It was an unusually warm evening in Washington, DC when I met Pastry Chef Jennifer Costa over drinks at the Sonoma Restaurant and Bar on Capitol Hill. I found Jen, as I began to call her, sitting right in front of the large floor to ceiling glass windows looking out on Pennsylvania Ave, SE. As we began talking I noticed a tattoo on the inside of her wrist. I asked her about it and she told me it was a California poppy. I wouldn’t fully understand what this tattoo meant to her until after our interview.
My first encounter with Jen was at a local favorite kitchenware store, Hill’s Kitchen. What was the cause of our interaction? Well, what else but the various uses and practicality of copper pots. I was eyeing the now discontinued Mauviel copper cast iron collection and I was throwing question after question out to Leah Daniels, Hill’s Kitchen owner, about copper. It just so happened that Jen was standing right there and since most of my questions were pastry/candy based, Leah said, “Why don’t you ask Jen…she’s a pastry chef!” And that was our introduction.
I found Jen to be quietly intense (if there is such a thing), and even though our conversation lasted for only 10 minutes, I quickly gathered that her love, and probably first love was food and that is what led us on the path to Sonoma on that mild February evening.
Jen, tell me, how has food played a role in the woman you’ve become?
My brain is that of an artist. It’s hard for me to do something in a straight line. Food was that connection where I could be outside of the box. -- Chef Jen Costa
I grew up in wine country, Healdsburg, CA and I knew from a young age that I loved food.
I became a vegetarian when I was 10. I guess there was just something about seeing Charlotte’s Web and Bambi that forever altered my view of eating animals. My mom, thinking more along the lines of having to prepare an additional meal and essentially how this would affect her, told me if I could learn to prepare my meals without disrupting the families dinner that I had her blessing. And so I started preparing my meals and learning my way around the kitchen.
My mom worked for a winery and I figured if I worked for her, I could earn some money on my own and do whatever 14 year old kids do with their money. The winery had a large banquet kitchen and I worked setting up the banquet hall, by pulling out chairs and setting up the tables...just odds and ends. It was the worst! More and more I found myself hanging around the banquet kitchen. I would ask, “Can I slice the cheese?” “Can I prepare the fruit display?” I was enamored with the kitchen and quickly forgot about the table and chair setup; the job for which I was actually hired to perform. Over time, my love for food continued to develop in this amazing way while my friendships with the kids at school began to take a dive.
When I was in elementary school I was around most of my friends but then I moved to middle school where I was truly alone. The girls didn’t want to hang out with me and the boys didn’t like me because I was the heavy girl. I was constantly teased about my weight, holding it in and never really telling my parents. So the kitchen became my refuge and food was that connection where I could be outside of the box.
By the time I was in the 9th grade I knew my path. I knew what I wanted to be and I told my parents I was going to become a chef. I graduated from high school, moved across the country to Rhode Island and attended Johnson & Wales University.
Johnson & Wales provided that safe place for me, that sanctuary. I was with people who loved food just like I did and who wanted that chef life. Although I loved school, the demons of my earlier childhood still haunted me. Some things you just can’t run from, and eventually in time, you will have to face them.
I think there is a direct correlation between being a pastry chef and the size that you are, so that has always been in the forefront of my mind. I was always concerned about my size and what people thought of me. While in school, I exercised to the point of exhaustion and the end result was a battle with bulimia that would force me to reach out for help through an outpatient treatment program. But it’s a funny thing, that even with all of these challenges, I still knew I was on the right path.
After college I interned for seven months at the Waterside Inn in Bray, England, Michel Roux’s three-star Michelin restaurant that sat on the banks of the River Thames. My mom’s work ethic and drive for perfection played a major role in me going after this internship. She is the type of woman that won’t get out of bed to do things half-assed. So when I went for my internship, I went for the best that I could get. It was truly the hardest job of my life, but it was also the most rewarding job of my life. I often worked from 7am until midnight. I mean, it was as if my brain was just in that zone for hours and hours. Everything had to be done to a level of perfection that I hadn’t seen before. This opportunity stirred up my interest to work at that Michelin star level.
Seven months later, I found myself back in my hometown and the food scene was quite literally bursting. I was broke and I needed a paying job so I went to Cyrus, knocked on the back door and introduced myself to the head pastry chef, Annie Clemmons. “Hi, my name is Jen Costa, this is my town, I grew up here and I need a job.” Annie told me she would find a place for me and she did. I worked at Cyrus, under Douglas Keane, a man who could walk into a room of chaos and immediately evoke a sense of calm. Sometimes, through the course of a busy day, I would see Doug and it would put everything back into perspective.
I moved to Las Vegas for a while where I saw what chefs could do when there was no limit on costs, where you could use gold leaf on everything. I worked under Pastry Chef Uyen Nguyen at Guy Savoy, where my desire to show people how wonderful food was, was continually fueled. Before winding up on the east coast, I met my future husband and moved to San Diego where we were married. I know it sounds so cliche, but I was invigorated to be in San Diego because I wanted to get my hands back in the dirt and get to the root of it all: farm to table. While working for Jeff Jackson at the Lodge at Torrey Pines, who is truly the “Alice Waters” of Southern California. I fell in love with family style meals because within a party you may not know each other prior to your meal, but the food that is shared during the meal creates dialogue and it is through these dialogues that bonds are formed, even if for a short period of time. The truly amazing thing about being his pastry chef was that I built all of my menus around the farms and what came directly from the farm that day! There was no advanced warning...no planning, I had to put the menu together after the food arrived.
Although, my husband and I later divorced, the fondest memories that I have are our “Sunday dates” to the Hillcrest Farmer’s market. Since I was off on Sundays we would go to the market, and plan the night’s dinner as we picked out food. If we didn’t know a specific fruit or vegetable, oh well, we would buy it anyway. He was an emergency room nurse and knew nothing about cooking, but when we got home I found myself loving the space of teaching him about food and how to cook food. I began to realize how strong my desire was to teach and my ability to show people the wonders of food.
I always envisioned myself being on television and teaching people. I wanted to work for the best restaurants and I wanted to teach people about desserts. It has always bothered me when a look of shock comes across people’s faces when they find out that I am a pastry chef. “You’re so thin to be a pastry chef!” they would say. As if to say, being a pastry chef equates to being large and large equates to being unhealthy. And because of this, many people look at dessert as something bad. I want them to know that food is not the enemy. It’s what fuels us. It’s just that sometimes we choose not to eat right. I really get upset when people say they can’t have dessert because they are on a diet. I mean, that is terrible! I’m using the best ingredients. I’m not using a bunch of artificial junk and I’m not going to over serve you. I’m going to give you a perfect portion of wonderful bites that you should want to enjoy. I think people forget that or don’t know that there is a right balance. It took me some time to figure that out, that right balance, but that is what I want people to see.
When I think about my life and what I want, my mind goes back to an audition that I had a few years ago. I auditioned for Top Chef and they asked a question that I still think about to this day. The question was, “Chefs have big egos, do you?” My reply was I’m confident but that is not a metaphor for a big ego. I still believe this. I believe that I can have it all, and that’s what I want! While I might be getting older, I make it clear to my boyfriend that I want my first baby to be my restaurant. And that what’s most important to me in life is having something to call my own. I mean, I grew up watching my mom! My mom worked hard, took care of four kids and put my dad through college so he could become a teacher. Now, without a college degree of her own, she is running a huge company because she worked her ass off! She also successfully raised kids that aren’t too fucked up! She was my role model and it's because of her that I know that as women we can go after our goals.
Do I like the woman I see when I look in the mirror? I think she is a beautiful work in progress. I try my hardest to be better than I was the day before. I have worked all over the United States and abroad and I’ve come full circle. I know what I want and that’s the goal right now. To focus on a farm to table project and bring people together with a shared loved of food. I started Poppy’s Pop Up with my best friend, (named after my grandfather who was affectionately called Poppy) in Washington, DC with the California culinary style that I came to love in San Diego. As a chef, my job is to teach and share passion and Poppy’s Pop Up is the start of that for me, with the hope that one day it can grow to a brick and mortar in California.