Jena Ezra Derman, 36, Brooklyn, NY.
Growing up as a city kid, I tried to spend as much time doing things as possible - I have a lot of memories of eating leftovers and Tostitos (alone) in my high school bedroom while finishing up homework. My dad was an incredible cook and baker, and when he was in the kitchen before a big family holiday or on the weekend it was a serious treat. If we were bad at "small meals", we were therefore great at "big meals". Our Passover seders stand out to me as one of these examples, chickens stuffed with Matzah-stuffing (with shiitakes and chestnuts) and salmon steaks that we barbecued out in our backyard, double-boiled corn pudding, mango chutney perfectly balanced with sweetness and acid, and Matzah Ball Soup for days.
Short answer - everything that I could eat with sour cream. Long answer - when I was growing up the current La Vara space on Clinton St. was occupied by a restaurant called, Cafe on Clinton. It was at Cafe on Clinton, that I had my first "fancy" meal, a dish called Chicken Frangelico. Yes, there was a hazelnut cream sauce with toasted hazelnuts, and yes, it changed my life.
When I was in college I started baking bread for myself and I ended up getting a counter job at the best bakery in Northampton, MA called, Hungry Ghost Bread. I was finishing art school, and was obsessed with the idea of finding potential jobs where I could work with my hands. As I was able to pick up more shifts at the bakery, I was trusted more and more with shaping the loaves and rotating/folding the doughs as they matured. That job was my gateway. After graduating I moved to Philadelphia, where I found a job working on the bread bench at Metropolitan Bakery before even finding an apartment. Metropolitan Bakery still has the majority of the restaurant wholesale accounts in Philly which means volume!! After about a year slinging bread, James Barrett, the owner, head baker (and my mentor), moved me into a pastry position with zero experience. He took a risk with me, but thought that with his leadership and my fine arts background that I could hang?
I incorporated my own consultancy business in 2016, the majority of our projects involve helping businesses and individuals take a food idea and bring it to the market. I handle everything from ideation, to bench top R&D, to piloting, to full-scale manufacturing. I love to be working on multiple and varied projects at once, and consulting has been a great way to do so. I experienced the pandemic affect different clients in different ways depending on a myriad of factors. Some clients put their foot on the gas, while some decided to wait this time out.
I also started a new business during the pandemic, Solid Wiggles, a new jelly cake and jello shot business that I'm running with Jack Schramm. We've found that small joys are highly coveted in covid-times and that sometimes that small joy is a beautiful gelatin creation that you can slurp back with friends.
In mid-March I started volunteering for the Restaurant Workers Community Foundation. RWCF quickly moved into action as soon as Covid hit the US and has raised over $7m for the Restaurant Industry. For me, finding ways to support colleagues and the bigger community was a really important way for me to deal with how covid was affecting our industry. Working in this industry during the pandemic has reminded me and taught me how important community-based work is both for short-term and long-term issues in the industry. Everyone should check out the RWCF website for more info.
Jack and I are working on a special Solid Wiggles offering for November. All I can say is that everyone needs to brace themselves. It's going to be fantastic.
My friend, Zoe Komarin, has a falafel pop-up in LA called, ZoeFOODParty. I fantasize of flying cross country and eating her amazing food. Her sandwiches are as delicious and they are beautiful. I look forward to when air travel is acceptable for trips that are just for fun.
Solid Wiggles is 100% the most exciting project that I'm working on at the moment, I'm personally looking forward to our November and December launches plus some collaborations that we're working on!