Remember the tiny little kitchen that you had in college? The one with no counter space and just enough room for one person to comfortably stand? Some of us have been lucky enough to grow into a bigger kitchen in our post-college days. One of us has been lucky enough to retain her small kitchen, inspiring her to pursue a new career as a gourmet chef.
Jennifer Schaertl (BS ’03) has parlayed her business savvy and cooking skills into a hot career as a chef, cookbook author and TV personality. Jennifer currently works as a chef at the Milestone Culinary Arts Center and The Viking Cooking School in Dallas, and she's recently finished writing a cookbook, Gourmet Meals in Crappy Little Kitchens. She's also taped several episodes of a TV show based on the cookbook. She's currently shopping both the cookbook and the show to producers.
Her savvy and skills got the opportunity to shine on opening day of the State Fair of Texas on September 26. When the 6 p.m. celebrity chef cancelled, Jennifer filled in. In just seven hours, she and a group of friends, dubbed Team Crappy Little Kitchen, created a presentation of grilled flat iron steak and vegetable risotto, one of the recipes in her cookbook, complete with samples for the crowd.
While she says that almost every job she's ever held, and every business proposal she's ever written, relied heavily on the business skills she learned at UT Dallas, this wasn't the career Jennifer initially envisioned. After graduation, Jennifer traveled to New York with her husband Jay to pursue a career in management information systems, but a slow economy meant that finding work in the technology field was difficult. Instead, she worked as an event planner.
It was during this time, in her 300-square-foot brownstone apartment in Brooklyn, that Jennifer began creating what her husband called, "some of the best gourmet meals in crappy little kitchens." It was a necessity, because, as Jennifer says, "Our house had no natural kitchen; only a tiny sink, tiny stove and really tiny refrigerator all shoved up against a wall. It was time to streamline." This was made easier for her because of a great farmer's market down the street from their brownstone, which was a constant source of inspiration and fresh ingredients.
One of Jennifer's favorite cooking experiences actually started in that farmer's market. Jennifer and Jay wanted to prepare a special meal for visiting friends, so Jennifer read up on how to cook lobster in an issue of Martha Stewart, and they all stopped by the farmer's market for live lobsters. When they got home, they realized they had no place to put four lobsters, who had by this time been named John, Paul, George and Ringo, so they ended up storing the lobsters in the bathtub while they prepared the rest of the meal. Space was so tight, the window air conditioner unit doubled as a seat for their guests.
Jennifer grew up in Shiner, Texas, where she says "food was always at the center of celebrations." When Jennifer and Jay were ready to move back to Texas, Jennifer decided to go back to school to become a chef. She attended El Centro's culinary school and then started her first position as a dish washer at the now-defunct Savory in Dallas. In a kitchen, she says, "you either have to have experience or education, and it's better to have both." She says starting as a dish washer and then working her way up to chef was the best learning experience for her, and it gave her a great appreciation for clean dishes.
Since that early experience at Savory, Jennifer has held several positions in top Dallas restaurants, including Taste, The Grape and Suze. For her next challenge, she'd like to master Thai cooking. So far, she's got pad thai down pat.
For more information on Jennifer, check out her website: www.crappylittlekitchens.com
Photos by Albert Ramirez