We had the good fortune of connecting with Jenn Smith and we’ve shared our conversation below.

Hi Jenn, we’d love to hear more about how you thought about starting your own business?

It happened very organically. (No pun intended.) My whole, extended family is really into food. When we get together for the holidays (something I’m really hoping we can do this year), we sit around talking and eating for hours – and then still have leftovers for everyone to take home. In the 1960’s, my Dad’s parents actually had a small restaurant in the sketchy part of Washington D.C. He and my uncle like to complain about what hard work it was, but the two of them still joke about opening up another restaurant together someday.

My grandparents barely had enough food to eat in the villages where they grew up, so they reveled in being able to offer their grandkids an abundance of food. It took them a long while to get to that point. There’s a story about how when I was a toddler, the Asian pears were so expensive that they’d buy just one at the supermarket – for me. Only recently, my Dad shared how rarely they had treats when he was young. Once in a while, his grandfather would visit, and he’d bring sesame candy and other goodies my Dad anticipated with glee. He also recalled being in Hong Kong and how heavenly it was to bite into his first piece of bread – at the age of 6. So, for us, food is laced with vivid memories and is a constant expression of love and hospitality. It’s a traditional Chinese greeting to ask, “Have you eaten yet?”

Beyond that, food functions as a form of celebration… not only for holidays and birthdays, but also as a symbol of success, of our family finally reaching a point where we can afford good food in plentiful enough quantities that no one has to feel deprived of something they really want to eat.

I’ve been an avid cook for over two decades but didn’t bake my first pie until my son’s second birthday in 2018. After that, I started baking on special occasions more regularly. By fall 2019, I was reading about sourdough and finding myself very intrigued – but also pretty intimidated – by the process. It takes two weeks or so of consistently nurturing a new wild yeast culture (“starter”) with flour and water until it’s active enough to leaven a loaf of bread, and I couldn’t figure out when I’d have a large enough block of time and attention to devote to it. Then, the pandemic arrived, shelter-in-place was announced, and it seemed like the ideal time to begin. It worked out especially well because my husband, our son, and I were staying with my parents, who both happen to love baked goods. Plus, having five of us to feed served as a great excuse to start experimenting with baking in a way I hadn’t previously.

Almost exactly a year ago, in April, I finally found a sourdough recipe (Chad Robertson’s “Tartine’s Country Bread”) that didn’t seem too complicated, and mixed up a starter. After a couple weeks, I baked my first loaf and was surprised by how much I enjoyed the whole process of making bread from scratch. Once I started, I kind of fell in love with it.

By October, the three of us had been back home in San Diego for a couple months, and I was itching to get back to baking. I made some bread, then scones and popovers, and, pretty soon, our entire freezer was stuffed to the point of overflowing. I had this driving desire to keep baking and experimenting, but quickly realized there was no way we’d manage to go through that quantity of bread and treats ourselves while maintaining a balanced diet. I started to wonder if people living near us might have any interest in organic, homemade bread and treats.

On a whim, I posted a question on NextDoor with a few photos. About a week later, I had close to 80 positive responses with several people asking how to place orders… so, I began accepting special orders by direct message and by text. Then, I started posting on Instagram; the food photos look so beautiful and delicious on their platform.

What I love most about baking is being able to make and share something that brings people enjoyment and pleasure. In moderation, small indulgences have the power to brighten our lives and lift our spirits, and my hope is that I’m contributing to the happiness of those around me in tiny but significant ways by doing what I love doing.

Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.

Operating a nano-bakery out of our apartment kitchen means there are a lot of constraints – like keeping batches relatively small and needing to find creative ways to add steam to the oven – but also a lot of freedom. I don’t have the added overhead of renting a retail space, so I’m able to take some time to develop recipes and offer a level of personalized service that I’m not sure I’d be able to in a more conventional bakery setting. I’m thrilled when someone comes to me with a special request or suggestion because it gives me a chance to work on and learn something new.

Recently, this happened when one of my regulars asked if I might offer soda bread for St. Patrick’s Day. I did a bit of research and discovered that there’s a traditional way to make soda bread (nutty and substantial) and a more American way (sweeter, richer, lighter). I decided, in honor of the holiday, to go with tradition. Another customer who’d been to Ireland a while back saw my Instagram post and was reminded of the bread she’d enjoyed during her travels. She ordered a loaf for herself and another for a friend. A couple days later, I reached out to see how the bread had been, and she confessed that the second loaf never made it out of her house!

Both with sourdough and traditional soda bread, the recipes are very basic, so the quality of the raw ingredients really comes through in the finished product. (I think this is true for everything, but more noticeable in items that don’t contain butter and eggs.) One of the things I’m most proud of is offering food made with the best ingredients I’m able to source, including organic flours (some of them home-milled from grain), organic nuts and seeds, butter from grass-fed cows, organic milk and buttermilk (grass-fed whenever possible), and organic, pasture-raised eggs. Any fruit fresh or dried fruit used is also organic.

The choice to do this translates into higher prices with lower profit margins, but my commitment to this level of quality is firm. If something doesn’t sell at a price point that supports using these ingredients, I will opt to stop offering that product (or offer it by special order only). Everything I serve my customers has to be something we feel good about eating at home. Which brings us to one of my greatest challenges: literally living in a bakery and having the constant temptation to eat the inventory!

If you scroll through my Instagram feed, you’ll see that it begins with a lot of popovers and pretzels and scones, then there’s a transition to more sourdough, then adding whole grain to the sourdough, and, most recently, some experiments with 100% whole grain breads. There’s admittedly a healthy sprinkling of brownies in the mix, too. It’s been working well to make treats once or twice a month (although I’m happy to bake up a special order at any time) and focus on partial/fully whole-grain sourdough the rest of the time.

Most of my past experiences with whole-grain breads have been rather mixed: the texture was often too dense or coarse, the flavor either too bland or too sour. I’d buy a whole rye or spelt or wheat loaf, then dream of indulging in one made with refined flour. I’m really intrigued by the idea of baking loaves with aromatic whole grains that are freshly-milled, naturally sweet and nutty, enhanced with little more than a bit of sea salt. A slice of one of these breads is hearty, wholesome, and deeply satisfying – so much so that a single, half-inch slice can almost serve as a meal in itself. I’m looking forward to adding nuts and seeds next as I continue to develop even more nutritious, delicious breads.

My first jobs during and after college were in retail, including one selling stationery and wedding invitations, which was great because I’m sort of obsessed with stationery. I eventually found my way into graphic design and then into human-computer experience design, which meant doing my best to help engineers and product managers create software and hardware that was easier and less frustrating for our customers to use. Then, I took time out to start a family. I never would have guessed I’d become a baker, so this past year has been full of unexpected twists and turns bringing me back to my retail roots. I’m not sure where I’m going from here, but I’ve learned to stay open to the opportunities life presents me with. I’ve been fortunate in so many ways.

If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
Oh, this is a fun question! I love good food, and so do most of my friends, so our itinerary would be heavily slanted towards seeking out good eats. I’d likely start with one of my two favorite Thai restaurants – both owned by the same talented woman, coincidentally: Plumeria on Park Blvd. (University Heights) and Sukhothai Extraordinaire on Adams. Their green curry and spicy noodles are mouthwatering. The first time we ate at Sukhothai with my in-laws, I tried to warn them about the San Diego Thai spice scale… because I’d learned about it the hard way myself. I once ordered a Level 8, and it literally made me cry. (I’m a huge fan of spicy food and ultimately landed on Spicy Level 3.)

For breakfast or a decadent snack, the croissants at Wayfarer Bread in Bird Rock are unbeatable; they are shatteringly crisp on the outside, and buttery and flakey on the inside, and I would eat half a dozen of them in a sitting if I could afford to. Not only that, my sourdough is inspired by their delicious multiseed bread, a mild, almost sweet sourdough with dark, crusty exterior and a soft, chewy interior. While in La Jolla, we’d definitely check out La Jolla Cove and continue to the Torrey Pines Glider Port to watch the paragliders over the water – and maybe sneak in a hike nearby. Depending on how we were feeling, we might also stop by the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, where I saw a sea dragon for the first time over a decade ago during my first visit to San Diego. They’re beautiful and otherworldly, and I never get tired of watching them drift through the water.

Back near our apartment, we’d hit up my favorite taco truck, Tacos La Mezcla (on El Cajon Blvd. at BLVD Court). Francisco, the owner, is always trying to get me to try the rest of his menu, but I can’t stop ordering the tasty carnitas tacos and pozole (pork and hominy soup, available seasonally on Sundays). Even though I’m baking now, we would still probably stroll over to Black Market Bakery on 30th because their cookies are delicious (my fav is the Blackstrap Betty), and they serve coffee and espresso from Dark Horse. Plus, they are always super friendly, and, once the pandemic has passed, we’ll want to hang out in the beautiful garden/patio area e watched the co-owner build over several months year before last.

I don’t drink much, but I do enjoy an occasional beer, and the vibe at Fall Brewing Company (also on 30th) is pretty much always welcoming and energetic. I especially like their pilsners and lagers, and the tasting glasses are a lovely way to try several different brews before committing to a pint. Before Covid hit, we’d sometimes drive over to Buona Forchetta in South Park just for their Neapolitan-style Margherita with extra basil, hands-down my favorite pizza in San Diego.

On Sunday, we’d make our way to the Hillcrest Farmer’s Market to grab some of the freshest organic produce in the city from two of my favorite stands: Maciel Family Organic Farm (often the whole family is there), where they are so committed to bringing us the best lettuce that they keep theirs in water at the market; and Jacy Farm, where they sell a unique array of organic Asian fruits and vegetables, including Shishito peppers, very spicy Korean long peppers, Korean striped melon (small and crisp with mellow sweetness), and Japanese grapes (plump, tender and tart at the height of summer).

I almost forgot to mention Cabrillo National Monument in Point Loma, a dramatic collision of land and sea… an absolutely stunning landscape.

Finally, no trip to San Diego would be complete without spending some time at Balboa Park. Even with the museums closed, I love strolling the grounds (especially the succulent and sculpture gardens and the water lily pond near the Botanical Building). And, I’m really looking forward to visiting the Mingei Museum and the Museum of Art again after the long closures.

The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
My husband Noah is incredibly positive about and supportive of my cooking and baking. He makes it easy to dive in with both feet and experiment without fear of wasting food or having to eat it all myself. He’s also the best sport ever when it comes to helping me clean up the big mess I make in our kitchen. Without him, I wouldn’t be able to do what I do. I also want to acknowledge my friend Esther, who embarked on her sourdough journey months ahead of me. She was (and is!) so generous in sharing her experiences and offering encouragement.

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jennsmithkitchen/?hl=en

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jennsmithkitchen/

Yelp: https://www.yelp.com/biz/jenn-smith-kitchen-san-diego

Nominate Someone: ShoutoutSocal is built on recommendations and shoutouts from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you or someone you know deserves recognition please let us know here.