by Mona Bavar
"Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes, and having fun."
~ Mary Lou Cook
How does one go from a picky eater to an inspired culinary enthusiast? She let’s her imagination run wild. And that is exactly what Jenn de la Vega does. This multitalented food explorer has taken innovation to a whole new level by courageously experimenting with ideas and successfully bringing them to life.
As a cookbook author, editor-at-large, caterer, recipe developer and food stylist, de la Vega doesn’t let any obstacle get in her way. Her curiosity and spunk give way to an explosion of creativity and pave the way for new endeavors.
DLISH had a chance to interview de la Vega about her innovative ideas, current and new projects and the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic on the food industry.
Mona Bavar: Can you please tell us a little about yourself?
Jenn de la Vega: I’m editor at large of Put a Egg On It zine, an event caterer, food stylist, and author of a cookbook called Showdown: Comfort Food, Chili and BBQ. I freelance with Yummly, Wine Enthusiast, and TASTE Cooking. I’m involved with a lot of projects like a game podcast called Fun City and I’m on the board of directors for a theater called The Tank.
MB: How much of your inspiration comes from your background?
JDLV: My background is a variety of things. I was born in San Francisco in the 80’s so a lot of fast food, Chinese food, and Filipino food. I was really picky until my 20’s and I’m still learning about my identity, so it’s been a bit of a cultural backpedaling on my part. I’ve been mashing up Filipino food with all of the things I’ve learned as a chef over the past decade.
Put A Egg On It
MB: Where did the inspiration for Put An Egg On It come from?
JDLV: Put A Egg On It was founded in 2008 by SF Keough and Ralph McGinnis. They took inspiration from reading magazines like Butt, Diner Journal, and Wet. I joined around 2015, as a recipe contributor. Egg is an irreverent zine printed on green paper about the communal joys of eating with friends and family.
MB: Tell us a little about your Randwiches. What’s your favorite Randwich?
JDLV: Randwiches started out as a random sandwich delivery service in New York City in 2008. I initially did not have a job and wanted to see my friends, so I volunteered to bring them lunch. It evolved as people heard about it and shared their photos on Instagram. There was no menu and it was always a surprise. I’ve since become a caterer who understands labor costs and overhead. I can’t never pick a favorite but some fun ones were scrapple banh mi, beet hummus with roasted vegetables, or a garlic roast beef shooter.
MB: What are some of the challenges in your industry facing you today?
JDLV: Even though I help publish a lot of independent content, I still freelance for larger companies and some of them are laying people off. The editors that I rely on for work are either gone or have gotten reduced budgets.
For events, it’s tough to navigate both the creative side of making food and the administrative headache of permits, insurance, and client-facing communication. I’ve learned how to delegate some of the load so I am not sleepless before a gig.
Photo by SF Keough
MB: How do you think COVID-19 will impact your industry? Are you worried?
JDLV: As a caterer, I’m always worried. Anything can go wrong at an event, but now my events are gone or postponed for a whole year. That’s a year of no work! I’m not able to do delivery like a lot of other companies, I have bad asthma and am at-risk. Luckily, I’ve been able to pivot to digital work and starting a lot of projects I’ve been thinking about like a Culinary Word of the Day podcast and recipes I’ve never had time to make for myself. It’s going to be a tough road ahead but I’m optimistic.
MB: Do you feel the government is doing enough to help the Food and Beverage industry?
JDLV: Haha, no! Millions of people in the U.S. are part of the food and beverage industry and account for 4% of the GDP. It’s mostly been state leaders and individuals making an impact and appeals for relief. We need a wider approach and systematic support to help us get through this. A loan isn’t enough. $1200 once isn’t enough. The unemployment system was not prepared for the influx of people and has been so messy, from requiring phone calls that get dropped or not returned to a website that times out.
MB: What do you think the world post COVID-19 will be like?
JDLV: I hope people still want to have me cater events! I think if I’m still able to cater in the future, there will be more packaging and less maximalist grazing tables, alas. Party sizes will be reduced and conferences will be mostly virtual.
MB: How are you dealing with lockdown/social distancing?
JDLV: For the first couple of weeks, I was a wreck. But I pulled myself off the floor long enough to celebrate my birthday in April and ignite a lot of ideas. I’ve been sprouting grains, growing alliums in the window, started an Etsy store to sell dry goods, bought a microphone to podcast. For exercise, I’ve been learning how to skateboard down empty streets in my neighborhood. I have a weekly video check in with my girlfriends and it’s been tough for all of us, but we are there for each other.
Pickled Oyster Mushrooms by Jenn de la Vega
MB: What’s your favorite dish? Care to share the recipe?
JDLV: Ah! What a question. I love cheese. I can’t choose a favorite but a good pairing to try is Rogue River Blue cheese with a bite of dark chocolate and a dried cherry. One of my other favorite cheeses is Vermont Creamery Coupole, it looks like a snowball brain.
MB: Are you doing any virtual events?
JDLV: On May 19th, I’m hosting my first ever cook-along for The Tank gala. I’m usually the caterer for the event but since we can’t have the dinner, we’ve put together a virtual event with performances from the cast of Hadestown, Denis O’Hare, Kutti Gang, and many more. It will be a lot of fun.
I’ve started a channel on Twitch. On Sundays at 12pm ET, I will show and tell the zines that I’m reading that week. Wednesdays at 5pm, I host a show that dives deep into ingredients and how to use them up. I show off photos of what my friends have cooked that week and we play a game like Chopped where viewers suggest ingredients and we try to come up with ways to combine all of them.
MB: Any last words for our readers?
JDLV: Check on your friends! Even the ones that look like their fine. We’re all going a little stir crazy. I also am using Patreon to share weekly recipes and cooking guides. Join me there if you are just starting out in the kitchen and need help.
Click here to learn more about Jenn de la Vega and her work.