Jenn Ross, Founder and CEO of DaJean Eats is a sassy vegan chef that is full of life. Her passion for teaching new culinary techniques while educating people to have a better understanding of how food works together to create enticing and tasty eats with an island flair is evident when chatting with her. Jenn interviewed and shared how courage was the baseline to her confidently transitioning from learning how to prepare a proper meal to being a vegan chef to compliment her evolving journey of living a health-centric lifestyle. She confidently teaches her creative culinary skills and shares her delectable recipes with foodies through her virtual classes. This interview will inspire any professional that wants to become or advance in their career path to being a subject matter expert in their specific industry.
Career Tipper: How do you remain confident in your culinary skills?
Ross: Michele, that is an interesting question, and I’ll tell you why. One of my favorite quotes by Maya Angelou is “Courage is the most important of all virtues, because without courage you cannot practice any other virtue consistently. You can practice any virtue erratically, but nothing consistently without courage.” Here’s why your question made me think of that quote. I have not always been confident in my culinary skills, but I’ve always been courageous. I have found, however, that the latter feeds the former. The more courageous I am, the more willing I am to try a new recipe or cooking method despite the fear, the more confident I become. Then an amazing thing happens: fear diminishes and my courage – my attitude regardless of circumstances takes a supporting role to my confidence – knowledge that I can handle and master a particular task.
I wasn’t always a good cook. In fact, I was a terrible cook. I almost burnt down my first apartment trying to cook. See, I came to America for college at 16 leaving my family in Jamaica. I had no one to cook for me, and found that to continue enjoying certain luxuries like eating and living inside; I couldn’t buy all my meals. Necessity dictated that I learned how to cook. I made some unbelievably horrific meals, but I continued. That is courage. Later on, I studied in great detail food science and preparation. The knowledge of how food works – how different cooking methods affect a particular food – has greatly boosted my confidence. My dishes became better and more cohesive. I became so confident in what I had learned and was now practicing that I started a company centered around cooking. DaJen Eats exists to encourage the home cook to not be afraid of the kitchen. In my videos, I share a lot of cooking why’s, not just recipes. For example, Why would you add salt at the end of frying potatoes rather than at the beginning. How does that affect the finished dish? My viewers will leave each video understanding basic cooking principles geared to make them more confident in creating their own unique, successful recipes.
When I first started the videos I had to rely on the old courage. I was entering a new arena and was not yet confident in that. But you know something, Michele? I remind myself each time I am about to record a new video that my goal is to empower the home cook to become more confident in his/her culinary skills. So by feeding someone else’s confidence, my confidence is further bolstered. Yogi Bhajan said, “If you want to master something, teach it.” That is what I have done.
Career Tipper: What inspires your creativity with infusing your personality and legacy into your culinary brand?
Ross: At one point, I was uncomfortable with the idea that I am a brand. You know, I didn’t like feeling like a commodity. But the reality is, we are our very own brands, whether we like it or not. What we portray is our brand. Our brand is the emotional connection we have with others. Our values, beliefs and things we offer all form part of that brand. The difficulty comes when what we portray is inconsistent with who we are. Then our brand is inauthentic, and we begin to feel like a commodity. Now we enter into role-playing. Remaining true to ourselves and what we believe and what we portray will line up with each other, and then the idea of our “brand” becomes a non-issue and exists simply as an extension of us.
For a long time, I was living inauthentically and, by extension, had an inauthentic brand. When I first started DaJen Eats, I didn’t want to limit myself to Jamaican food and certainly not to vegan cooking. That’s interesting because those are the two culinary identifiers with which I resonated most. So, I made videos and produced recipes that were neither vegan nor Jamaican. I made the type of food I thought people wanted to see. I was not very happy. Veganism is important to me because it provides a way for me to live out the compassion that I feel. I was born a Jamaican, and Jamaican food was what I enjoyed most. In short, I was trying to be someone I wasn’t, running away from my truth. Because of this, I didn’t record videos consistently and the finished product – though professional – wasn’t a lot of fun. I didn’t start to get the response I wanted from my viewers until I revamped DaJen Eats to be in alignment with my beliefs. Michele, your audience/clients/customers have a way of knowing when you are authentic. People respond to authenticity. It gives them permission to be authentic, themselves.
My videos, as you have pointed out, show my sassiness. Why is that? Because I am now comfortable with what I am portraying. I choose to be authentically Jenn, just talking to my viewers. For a long time, I told myself I was demure. Perhaps I found certain virtues in being so. While being demure is great – if that’s you, that did not correctly fit my personality. My culinary brand is fun and inviting, peppered with a bit of sass. My inspiration comes from asking not what I think the viewers would like to eat, but from what I would like to eat. As it turns out, the viewers like that, too.
Career Tipper: On your pursuit to be a sought after vegan culinary expert, what are your must-have items in your kitchen and success mindset arsenal?
Ross: I have three must-haves in the kitchen. Everything else is brahtah. (Brahtah is a Jamaican term for “extra” or “bonus”). In my kitchen, I must have a sharp knife – ideally a chef’s knife, a large, heavy-bottomed skillet, and an open mind. Michele, you really can’t get by without a good knife. I have found investing in a good quality knife and treating it well (regularly sharpening it and storing it properly) will make your kitchen experience that much more pleasant. A good, sharp knife used with good knife skills will replace many kitchen gadgets. If we learn how to use that knife correctly, we won’t fear chopping, dicing, and food preparation. We won’t need a lot of the specialized “cutters” that are now being sold, which in turn will save us money and space. Slicing and dicing may even become therapeutic. Who knows? If there is but one knife you can afford, get a chef’s knife. It is the ideal size to get just about any of your cutting jobs done. Keep it sharp and store it properly. Most cutting accidents occur with dull knives, because when the knife is dull, it slides off the food – rather than through the food – and cuts the cook. Store it well in a knife shield or butcher block to avoid it being nicked in your drawer.
A heavy-bottomed skillet is a kitchen workhorse. Invest in a good quality pan. You don’t have to worry about getting an entire matching set of pans. Start out with a skillet that you like. See how it works for you, and then get other pots as you go along. It doesn’t even have to be from the same brand. You have the power to create your kitchen uniquely you. My favorite pot is a stainless steel skillet. It is quite large, allowing me to cook more things at once without crowding the pan. (Overcrowding the pan causes your food to sweat. Sweat and crisp are diametrically opposed. Don’t do it! Give your food some room. Your taste buds will thank you later.) I also tend to avoid non-stick skillets simply because I like sucs. Sucs are the tiny brown deposits at the bottom of the pot or pan when you’re sautéing, searing, or pan-frying something. A lot of people discard this but sucs, when deglazed, are the building blocks of a terrific sauce. Next time, add a bit of wine to deglaze your sucs. The wine will release the brown bits from the pan. You can also help the process along by scraping the pan. Add a bit of water, some salt and pepper, then allow to reduce. Finish with fresh herbs and a bit of cold non-dairy butter and you’ll have the most amazing pan sauce money can’t buy. This process isn’t as effective using a non-stick pan as you don’t get as much sucs, and you have to be careful about scraping the pan.
More than any ingredient or equipment, you need an open mind in the kitchen. With an open mind, you can learn food basics. With that same open mind, you can then take that knowledge to create your dishes unique. An open mind challenges you to look at food differently. That is particularly true of vegan cooking. The western plate is very meat-forward. The meat/protein is the star of the dish and vegetables serve simply to support it. However, in vegan cooking you no longer use meat. Cooking with no meat forces you to reimagine the plate. Vegans don’t eat foreign foods; they simply eat foods differently. What was once the side dish can now be turned into the star. Perhaps you are accustomed to a particular food being cooked a very specific way. Who says that food can’t be treated differently? What would happen if you were to try a new technique with an old food? Indeed, Michele, an open mind can teach an old dog new tricks. An open mind changes the world, one plate at a time.
Check out Jenn’s latest video featuring a recipe for Vegan Red Velvet Cheesecake Ice Cream below. Yummy! To learn more about DaJean Eats, their recipes and classes, visit their website at www.dajeaneats.com.