Owner, Co-Founder and Lead Cooking Instructor, The Civic Kitchen
"I think each woman is different, as is each man. We each have our own gifts and challenges; our job in life is to maximize the gifts and overcome the challenges."
BC: Tell us a little about your journey to your current position.
JN: I started baking in middle school as a way to feed my sweet tooth & make friends happy. It never crossed my mind that cooking could be a career. A couple of decades, lots of home cooking, and a telecom career later, I worked for WorldCom in the scandal-ridden early 2000s. 30,000 people were laid off as the company disintegrated. I wasn’t among them, but a “what if?” window opened in my mind. As in, what if your job ended? What life would you choose? I enrolled in a nighttime professional pastry program and was smitten. I quit corporate life to open a bakery making custom wedding desserts. Business boomed, and my team and I worked for five years at a breakneck pace. It was exhilarating, but unsustainable. I moved to San Francisco and freelanced as a pastry chef and consultant, and then was asked to teach a class. From the day of that first class, I knew teaching cooking would be my life’s work. I met many gifted teachers and yearned to give them more opportunities to share their knowledge. I worked with students of all skill levels and recognized the very real need for people to learn the vital life skill of cooking. My husband and I decided to open a cooking school, and then spent the next 3 years bringing it to life.
BC: How do you think TCK delivers a different experience to guests, and how are you apart of that vision?
JN: We offer our guests the warmth of a home kitchen along with professional-grade equipment and a deeply knowledgable and kind teaching team to kickstart their home cooking experience. As an avid home cook who became a chef & teacher, I look at the cooking class experience from both perspectives. I both taught and took classes in as many schools as I could while planning our kitchen, library and curriculum, thinking through the experience of the students, the teachers, the dishwashers and assistants. We want everyone to feel welcomed, well-equipped and even a little spoiled while they’re at The Civic Kitchen. And to leave the space emboldened by what they’ve learned in the kitchen.
BC: Can you pinpoint the first moment in your career you felt truly proud?
JN: I was grabbing coffee on 18th street and someone I didn’t recognize stopped me to say hello. As he walked away, I overheard him tell his friend “That’s Jen. She taught the kids how to use a knife, and now we can’t keep them out of the kitchen.” That was a good moment.
BC: Three recipes you could never go without?
JN: My mom’s bar-b-que spare ribs. Dorie Greenspan’s World Peace Cookies. My great-aunt Josefina’s beef empanadas.
BC: In celebration of Bob Cut’s Women in Food feature, what insight can you offer to your industry; or what is something you’d like to see more of in the years to come?
JN: I hope to see women be increasingly brave and collaborative in the food industry. We need to trust our instincts and intellect, stand up for ourselves, and support each other.
BC: Do you think there is something that women uniquely bring to this industry? How would you describe that?
JN: I think each woman is different, as is each man. We each have our own gifts and challenges; our job in life is to maximize the gifts and overcome the challenges.
BC: Where do you go for inspiration? Similarly, who do you go to for inspiration?
JN: I love to travel and experience the food of other cultures. It’s comforting knowing that all of humanity shares a common bond - we’re all hungry! It's fascinating to learn the endless combinations of ingredients and methods people have developed to satisfy that hunger. Working with kids, including our own, in the kitchen also inspires me. They’re creative and less constrained by past experience than grown-ups, and are far more capable that most adults give them credit for.
Isabella Welch is a graduate of UCLA with a degree in history. Her writing has been featured in history journals, travel blogs, as well as her own site, New Carthage. Director of Editorial & Creative Development at Bob Cut Mag, lover of stories and tinto de verano, she’s usually found wandering the Headlands.