When I was younger, I was really into the Big Dog t-shirts. My favorite one said,”If you don’t run with the big dogs, stay on the porch.”
Today’s FACES of Memphis profiles a woman who, I am sure, is always the first one off the porch and is definitely a “big dog” in the cooking world. Not only is Jennifer Chandler an author of two cookbooks, Simply Salads and Simply Suppers, with her third one, Simply Grilling, debuting in April, she is also a talented chef, a restaurant owner, a wife and a mother to two beautiful girls. On top of all that, she is genuinely one of the friendliest ladies I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. Her love for cooking is “simply” contagious and she makes the kitchen an inviting place for even the most novice of cooks. Jennifer introduces us to delicious recipes that are enjoyable to cook, easy on the taste buds and leave you feeling like a champ in the kitchen. It doesn’t get much better than that!
Here’s a sneak peak into the very busy life of Jennifer Chandler.
Where did you grow up?
We moved from New Orleans to Memphis when I was in elementary school. I spent every holiday and summer back in New Orleans growing up, so I like to call them both home!
Where did you go to college and what did you study?
I went to Georgetown University and my major was International Finance! I know, it has nothing to do with my current career, but it helps me manage my books and was the catalyst for deciding to go to France for culinary school.
What led you back to Memphis?
Once I left for college, it took me almost 10 years to return back home. I spent that decade in DC and in Paris. I’m back in Memphis because of a boy–who has been my sweet husband for almost 15 years!
Has cooking always been a passion or is it something that you fell in love with later on in life?
I really started to enjoy cooking while I was in college. DC had so many great restaurants and markets that I really fell in love with good food. I would call my Dad (who is a fabulous cook) and he would dictate recipes to me over the phone. His enthusiasm for cooking was contagious and it’s a bug that I’ve never gotten over!
When did you know that cooking could be a career?
My first job after college was as the business manager for a DC special events company. I was intrigued by the success of a caterer we often used – Design Cuisine – and the owner, Bill Holman, took me under his wing and advised me to go to culinary school. Food has been my career ever since.
When was your first cookbook published and what does that process entail? It seems like it would be pretty tedious.
My first cookbook, Simply Salads, was published in 2007. Writing a book is a labor of love. It takes about a year from start to finish and it does involve a lot of attention to detail and testing. I want to make sure my recipes are written so that even a beginner cook can easily follow them as well as having interesting twists to interest the more experienced home cook. But, since I honestly enjoy being in the kitchen, it is really doesn’t feel like a job!
Where did the concept for Cheffie’s Cafe come from?
Cheffie’s Café is really just one department from my first restaurant Cheffie’s Market & More. The original Cheffie’s was a 10,000 sq foot market that included prepared foods for take-out, a full bread and pastry bakery, a cheese department, retail foods, a hot grill, and a sandwich & salad bar. We closed the first Cheffie’s when I got pregnant with my second child. For the past 8 years I had been hearing over and over again how much people missed my salads. When Matt Wilson approached me about creating a new concept with him, I knew this would be a winner.
Is there one thing — or a combination of things — that makes Cheffie’s Cafe so successful?
The idea behind Cheffie’s is to “Be the Chef” and create your own salad or sandwich using our fresh ingredients. It’s fun to pick just what you want. I think our attention to detail and using the best breads, meats, and produce we can find makes a difference that our customers can taste.
Describe your cooking style in 3 words.
Simple. Approachable. Yummy.
What inspires your recipes?
Most of my inspiration comes from eating something wonderful at a friend’s house or at a restaurant. I then go home and try to re-create those same flavors in my own kitchen.
Can you share a favorite cooking memory with us?
I have a few definitely! My most cherished memories are cooking in the kitchen with my girls. Their enthusiasm and creativity make a mother proud! Plus, cooking with your family is a great way to bond and spend quality time together.
Professionally, one highlight this year was when Kelly English of Restaurant Iris invited me to do a brunch with him at his restaurant. It was fun to see my “home” recipes like Potato Chip Chicken Fingers and Cheeseburger Pie on his menu!
Any good cooking disasters in your past that you would like to divulge?!
Every cook has burned something or had a dish really turn out awful. I have learned to always set my timer!
There are so many great food trends circulating right now. What are some of your favorite dishes that you are mixing up in your kitchen?
My newest book Simply Grilling (release date April 17) is easy, everyday grilling. It’s a great way to cook dinner without the fuss.
Also, one trend that I am excited about is eating local. I love our local farmers markets. If you haven’t been, you must go! Food truly does taste better when it is picked that day. When using quality ingredients, you can let them shine without much fuss on your part.
Between your family and your career, you stay pretty busy! What keeps you centered?
We try to have dinner as much as we can as family. No TV, iPods, computers, etc to distract us from each other. It is the time of day where we slow down and reconnect with each other. I treasure that time and I think my kids do, too.
Do you have any tips for all the working mom’s out there on how to prepare a healthy meal on a time crunch??
Your freezer can be your best friend! On those nights when you have time to cook, make double or triple batches of dishes that freeze well. Then on those nights were there really is no time, you have a home cooked meal (I call them freezer go-to’s) that can be re-heated in a flash.
Where can fellow foodies find your cookbooks?
My cookbooks, Simply Salads, Simply Suppers, and Simply Grilling (release date April 2012), are available wherever books are sold. Booksellers of Laurelwood, Babcock Gifts, Women’s Exchange and Barnes & Noble are a few in Memphis. They are also available online at Amazon.
I am sure you host some pretty impressive dinner parties at your home. Any go-to dishes that are sure to please?
Braised Short Ribs with Stone-Ground Grits are always a huge hit. What I love about this dish is that all the prep work is done hours before the guests arrive. Pop it in your oven and forget about for a few hours. When your company comes over, your kitchen smells divine. That recipe is in my book Simply Suppers.
What do you love most about Memphis?
Memphis is a great town with great people. It really does have soul!
One aspect I am very proud of is the camaraderie and true friendships that bind our restaurant and food community together. It’s refreshing and exciting to work in an industry where your competitors truly want each other to succeed.
Name one Memphis restaurant that you just cannot get enough of — besides Cheffies Cafe!
That’s a hard one! We have so many good choices! I primarily eat at locally owned places. I think it’s important to support our neighbors, plus they have great food!
After a long day of writing and cooking, how do you unwind?
What words best describe you?
That’s a hard one. I hope people look at me as friendly, honest and hard working.
What is the greatest piece of advice you have been given?
If you don’t try, nothing will happen.
On the slight chance that you have time to read, what books can be found on your bedside table?
Obviously lots of food titles are on my bookshelf. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver and Omnivore’s Dilmemma, by Micheal Pollan are both excellent reads about eating local.
I also read to escape. I just read Hugo Cabaret and Moon Struck by Brian Selznick with my daughter and loved them!
I am sure there is quite a bit of travel in the cooking world. Where are some of your favorite spots you have found yourself in?
France–anywhere in France (except maybe those touristy cafes on Champs Elysses or by the Louvre in Paris!)
Italy–I have had some amazing meals in Rome and in Venice.
New York–there are just sooooo many amazing options!
Name three things you can’t live without (excluding friends, family and God).
Chocolate. Chocolate. Chocolate
What are you thankful for?
I know how truly blessed I am to be able to make a living at something I love. I am thankful everyday that I get to play with food for a living!
What are your goals for 2012?
2012 will be a busy year with the release of a new book. Promoting a book that you worked so hard on is fun and rewarding. It’s like being a proud momma! I also hope to get started on a fourth book for my Simply cooking series.
Find out more about Cheffie’s Cafe here: www.cheffies.com
A special thanks to our amazing photographer, Christen (Jones) Morrison, for her fabulous work featured on StyleBlueprint Memphis today. Be sure to check out her website here: www.christenjones.com