City: San Francisco, California

Passion: Food

Twitter: @j_bites 

Website:  Jennifer Cho

Finding our first muse in the food world was not easy especially in San Francisco a quintessential foodie city with so many talent to consider. So I called up a friend who works at a cool food start-up and knew most chefs around here. He said I must speak to Jennifer. I shortly was on the phone with Jennifer and what was meant to be a 10 minute conversation lead to an hour talk about her story - she gave up years of PhD and teaching to embrace her passion for cooking. We spent an afternoon at Jennifer’s home: we played with Lola her dog, watched her cook, and lounged in her elegant and sunny living room while she narrated her story and left us inspired and touched by her openness and honesty.


On Passion

I discovered my love for cooking over time, particularly when I was in grad school pursuing my PhD. I grew tired of abstract texts and theories and craved something much more tangible. I’d wax poetic about a meal I shared with my boyfriend or the produce at the farmers’ markets, and then go back to pulling my hair as I tried to finish my dissertation...something was off.
Pursuing cooking didn’t happen in one fell swoop- it took a lot of thoughtful introspection and weighing of pros and cons. I heard my family and my graduate school professors and friends, urging me to follow the professional path I had spent years cultivating, but I realized I had only imagined these voices. They were only reflecting my own fears and insecurities about switching careers.

On Transition

My parents, who are first generation Korean immigrants, were less than thrilled to learn I was trading in my books for a chef’s coat. For them, it seemed like I was moving backward professionally, both in terms of respect and success. But I soon won their support when they saw how firmly I stood by my passion.
Transitioning from teaching to cooking didn’t happen overnight but over several years. For a while, I had one foot in academia and the other in the culinary world, and as much as I tried to excel in both fields, I often felt like I could do neither well. It was head splitting at times.

On Mastery

Culinary school helped refine my craft. It’s true you can learn what you need to know by working in restaurants but I needed an expedited plan. I also completed an externship at a restaurant whose chef and cooking philosophy were inspiring. She scaffolded for me a life of passion - especially since she was a female chef who had made it.
I try to test new recipes on my days off, and maintain an inquisitive spirit. I’ll also flip through cookbooks and other food literature for inspiration, and I eat for the sake of research! It’s always refreshing to get out of your own head or palate in my case, and experience someone else’s culinary perspective.

On Fear of Failure

I can’t think of one exact moment where I failed, but I felt like I often experienced failure when I worked at this really intense kitchen after I moved to San Francisco. Everyone was so seasoned and experienced there and here I was, a newbie taking baby steps. I lived in fear of messing up or getting yelled at. It was a humbling wake-up call for me - I thought I had worked hard in the past but this was the first time I realized what it meant to bust my ass.
I try to avoid the language of failure: of course, it’s hard since I am my own worst critic and highly competitive with myself. But if I can see a not-so-perfect experience as an opportunity for learning and growth as opposed to “failure”, that helps me move on.

On Money

Cooks are known to be paid paltry sums for their labor so when I left teaching full-time for restaurant work, my salary was cut by ⅔ and I no longer had benefits. I definitely experienced a lot of anxiety about living check to check but my live-in boyfriend was extremely supportive and understanding.
When I first started my business, I was barely breaking even and during that time I wondered if it was even worth it. I returned to teaching part-time, driving all the way to Santa Cruz and Monterey a couple times a week. Teaching paid the bills and expenses until I could build a client base for my business. I was exhausted and felt like I was living dual lives, but it had to be done; now, I’m fully committed to j-bites, my catering business, and while there are lulls here and there, I’m able to support myself doing what I love.

On Self-Love

If there’s anything I’ve learned along the way, it surely is lessons in self-love. To me, it’s about respecting yourself (both the strengths and the imperfections) and honoring the choices you’ve made. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve felt untalented and useless along the way, especially when you’re a novice pitted against masters of the craft. It’s difficult to love yourself when, at your lowest, you feel like your performance level doesn’t measure up to the standards you’ve created for yourself.

On Inspiration

Powerful, entrepreneurial and creative women inspire me - women who have made choices for themselves in the face of naysayers and critics.

On Support

I can’t single out one mentor, but I have had a few along the way. Certainly the established chefs I’ve worked for: Anita Lo and Daniel Patterson.
I didn’t always have a community, but I’m a firm believer that if you stand by your passions and choices, they will come.

Advice to the community

Prepare to be pleasantly surprised! There is immense fear, of course, that comes with changing careers but there will be a time when you look back and are surprised by the breadth of your accomplishments. and growth. Don’t let anyone belittle them - especially yourself.