Jen’s Next Course is not just the name of Jen Nurse’s business, it’s an accurate description of where her career is right now—in the midst of the next move.
Her next course, so to speak, is also not just the next step in Jen’s career but actual cooking courses. After a long career in technology, followed by owning a pastry and wedding cake catering company, Jen discovered she loves to teach others how to cook and will be teaching offering cooking courses for kids and adults at various locations throughout San Francisco.
Jen’s love affair with cooking, and with pastry in particular, started as a child. Although Jen says her mother tells her she wasn’t that interested in cooking when she was really young, Jen remembers not only having a big sweet tooth as a child but that when she baked for others, it always made them happy. Which in turn made her happy because she got positive reinforcement, and she got to eat what she made.
“I discovered at a pretty young age that if I made something myself—and in my case it was almost always something sweet—not only did I get some positive reinforcement for it, but I also got to eat it. I had a really big sweet tooth as a kid. I think I subconsciously became a pastry chef because I loved sweets from the time I was young,” she said. “It made people happy. It was positive reinforcement from the inside and outside.”
As a kid, Jen also enjoyed playing with recipes. She says she remembers experimenting with the Nestle Toll House cookie recipe by the time she was in fifth or sixth grade. Just to see what would happen, Jen would leave out the baking powder or add more soda than the recipe suggested. Fascinated by the science of baking without knowing it at the time, when her cookies would come out of the oven flat as a pancake, she says remembers thinking, “Wow…”
Then when Jen was in high school she spent a life-changing year as an exchange student living with a host family in Brescia, a town in northern Italy. It was in Italy that her eyes began to open to local, fresh, seasonal ingredients, piquing her interest in food even more.
“The people on the street would be lowering their bread baskets from the window down to the bread cellar every morning and raising it back up and those were your rolls for the day. Everybody got one at lunch, and they were awesome,” she said.
“The taste of that food and the simplicity of it really had a huge effect on me,” she said.
When she returned to the U.S., Jen continued cooking for her family and friends throughout college and into her 20s. She says she got her first taste of the difference between professional chefs and home cooks when she dated someone who spent his summers cooking in high-end restaurants. She began learning proper cooking techniques from him—how to cut an onion like a chef does, how to peel large amounts of garlic by soaking them in hot water. Soon she began hosting and doing all the cooking for family gatherings. Then Jen began going through phases where she was consumed by baking different items—pies, cookies, whatever. She got a subscription to Martha Stewart Living. “And then I became fascinated with cakes,” she said.
As cliché as it may sound, Jen says that Martha Stewart not only had a huge influence on the wedding industry but on her own desire to make wedding cakes. Later, when Jen was making cakes for a living, she says she and her colleagues in the wedding industry would joke that “love her or hate her,” at least half of them would not have been florists, wedding planners or cake makers if it weren’t for Martha Stewart.
“She changed, she transformed that industry. She made it into something arts and craftsy. She opened up a design sensibility—it had a huge influence,” Jen said.
In the meantime, as Jen got deeper and deeper into her baking adventures at home, she found herself working in the telecom industry. After college, she took a temp job with a large telco carrier and was offered a permanent job within a couple months. She ended up staying for 15 years, working as a program manager in Portland then Seattle, where she was responsible for managing large national client accounts and huge account teams dispersed throughout the country. Working with so many different constituents at once ended up being the perfect preparation for opening a baking business, she says.
“I feel like it was a big life lesson in diplomacy. It taught me a lot about how to juggle a lot of pieces of things at once, to keep something running and to deal with myriad personalities and situations. You just didn’t have the option of not succeeding…it taught me a lot about troubleshooting,” she said.
Being able to juggle and respond to client demands, Jen says, proved to be a handy skill when she eventually did open her own baking business. Just as with any job where you’re servicing clients, there’s always a new problem to solve and many things that can go wrong, she says. But tackling those problems with a multi-million dollar client gave her the confidence to think there wasn’t much she couldn’t handle.
“It gave me the feeling that there would never come along a problem that I couldn’t solve,” she said.
While she was living in Seattle and working 60-70 hours a week, Jen decided she wanted to go to pastry school at night. So she enrolled in the pastry program at the Art Institute, which was the only program in Seattle offering night courses at the time. But halfway through her program, at the six-month mark, the rest of her class, none of whom had full-time day jobs, decided they wanted to take their classes during the day instead of at night.
With only six months of pastry school under her belt, Jen was forced to drop out of pastry school due to her work schedule. Despite not finishing the program, she says she feels like she got exactly what she needed from it—learning how to make desserts on an industrial scale, work with large mixers, create large recipes and practice assembly, speed and efficiency.
“It taught me the difference between being a home come and being a professional,” she said.
By 2005, Jen started making wedding cakes for friends at home. At the same time, her company was going through a huge transition with wave after wave of layoffs. Jen says she secretly hoped she would get laid off, but when she kept surviving the cuts, she finally realized that her job and knowledge about the client she managed was far too valuable to the company for them to let her go.
“So I finally laid myself off,” she says.
Jen says taking the leap from her tech job to opening her own bakery was actually very similar to the decision to go abroad by herself at 16. Even though she says she doesn’t think of herself as a “crazily adventurous person,” Jen was willing to take the risk because she knew it would be worth it.
After leaving her tech job, Jen jumped into the bakery biz by reading copiously and teaching herself how to source and buy professional ingredients, find suppliers and build industry contacts. She decided she wanted to do high-end, custom dessert buffets for special events and wedding cakes. Her goal was to never do the same thing twice if she could help it. She bought her own equipment but found a kitchen space to share and rent from another catering business.
Again, much like her tech job, Jen had to be on at all times to be in the wedding cake business. “You can’t screw up someone’s cake,” she says.
“It was always my goal to be the one thing that the planner or the bride didn’t have to worry about,” she said. “ I wasn’t going to be the one that they got stressed about. Customer service was really important to me—I think that came from my business background.”
As part of her wedding cake business, Jen was constantly developing new recipes, in part due to her desire to be constantly mixing things up (so to speak) and try different things. She says that she would make certain things for cake tastings but she was always open to experimenting with her clients and trying new flavors and combinations. “That was great for learning how to write recipes, learning how to develop recipes and figuring out what works and doesn’t work,” she said.
Although Jen says she enjoyed running the bakery on her own, she soon realized how taxing baking full-time could be. Since most weddings are on weekends, she was working seven days a week. After working a full wedding season by herself, she decided that “employees can be really helpful” and hired an intern to help. Eventually she had three interns on her staff part-time.
“If I thought I worked long hours in telecom, running a small bakery was insane,” she said.
Jen says that it was working with her interns that really sparked her interest in teaching.
“It was then, without really knowing it, that I started teaching,” she said. “I was teaching constantly. You have to teach them everything that you do. It taught me the fine line between being firm but kind.”
She also realized her interns were far more capable that they usually thought they were. By having the confidence they could do more and gently pushing them to do so, Jen says they were able to accomplish a lot.
“I find it’s the same with students. The more confidence you have in them, the better they seem to do, I find. Especially working with kids. They don’t know what they don’t know, so it’s kind of lovely.”
Eventually some major life changes forced Jen to shut down the cake business. In the midst of a divorce, she decided the best thing she could do for herself was start over. Says she realized that the way she wanted to run her cake business wasn’t going to be scalable. Thee toll that working that many hours at very physical work could have on her body worried her, as well. Already feeling some pain from repetitive movements, she didn’t want her body to start breaking down as often happens to chefs after years in the business. And since she’d always wanted to live in San Francisco since she was a child, she figured if she was going to make a lot of life changes, why not pick up and move to San Francisco?
“It was incredibly difficult. But I felt like if I’m going to do this, might as well not stick just one toe in the pool, but I should try to have the happiest life that I can,” she said.
Before moving to San Francisco, Jen had done some consulting for a restaurant as a pastry chef, so when she moved she decided to do some consulting in the city. That allowed her to get some restaurant experience. She also did some consulting for a food truck concept doing recipe development.
After two years of that, Jen felt ready to set up her won pastry consulting business. But then she happened to meet Mary Risley, the owner of the now closed Tante Marie’s Cooking School, at the dinner party. After hearing that Jen was interested in teaching cooking, Risley suggested Jen go back to culinary school so she would be able to teach more than just pastry classes. Not long afterward she found herself enrolled in Tante Marie’s six-month professional culinary program.
Jen says she loved the program but at times found it difficult to be an older student. She says put pressure on herself to be further along since she already had professional experience. “It can be a humbling experience to be an older student, but I feel that I really grew from it,” she said. “That program is no joke, it was hard. Even for me as a trained professional cook, it was tough—and wonderful.”
“The education was great,” she said.
After finishing her course in the Fall of 2013, Jen started helping out and teaching at Tante Marie’s until the school closed this past fall. She got to teach a variety of classes there, from professional culinary and pastry classes to recreational classes. “It was extremely valuable,” she said.
In addition to teaching over the past year, Jen says she’s also been visiting and taking cooking classes throughout the Bay Area and in wine country to help her develop her teaching style get a sense of what she thinks works well in a culinary classroom.
Getting back to the “next course” concept, Jen now plans to teach both privately and publicly. She’ll be teaching courses at 18 Reasons in the Mission, and she hopes to also find a permanent kitchen space where she can hold classes. In addition, she wants to blog about her teaching experiences. After pondering writing for quite some time, Jen says she feels like sharing her teaching experiences not only gives her the opportunity to write about something she’s passionate about but provides her the chance to bring a fresh perspective to the crowded space of food blogging.
“It was starting to think of myself as a teacher and becoming comfortable with myself as a teacher that suddenly opened the floodgates for me and made me feel comfortable about sharing my experiences of food and of my students through teaching. And that’s something I feel comfortable blogging about. I feel like I finally have something where I feel 100 percent secure in my own secure, and I’m not just regurgitating some stuff that some other food blogger or food writer is saying. I feel like I have a message and I have something to say that might actually help people,” she said.
What drew you to food?
What draws me to food is that it’s a common ingredient that everyone in the world shares. Everybody needs to eat. How they go about doing it varies, but eating is central to who we are as individuals and also as a community and a world. It’s something that we all share and I just feel strongly that the sense of togetherness that can be created through food experiences can go a long way toward softening the edges of the differences we have. It makes me feel like I can be involved in something that actually can make a difference—in a small way—in the world. And I want my life to make a difference.
I’ve always been a big consumer of knowledge. I love to read, I love to study, I love to learn about things. I shared that before with people through cooking things or baking things for them or designing things for them, and now I feel that I can actually share the knowledge itself. And to me it’s a little bit more personal way of reaching out to people and, again, making a difference. I love to watch people learn so I guess that’s also it.
Where does your food inspiration come from?
Oh, wow. Definitely from living here in the Bay Area and being surrounded by so many incredible natural resources, and the people who work with them. I would also say the world—the more I travel and the more I see around the world, I’m so inspired by the way other cultures eat, what they eat and the fascinating things that they do that are different from what I’ve known. I feel like with cooking and teaching about food, my mind is constantly expanding.
It’s more an attitude that was instilled in me since I was a kid, which is focus on the solutions not on the problems. And that would also be my advice. Be positive.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
It took me a really long time to get comfortable in my own skin. Finding the exact fit for the things that I love and the things that I want to share. Food was a start, but teaching is the thing I can see not ending.
What is the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
It’s so hard to pick a best thing… Connecting with people through food and learning.
What’s your favorite thing that you make?
Oh, that’s such an unfair question! Does it have to be one thing?
I think my favorite thing to make is a new food adventure with my partner. My boyfriend and I spend a lot of time cooking together. At least once a week we pick some challenge, recipe, method or something that we’ve had at a restaurant that we want to crack the code on. And then we cook it—and whether it comes out or not, those are my favorite cooking experiences. We call it “The Food Research Project.” It’s really fun.
Oh, so many. There’s many teachers that I admire that have inspired me. Obviously, Mary (Risley) and Frances (Wilson). There are so many chefs but if I start naming them, I’m afraid I’ll leave someone out.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
It would be my mom’s barbecue spare ribs, mashed potatoes, maybe corn on the cob.
Favorite Bay Are food/resto/chef?
There are many that I like but I absolutely love the food at State Bird Provisions. I’m lucky enough to live down the street. I just have so fun eating there.
Jen’s Next Course
Photos courtesy of Jen Nurse.