How does a girl get herself from North Dakota to working at places like Wolfgang Puck, Jean Georges, Gordon Ramsay and Morimoto Napa and then a combination food and technology start-up?
Pastry, of course.
Jessica Entzel is a prime example of a new generation who grew up wanting to be a chef in part because of the popularity of the television cooking shows and competitions depicted on channels like the Food Network. But that wasn’t the only influence that sparked her interest in a culinary career—the other was her mother.
Growing up in Beulah, North Dakota, a town of approximately 3,000 located northwest of Bismarck, there wasn’t a lot to do, Jessica said. So she spent much of her free time cooking and baking with her mother, who Jessica described as a “fantastic” cook with an extensive collection of cookbooks, an abundant garden and who even grew fruit trees in their backyard (which is not easy in the Upper Midwest!).
“Even as I kid I always remember just leafing through all of the cookbooks. That’s what I wanted [my mom] to read to me was—not a children’s book—but a cookbook. She would read it to me and, sometimes when I was a little older, she would let me go in the kitchen and help out by making a recipe. It was something that I really loved to do,” Jessica said.
By the time Jessica entered high school, she’d already decided that going to culinary school was what she wanted to do. Although she says that idea was something far afield from what was available where she grew up, she loved to cook so much that she strongly felt that was what she should be doing. “I should be a chef, and I should be cooking,” she recalled thinking.
Seeing chefs on TV cook—and being a fan of the original Japanese version of the Iron Chef series—inspired her to think, “if they can do it, why can’t I do it too?” she said. Ironically, although she was a fan of Iron Chef Morimoto, she had no idea that she would someday work at one of his restaurants.
At the time, her sister and brother-in-law were living in Minneapolis. Although Jessica’s parents were skeptical about her pursuing culinary school, her sister and brother-in-law invited her to come to Minnesota to tour schools and see what it was like. They encouraged her culinary passions and interest in culinary school.
“He would send me cookbooks all the time, and he said if you learn how to make crème brulee and want to go to culinary school, you can stay with us rent free and go to culinary school in Minneapolis.”
So she moved to Minneapolis after high school to attend Le Cordon Bleu, where, she said, she “struggled massively” during her first month. Having to learn a whole new vocabulary of ingredients and knife skills was difficult. Jessica knew that if she wanted to succeed, she would need to soak up as much as she possibly could, so she started staying after class and signing up for extracurricular activities and competitions so she could gain the experience she needed. She also tried to get a job in a restaurant kitchen, but said that without formal experience, no one would hire her, she said.
Realizing that the only way she would get a job was to gain more experience, Jessica also started volunteering at school and joined the school’s Junior Culinary team where she would have to practice timed knife skills drills like de-boning chickens and filleting fish for an hour a day after school—anything to get the experience she needed. Jessica’s extra work began to pay off when she was chosen to participate in a prestigious annual competition for young chefs sponsored by the Chaîne de Rôtisseurs, the oldest food and wine society in the world. At the time, she was the youngest person in the competition.
As her skills developed, Jessica began to realize that she really wanted to pursue pastry. Again, she began working after hours with one of the school’s pastry instructors, soaking up what she could since the culinary degree program only included three weeks of pastry training. That enabled her to finally get a job in the restaurant world—at the Minneapolis branch of Wolfgang Puck—going from no one wanting to hire her to working at a restaurant owned by one of the world’s most prominent chefs. Although she was the youngest person at Puck and part of a larger pastry team, Jessica said she was able to gain a lot of invaluable experience working directly with Puck’s head pastry chef, Sherry Yard, who made frequent trips to the Minneapolis restaurant in part due to turnover on the pastry team.
“I loved the way she was in the kitchen. Even though she was this very small woman in stature and she had a pink chef coat and shoes, she didn’t take any guff from anyone,” Jessica said.
After taking time off to do her culinary internship—which she did with a French master chef at a Michelin-star restaurant in Tours, France—Jessica returned to discover that the full-time pastry job she’d expected to come back to at Wolfgang Puck was no longer available. She took a full-time position working at Salut Bar Americain, a French brasserie in St. Paul in addition to part-time work at Puck’s, before being offered a job at Chambers Kitchen, a now defunct Jean Georges restaurant that was opening in Minneapolis, where she began working on the line before moving to pastry.
As a chef who was both young and ambitious, Jessica found herself juggling a lot of different positions after school both so she could get as much experience as possible and to make a living. Not only was she working at the restaurants, but she also began to do personal chef work and food styling for cookbooks and companies like Target on the side to make extra money.
Then the 2008 recession hit, and Chambers starting laying off staff—including the entire pastry department—en masse. Because many of the fine dining establishments in Minneapolis were closing, Jessica asked to be transferred to New York, where she got a job at Spice Market, another Jean Georges restaurant. But after getting there she realized that, for New York dining, the restaurant’s menu was more casual than she wanted to be working with. She longed to be in a fine-dining setting so she could gain experience making the most high-end desserts possible. She began to stage (do culinary internships) at restaurants like Le Bernadin and at Jean Georges’ higher end restaurants.
Eventually Jessica found herself at Gordon Ramsay as a pastry chef de partie (two positions underneath executive pastry chef), where she did desserts for the New York branches of the Gordon Ramsay and Maze restaurants. This position enabled her to really push her skill set—fully immersing herself in soufflés made to order, molten chocolate cake, bon bons, candy, financiers and classic French desserts.
“I was like, ‘this is the place where I’m going to learn the most,’” she said. “That’s why I went there.”
With the expense of living in New York on a pastry chef’s salary, Jessica again found herself using her talents to diversify her skill set, doing more food styling for magazines like Martha Stewart Living, Food Network or Shape and freelance recipe development for magazines like Essence.
After two years, though, she was ready for a break. Describing her time at Gordon Ramsay as “very stressful,” she decided she wanted a respite from the restaurant world, albeit not food. After mulling over the experiences that had made her the happiest, she decided to “go back to school,” so to speak, and became a career advisor at the Institute for Culinary Education in Manhattan.
“I wanted to go back to my roots. I was like, ‘when was the last time that I was just so jazzed about cooking?’” she asked herself. The answer? “Culinary school.”
But after a year, only being in the office started to get to her.
“I felt like a quitter. I felt like a quitter for not getting to the next level before I left,” she said. “I missed the kitchen, and then I had an interesting offer.”
A friend working in Napa had an opening for a pastry chef—at Morimoto Napa. She jumped at the chance to live on the West Coast and to work with one of her idols. She flew out to Napa and spent a day in the kitchen observing how they worked before being tasked with a culinary “test” as part of the interview process. To get the job, she was tasked with doing a formal dessert tasting for the chef, sous chefs and management team, consisting of one chocolate dessert, one fruit dessert (both including ice cream or sorbet) and two kinds of mignardise (miniature desserts, much like a petit four).
She got the job.
Starting up with Sprig
After being at Morimoto for a while, Jessica got the two-year job itch again, she said.
“I really thought, for sure, I was really over restaurants,” she said. “I still really loved food but I thought ‘gosh, there’s gotta be something more I could be doing.”
“I thought, ‘this is truly what I should be doing—helping people eat better and bringing local, seasonal food to everyone and making it accessible. This is something that makes me feel like you’re helping others and you’re creating really wonderful food for a lot of people, and it’s going to make the world a better place versus having a little fun,” she said.
So Jessica left her job at Morimoto Napa to become the creative culinary manager of Sprig, where she’s now responsible for designing the company’s lunch menu and the truffles that come with each dinner entrée.
Sprig is essentially a delivery service that provides healthy meal options. Unlike services that deliver on behalf of an aggregation of food establishments or getting pizza or Chinese food delivered, Sprig prepares three separate healthy lunch and dinner entrees for customers each day. Their focus is on local, seasonal food, which they try to source from within 150 miles of the Bay Area. Meats are sourced from sustainable farms with a focus on providing hormone-, antibiotic-, pesticide-, cage and range-free products.
“We want to make eating healthy food the easy option, and there’s nothing easier than having you press a button and get it brought to you,” Jessica said. “It’s quicker than even getting in your car and going to fast food.”
Co-founded by tech entrepreneurs Gagan Biyani (CEO), Neeraj Berry (Head of Operations), Morgan Springer (Head of Customer Experience) and Matt Kent (Head of Engineering), the idea came from serial entrepreneur Biyani, who discovered while he was working at ride-sharing company Lyft, that all too often, he was too tired after work to cook a healthy meal. He began turning to easy delivery options like pizza, and eventually found that his health and weight were being compromised, according to Chantelle Darby, Sprig’s PR rep. The idea for Sprig came from the realization that there needed to be options for healthy meal delivery services for busy people.
As such, Sprig is not only focused on healthy food but on using technology and data to “disrupt” the food delivery market. Launched in November 2013, the company has received backing from two prominent Silicon Valley venture capital firms, Greylock Partners and Accel.
Currently available in San Francisco (a delivery map can be viewed here), the company claims that it can get food delivered to customers within 20 minutes across the city. Food is ordered via an app available for both iOS and Android smartphones. To accomplish this, the company is employing a combination of renting multiple kitchens strategically placed throughout the city and data. By employing data scientists on staff, in addition to culinary personnel, the company is trying to use predictive data and customer behavior to try to figure out things like “who will order chicken in the Marina at what time,” according to Darby. By looking at data, they’ve already been able to make tweaks to how they operate, like extending their delivery hours. After discovering that parents tended to order dinner for their families right at 5:30 p.m. when the evening delivery service started, for instance, they were able to move up dinner service to 5 p.m. to meet demand.
In addition to employing well-known local chefs to oversee menu development and ensure Sprig’s offerings are healthful, the company is also focused on sustainability and working with local farmers. To do that, Sprig relies on executive chef, Nate Keller, who got his start as the executive chef for Google, while the company went from 400 employees to 40,000. Darby said. While there, Keller developed relationships with local farmers that he’s been able to bring to his work at Sprig.
“We have a lot of amazing local farmer relationships, local purveyor relationships. So we really put emphasis on the high quality of our ingredients,” Darby said.
The company has also started a Guest Chef Series, featuring meals planned by prominent Bay Area chefs such as Stuart Brioza of State Bird Provisions. As was to be expected, demand for that meal completely eclipsed even the resto’s legendary lines—Sprig received 10,000 online orders within the first few minutes of opening the service. According to Eater SF, meal service for that evening sold out in 11 minutes flat. Other guest chefs have included Cortney Burns and Nick Balla from Bar Tartine and Michelin-star chef Kyle Connaughton, who created a dinner of Japanese style bento boxes. Part of the proceeds from the guest chef series have gone to support local culinary enterprises such as La Cocina and to support scholarships at the Culinary Institute of America.
“To have these incredible culinary minds supporting what we’re doing is just amazing,” Darby said.
Sprig entrees are reasonably priced at $9 for lunch and $10 for dinner, with a $2 delivery fee. Darby says their customers run the gamut from busy parents to fitness enthusiasts, doctors and, of course, tech workers. One regular customer, an elderly woman, actually bought herself an iPhone so she could use the delivery service after seeing the food being delivered to someone else who lives in the same building, Darby said. Another user, who lives in Japan, orders food through the app for his father who lives in a San Francisco convalescent home, she said.
Although the hope is to expand the service nationwide (East Bay, please!), the team is currently focused on getting things right in San Francisco before expanding.
“There’s a huge opportunity to change food delivery as well as provide healthy, affordable food,” Jessica said.
What drew you to food?
Everybody eats. I love food, I like eating.
Why a gourmet food delivery service?
Being in California, there’s so many great seasonal ingredients and they’re all local; that’s really what Sprig does is local, seasonal. I love the idea that there’s nothing quite like this out there, so I loved the idea that this is something that nobody was doing. I think it’s super useful; it’s something that I would use. We have a lot of chef friends, and I was like, ‘What do you think of this?’ and they said, ‘Oh my god, it’s brilliant,’ so I thought it was a great idea and I wanted to be a part of it.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
Just from California, the local, seasonal ingredients. Every time we develop a dish, we say, ‘What’s in season? What’s good right now?’ I work on lunch recipe development, as well, and one of my favorite dishes is our Peach and Prosciutto Salad just because the peaches are perfect here. It’s like you’ve never tasted a peach before you’ve tasted one here!
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten along the way in building your business? What advice would you have for others?
It’s definitely a couple of things actually. One of them would be not to get too glued to an idea because things are going to change. So, some of the things that I thought we would be doing in the beginning have changed and changed and changed again, so it’s about being flexible because it’s not like ‘What? I thought we were going to do it this way.’ It’s changing all the time and as you scale you have to change, you have to grow with it. And also, be prepared for long days.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
One of the things I had to work on was, before we first launched, I did truffles of many flavors and varieties, and as we scaled it’s become difficult to do a lot of different flavors, so we just decided we should do one that everyone can have. But, that means that you have to include all the dietary restrictions. So I had to come up with something that was vegan, gluten-free, dairy free and tasted delicious and also looked delicious—something that I would serve at any of the restaurants I’ve worked. After lots of trial and error, we finally developed something that everyone seems to like. And most people don’t know it’s dairy free or vegan—and that’s kind of the whole point.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
There’s two things that I really like the most—no, three things. I really like the team that we have here. It’s so awesome to work with a group of like-minded individuals that really wants to change the way people eat. Everyone’s really excited about it, and it’s fun to share your enthusiasm with the whole team. Two, I’m really excited to be doing—as I mentioned before, I would do food styling and pastry and cooking and recipe testing—and I’m finally at a job where I’m using all of my skills in one place, which is kind of amazing to me. The third thing is, it feels really good to know that you’re changing the way that people are eating and helping make healthy food accessible to everyone. And the price point’s low. I have a background in very expensive restaurants, and this is something that everyone can afford.
What’s your favorite item on the menu?
As I mentioned, I really love the Peach and Prosciutto Salad—we just took it off the menu because peaches are out of season, but I was like, man, this is just so perfect It’s salty and sweet and perfect.
What other local food artisans do you admire? Why?
There’s a lot of them. In California, there’s a lot of local, seasonal places. Rich Table—I love what they do with the combination of local, seasonal food but putting a fancier twist on it. I remember recently I’ve been there and they did a burrata foam with some vegetables and the vegetables were perfect and the burrata foam was delicious.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
It would be dessert. A three-course tasting of dessert. Because if you’re going to die, why not go out with a bang? It’s your last meal.
Favorite Bay area resto/food/chef?
I like Rich Table, and I also just love the [Ferry Building] Farmer’s Market because there’s always something seasonal and there’s also a lot of good food providers there and you can just go every weekend and not be bored of it because it’s always changing.
Photos courtesy of Sprig.