“Dip, crackers, bottle of wine, done!” That’s the tagline for Chef Jenn, aka Memphis food entrepreneur Jenn McCullough. This fast-moving, working mom knows we’re all short on time and that’s why she created a line of microwaveable culinary creations that can make your get-togethers a breeze. She’s also a reality TV star, scoring a win on “The Rice Stuff” episode of Food Network’s “Cutthroat Kitchen.” We caught up with this born-and-bred Memphian, and today Jenn’s dishing on high-style entertaining, TV fame and what it’s like to try to do it all—and succeed.
Tell us about your background. How did you get started in the culinary field?
I fell in love with the Austin food scene in college at the University of Texas. One thing led to another, and after graduation, I ended up at culinary school in Colorado. I learned so much about working in restaurants, but not so much about all the other opportunities out there for someone with the culinary credentials I’d gained. After moving home to Memphis, I started out selling a few items to friends and family—at first I even home delivered everything. It was all worthwhile—today you can find Chef Jenn in stores from Texas to the Florida Panhandle.
We’d love to hear more about your product line. Where can people buy Chef Jenn dips and appetizers?
In a good number of cities, you can find Chef Jenn at Kroger and Walmart. We’re growing by the week, and expect to expand to more and more stores nationwide in the process. It’s an exciting time for us as a company.
You won “The Rice Stuff” episode of the Food Network show “Cutthroat Kitchen!” Give us the dish on that experience … what is it like to steal the show on reality TV?
Now, that was fun. I’m not a big TV watcher (although I do love Discovery and Travel Channel), so I wasn’t familiar with the show at first. I jumped in with both feet and it turned out to be a great decision. I made some great contacts and had fun thinking on my feet. It was almost like being back in a restaurant … with a camera crew thrown in for added drama. I had already gained a level of television experience by then, so I felt comfortable with that side of it. I just had fun with it and wound up winning—that outcome made my watch party back home a lot more fun for everyone when the episode aired!
We know that time management AND quality ingredients are important to you in creating your products and recipes. Tell us why.
Today’s shoppers are sophisticated. We want to feed our friends and families delicious food made with the best ingredients available. On the other hand, we all have less time on our hands to make it happen. Everyone should be able to serve food they’re proud of and not spend all day making it. That’s why our goal at Chef Jenn is to create yummy shortcuts our customers can add to their staples to be ready for anything. If a friend drops in for a glass of wine and a snack, we’ve got you covered—pop a dip in the oven and you’re done. On the other hand, if you have people coming by whom you want to “wow,” our shrimp cakes make a great option. Dice some fresh mangoes over the top or serve with hollandaise and a poached egg as a brunch item for a little extra oomph. No one needs to know you didn’t slave all day pulling together a meal to remember.
Talk for a minute about your Southern roots and the role Louisiana and the Gulf Coast play in your culinary style.
I am a Memphis girl, born and raised. I have family in New Orleans, and I spend quite a bit of time down there, as well. My culinary style is what I’d call field to table. There’s nothing better than spending the afternoon creating a new preparation for fresh fish you caught that morning. With Memphis flavors and Creole cuisine in my repertoire, I can come up with something to please pretty much everybody.
As a working single mom, talk for a minute about work-life balance. How do you do it all? What main lessons do you hope your kids gain from watching your career?
I’m sure all the single parents have heard this piece of advice before, but I’ll repeat it now because I need to hear it myself: delegate, delegate, delegate. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of a task and trust that it will get done the way you want it to. And you know what? Sometimes it won’t get done exactly how you might have wanted, but at least it’s finished and you can move on. No one can do it all.
What goals do you have for yourself in the next five years?
To rule the world! Just kidding … I only want to rule your taste buds. I’m developing some exciting, top-secret products I can’t wait to share in 2016 and 2017. Watch this space! We’re poised for serious growth at Chef Jenn.
What do you like best about living in Memphis?
Memphis will always be home. It’s a great place to raise kids, and there’s always plenty to do. It’s also a great place for outdoorsy folks like my son and me. We love to ride our bikes all over downtown. If we really want to leave it all behind, we can take a short drive and be in the perfect place for camping and fishing.
What types of things do you do in your spare time?
Name anything outdoors, and I’m there. Running, cycling, fishing, camping, hiking–I love it all. I also love a great pair of shoes, a trendy outfit and a fun place to go. But sometimes, a serious cup of coffee and a good book are all I need.
If a movie were made about your life, who would you want to play you?
Charlize Theron. But my friends would say Lucille Ball.
What’s your best piece of advice for others?
Knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is not putting it in a fruit salad.
What are three things you can’t live without, excluding faith, family and friends?
Wow, it’s tough to answer this question if you exclude faith, family and friends! Let me see … I can’t live without my dog ScarJo—she’s a rescue and has been my faithful sidekick for 12 years. She’s seen me through thick and thin and has been the grateful recipient of some of my less successful recipe experiments. I’d also go crazy without my running shoes—getting my endorphins going always helps me focus and be more creative. And finally, I guess I’d say my trusty suitcase. I’ve dragged the same bag behind me for 10 years. It’s about time to get a new one! It’s vital for me to get out and meet my customers, spend time with the people who enjoy Chef Jenn products and have as many varied food experiences as I can. You don’t have to be a world traveler to eat well, and I like to incorporate the things I’ve discovered in my own travels into Chef Jenn products so everyone can benefit from what I’ve learned. I’m proud to share the delicious results of my research with our customers.
A huge thanks to Chef Jenn for taking time out of her uber-busy workday to talk to us. To find out more about Jenn, check her out: chefjenn.com. And thanks to photographer Micki Martin for the delicious images!