Tell us about your background and how you became a chef?
I grew up with a family that loved food and were incredible at cooking. My mother is British and my father is Italian, so you can imagine how amazing my meals were! As a child, I didn't understand how lucky I was to have such diversity. Without me even knowing my palette, started to form a very unique taste for food and at a young age I was intrigued by the art of cooking. So many things played part in this chef journey, but it all started with my British grandmother. My grandmother was a self-taught cook. She bought a hotel with my papa in circa 1965. They struggled with no costumers for a bit but never gave up, and my grandmother ended up being one of the best chefs in Yorkshire, England. My grandmother taught me how to cook when I was 3 years old, and I loved every second of it. She would sit me on the counter during service and I would watch every move with a full heart and a curious mind. When we were back in the U.S. from our trips to England, my mum would keep teaching me how to cook at home. Honestly, they are some of the best memories a child could have. All that time the inner chef was being born and I had no idea.
Who are your biggest influences as a culinary artist?
Well for sure my mum and both grandmothers. The mix of British and Italian ancestry is why I believe my style of cooking is interesting. My dad's mom was Italian, and I believe made me the most incredible meatballs and spaghetti in the world! I, of course, have professional chefs that I look up to: Thomas Keller and Alice Waters. They are passionate about farm to table, and I love that. I am also very into vegan eating, so I follow a lot of vegan blogs and chefs.
How are the culinary arts different from other types of art?
Well, I think that the only difference is that a chef's canvas is edible.
When did you come to MOCA, and how is it different cooking for a museum than a regular restaurant?
I started my journey at MOCA about four years ago. While the cooking aspect is the same, the energy is completely different. Working as a chef in a contemporary art museum is almost like stepping into a different world every day. I mean, think about it; the art is always changing and so are the artists. Every artist puts their soul and energy into their creations. It's powerful! It is inspiring as a chef to be surrounded by that kind of talent and energy.
Do you have a particularly memorable moment from cooking at MOCA?
Wow, that's a hard one because I have had so many! But if I have to pick one it would be Women of the Knife. That was an absolutely incredible event that I got to be a part of. I was honored to be surrounded by such strong and talented female chefs. I am excited to announce that we are bringing back that event this year!
Do you have a favorite dish? If so, what is it?
I have so many; but I have to say my favorite dish is Pho. I could literally eat pho for every meal and trust me, I've done it.
If there is one piece of advice you have for home cooks, what would it be?
We are all artists and we all have something unique to offer. Think outside the box-sometimes things will work out and sometimes they won't, but that's the beauty of cooking. It is what makes us individuals and helps push us to create amazing dishes that we never knew we could make before. Find your inner chef and paint your canvas.
Chef Jen Dragstra is kicking off virtual cooking classes for members next month! If you aren't a member, join today!