer, I was a LiveJournaler. [Laughter.] A lot of my writing has been in my social media posts. It was a matter of stringing it together and really holding on to a thread of an idea. 

But I took a strange path into this. [Laughter.] So while I was working at that tech company, I was trying to insert more food content into the workflow and responsibilities. Because I was reading so much news, my job was to surface news. And so if I could surface more food news or be in charge of that specific vertical, it would make me a little bit happier and to round out the knowledge that I was after all the time. If there is a chef or a food editor to be interviewed, I jumped at the chance, 100%. And if there was a conference my company took me to, I'd be lined for any food people, or even just hovered around the catering people just to watch. [Laughter.] That obsessed. 

But I learned about digitally native copywriting and optimization. And I learned how to talk about myself online. I don't like to. I don't like writing my bio or puffing my chest up, ‘I'm a food writer now!’ and pushing my glasses up over my nose. But I know that a lot of writers are timid about promoting their work. The big lesson for me, it was not about going viral in one moment but creating a consistent hum and an actual body of work that we can always be referencing whenever there is some kind of opportune moment or moment of learning or teaching. 

But as far as craft and practice, go, or — I was reading cookbooks before bed, getting my food handler's permit. Every event that I catered on the weekend — so, I'm still working 100% this whole time. So I'm doing things on the weekend, burning the candle at both ends. But every event that I did, added new equipment to my inventory. I added new people to my staff. I was in a time of my life that I lived for that crunch, the productivity crunch. And you'll hear that term in tech and the games industry. Lots of folks are speaking out now about labor practices and preventing crunch. But it was pretty normal for me to work 70, 80 hours a week and still stay up an extra hour to just kind of pursue the culinary knowledge and the craft and writing. 

And as I said before, no one can last that long. And this is an interesting turn, and I don't think people know that this is an option for them. But I asked to go part time at my job for a summer to join an innovation lab. 

So NYU had a program called the Innovation Lab, which was under the interactive telecommunications program. And I'm gonna keep pushing up my nerd glasses, like, ‘What does that have to do with anything?’ And that's kind of it and why I was drawn to it. It did come out of nowhere. And I craved some other creative outlet that wasn't food. It was somewhere I could solve problems with my unique point of view. 

And it was cool. Museums came in with a design problem, and we'd split up into teams to solve it. So, for example, the Met museum has a large collection. And people check it off their bucket list, but they never intend to return. And I mean, I know because now they can't really return. But theoretically, how do we get people to return physically and digitally? And I loved thinking about this problem. And I landed on, ‘What if we made a Chrome extension?’ because people hoard their tabs. How many tabs you have open right now? I have like five.

Alicia: Always at least five, yeah. [Laughter.]

Jenn: Yeah.

And so for every tab that you open if you have this extension, it shows you a cat from the Met museum's collection. So you're exploring art, but also this passive thing that you do all the time. 

But those are the kinds of problems that I like to think through. And art installation and digital UX were now a new lens for me to apply to both a day job and in event catering. And that's kind of how my catering perspective sort of opened up. It sort of blossomed into something new. Because I thought catering was just, ‘I'm going to provide this platter for you.’ But it became more of a production thing for me, of the little minutiae of the colors and the flow of the event and just experience, people experience. And so, that was incredibly amazing and valuable for me. And so, I loved the idea of artists residences. And that's how I joined TASTE, and was speaking to Anna and Matt about it. 

And then after I quit my job, my first step out the door was another residency at Kickstarter, which is a place where I've funded a few of my stranger ideas. I have hosted parties where the goal was to collectively create pornographic food videos, one. Not incredibly explicit, but more like popping 100 egg yolks in one day was a goal, or creating as many kinds of nachos that we can create and then sort of looping all that footage together into something that we've made as a community. And I love challenging what a party should be. And just cooking for people is exciting for me. 

So I took this creator's residency very seriously, but also spent that time figuring out what is freelance, what is an invoice, what is a budget, who was a mentor. I still don't know. But important lessons from that have been enforcing rest, creating boundaries. Especially when you head into a creative field, you have to have lots of boundaries. And taking the time to figure that out was life changing. But that's now why I sit squarely 100% in the food world.

Alicia: Nice. Yeah. [Laughter.]

Jenn: Lot of work.

Alicia: Yeah, of course. 

I mean, you manage a lot of projects right now. I know you're working on a few cookbooks all at the same time. You're writing for outlets. How have you kind of moved into that recipe zone with cookbooks?

Jenn: That was part of the pivot. 

It started a long time ago. It was through cooking competitions, actually, where I've met a lot of the collaborators that you might recognize today like Emily Hanhan, Cathy Erway, and Nicole Taylor, who — they've all joined these cooking competitions in Brooklyn and stood next to me trying to — not sell, but these were ticketed events where people in Brooklyn would bring a pot of chili. And you could serve them to hundreds of people, and people would vote. And there was a winner. And at first, there was no prize or money involved. But it started to have a money prize. This series was called The Takedowns. Matt Timms organized all of it. And he started to introduce other kinds of food. 

I got an email from a roommate saying, ‘Oh, you love cooking? Why don't you try this?’ And so I did. And I got addicted to it. I love competition. But most of all, I love the community of it ‘cause there's so many quirky people that enter competition. [Laughs.] As reality television can show us, there are a lot of personalities out there and a lot of really great ideas. 

But I met Nicole Taylor through that. And after she got her first book deal, we — she asked me to just test one recipe on her first cookbook, which was the Up South Cookbook. And I was getting into, getting comfortable with food writing and writing my own recipes through the residency. And I just sort of put it out into the universe. I wrote up sort of my goals for this. It was at the same time as the artist residencies and figuring out my life. 

But I did the thing. I did the Internet manifesting thing and told people on LinkedIn — I hate LinkedIn — but I did it on LinkedIn, on Facebook. Everywhere that I am present on the internet, ‘cause as somebody who grew up on the internet, why would I not use it to tell people what I need and want in life? And I was just putting it out there. If people don't know that I want to do these things, then no one's ever going to know. And thankfully, Nicole was paying attention around that time when she was working on The Last O.G. Cookbook. And so, that's how I joined that project. 

And I really enjoy the production process. It’s very similar to making an album, except we have a longer table of contents and more editing passes and things like that. But it really spoke to the iteration part of my brain from technology. As you refine a product, you look at features that work and don't work and rely on community feedback and tasting to refine it. And I really enjoyed that process. 

And so it wasn't necessarily a pivot-pivot when the pandemic started, but more of a weight shift. I'm shifting my weight to another foot. And hopefully I can come back to catering, but very, very lucky to know Nicole and to work with her and flesh out these ideas. But yeah, it is more weighted in the direction of freelance and writing these days then events. But I'm glad I got my shot and hopefully gonna get there, get the second one in it.

Alicia: Right.

Well, you do in your catering such wildly unique events, like the weddings that you do. And I know you've talked about — you just said that it comes from that same sort of problem solving. But what is your process when you are doing an event like that? Where do you come from and what questions do you ask to determine how to kind of create such a unique approach? [Laughs.]

Jenn: Yeah, I joke that I'm the opposite of Franck from Father of the Bride. [Laughter.] He has this big ass binder with all the prices listed out and just these ’90s printouts. I look at that YouTube clip a lot whenever I'm feeling down about catering. [Laughs.] I look at that, because my method is way more flexible and unsustainable. 

I love that it's unsustainable. I can't create inventory or consistent recipes if every menu is different. And I find that really exciting. That's where my online handle comes from, Randwiches, random sandwiches. Personally, I don't like eating or making the same thing twice. But I know that's necessary for creating and finalizing something, as I've learned through the years. But I used to have a random sandwich delivery service in New York and that's how I built my internet following. I love that project. But it is unsustainable. It is just me delivering sandwiches on foot all over New York City, and it gets tiring. And that's sort of inspired me to look into actual catering. 

So, when it came to weddings, it started with friends that I knew that I couldn't really mess up with them. Anything I did, I was an angel. [Laughs.] But before the pandemic, I'd ask to meet up with a couple at a bar or restaurant, and I'd go through a journalistic battery of the venue, the vibe and their story. 

And I'd ask them questions like, ‘What foods did you have on your first date? Do you remember that? What do you cook together now on a normal day, or on a special day? Is there something you make when you feel bad? Are there any family favorite dishes? Are there any favorite restaurants?’ The big question of dietary restrictions, allergies, and picky family members, because sometimes that can create a little bit of stress. And pie in the sky ideas. I love entertaining the pie in the sky ideas, because I treat it like a design brief mixed with a band's backstage rider list. 

We start throwing out the big ideas that we can anchor a menu on and then bring it down to earth as we reconcile the cost and the venue. [Laughs.] And we visit that venue and ask all the questions and make sure that we can do it. 

I have a bleeding heart for smaller budgets and a little bit more of a DIY hybrid. If you're looking for a package you just point at, I'm not the person you should be working with. I'm way more collaborative. I'm not going to turn away Mom's dilly beans that she pickled for you over the course of the whole summer. I'm going to encourage Grandpa to go catch all the salmon for the reception. And those are the real things that have happened because I'm open to it as a chef. I have no ego about like, ‘This is my menu and you should choose it.’ It's more about the story you are trying to tell, and I find that so, so exciting because I want to be able to help you tell it.

Alicia: Right.

And it's interesting, because so much of cooking and being a chef is understood as a very ego-driven thing. And how do you kind of see your role then, as a cook, if it's not about your ego?

Jenn: Oh my goodness.

I'm a conduit, absolutely a conduit. I'm shepherding in some way the feelings that you're having that day, and it should come out as joy in the food. And I want to celebrate that as much as possible. 

Obviously, I love a good party. [Laughter.] I mean, my entrance into cooking for others has been dinner parties through and through this whole time. Weddings are even offices or whatever it is that you're celebrating — celebration has always been the center of everything that I do, mostly ‘cause it comes from my family. I have a huge ass family, and any excuse to gather is something that I didn't realize that I valued at up until this moment. [Laughter.] I’m currently processing as we speak. 

But I have a lot of cousins. Every graduation, every tooth, every step, every everything has always been a reason to cook something. And my family has always been a part of that. And I live across the country from them. So now it's changed into all of their cooking endeavors, they'll tag me ‘cause they know that I'm a chef now. They want to show it off. And I love that.

And it's sort of bled into another thing that I've done. Another new thing that I've done during the pandemic has been live streaming on Twitch, which is typically a video game streaming platform. But there was a whole division of people who now cook or talk about food. And I started a little talk show called Attack the Pantry, and it is geared toward the 101 community of cooks who are a little scared of it. And I love deep diving into ingredients and talking about their potential.

And we sort of ripped off the idea of Chopped, where we asked the audience to give us some ingredients and then we pretend that's our basket and sort of mentally prepare ourselves for, ‘What can we do with that?’ And I enjoy it very much. It's the favorite segment of the show.

Alicia: And your own cookbook. You've only done one of your own cookbooks, right?

Jenn: Mm-hmm.

Alicia: Yeah, Showdown. It's about cooking contests, which you mentioned earlier. But what was it about the cooking contest that you liked and what made you want to create a book out of the experience?

Jenn: Oh, man.

I was addicted to the thrill of competition, that the — some of the prizes were hilarious. [Laughter.] A year's supply of bacon is very vague. But I'm here to pop the bubbles that it's not as you expect, a pallet of bacon arriving at your front door. It is coupons, people. It's coupons. [Laughter.] But it was exciting to thirst for those things. 

And I became friends with a lot of the competitors like I mentioned earlier, and I treated it like it was my culinary school. Because I didn't like culinary school. I did not like the brigade to graduating to a line cook in some restaurant where it's not my food. I didn't want to be an executive chef somewhere. I wanted to create, create, create. 

And iterating through competition was something that helped me learn about recipe development, because if I never wrote it down I couldn't do it again or fix it. So I started to take notes and create all of these huge tomes of ‘Ok, that didn't work.’ And I would go through a testing regimen for each recipe. 

And I remember there's this photo I took a long time ago of eight meatball sauces that we were trying out like, ‘Oh, is ginger work here? Is parmesan rind work here? How much spice do we need?’ 

And I don't really talk about it, but I was — I started as a biology major. And I had this sort of mental breakdown in the laboratory where we were learning about titration. You have two long pipettes that drop single drops into a beaker, and it was driving me insane. You drop one drop and then write it down. 100 drops later, I'm staring at it like, ‘Why haven't you changed? [Laughs.] I want to just pour the whole thing in. And with cooking, I still get my little obsessive research mode, but also I can pour whole things in there and be like, ‘What happened?’ [Laughter.]

But yes, after a long time of competing and writing the recipes down I thought about like, ‘Oh, I've always wanted to write a book.’ I had this checklist when I was little, ‘Write a book. Go to the Olympics. Make a film.’ I wanted to do every single large thing there was, like, ‘Write an album.’ And I can safely say that yes, I have written an album. And yes, I have now written a book. And now I'm going after other things, but still sitting in the food world. 

But yeah, so all this competition helped me hone the skills. It took me about eight years to actually win anything. I kept at it. And along the way, I kept winning wonderful kitchen prizes. This is why I have expensive Le Creuset. I could never afford $300 Dutch ovens. No way. I mooned about it, I dreamed about it, but I never imagined that I would buy them. 

So through competition is how I outfitted the rest of my kitchen, which I don't think is possible so much anymore in Brooklyn, ‘cause it's not an active series anymore. But Instagram definitely still has contests that I've won a few items through photo styling contests. And that's sort of also where I developed that skill. 

And when you work on a cookbook, you under — you realize that all of these jobs are specialized and they're different people. But because my cookbook was a little more bootstrapped — I hate using that word, that's such a whack word. But because I had a smaller budget, I sort of was a lot of those things. I styled my own book, I developed my own book, and I'm starting to understand the value of that. And now, I can offer that to other other authors and work with them on it. So, that's really exciting. 

I just wanted to document that period of time. And I'm really glad I did, because it's not happening anymore or won't come back for a while, I don't think. But if I may brag, I have a seven foot trophy in my house from a barbecue competition. And that was a different series that was really eye opening for me. I didn't know anything about barbecue or the history of it. And my very presence there was powerful, I think, looking back on it. I'm a short Asian American woman standing in front of a fire burning herself like, ‘Ow!’ 

But making my place there was interesting. I have a small title, a small bestowed title of grillmaster. And when you Google grillmaster, it's a lot of larger men in the South, scattered among the South. I'm a Northern-ite. [Laughs.] And not a lot of them are women or tiny, tiny Asian women at that. And so I love that I am contributing to the fabric of it and trying to break down what it is to be a person at a grill. I like that that book has sort of cemented it, or at least held my place in that atmosphere.

Alicia: Right. 

And for you, is cooking a political act?

Jenn: Absolutely. Yes.

I may not be outward about it on social, but I think seizing creative control and shaping a career that doesn't follow that typical path is a statement. And I think the wedding and event industry can be very mechanical and focused on a capitalistic bottom line. And while I'm engaged in capitalism on many different levels — I'm sure you have that sickly exhale every now and then.

But what's important to me or what's become important to me is creating safe work environments and events and leadership. My leadership is not top down. It's very sideways. I learned this from both technology and a family member who has a restaurant. I prefer to go sideways than up and down. I'm very open to collaboration and to ideas for improvement and efficiency, and above all, just learning. I'm constantly learning. That is the perspective that I always will have and hold on to. 

And the people that I work with will always have something to teach me. That's so exciting. And so, this aunt or great aunt who lives in Bacolod, which is a tiny town, tiny island in the Philippines. She runs a restaurant called Mely's Garden. And I asked her, ‘What happens when someone is sick?’ She says that everyone knows every station and recipe so anyone can step in. And none of the recipes are gate-kept in someone's brain. It's not in some secret room, made a ways, whatever. When you're sick, you stay home. And that kind of care regarding labor and wellbeing really stuck with me. And so, I sort of build that into the relationships and events that I do. 

And like I said earlier, injecting my stories into barbecue and into the fabric of barbecue is political and powerful. I want to change the face of what American barbecue can be and what a grillmaster looks like. That's very thrilling. [Laughter.] And so yeah, my politics are tiny but I feel I make progress in a very empathetic way. Very community-oriented way. And it makes me so happy to be able to relate to people on that level and to give them that kind of safeguard that they want. I am not some kind of predator that's going to leave you destitute, because that's what happened to me and I would hate for that to happen to anybody I worked with.

Alicia: Right. Well, thank you so much.

Jenn: You are so welcome.