Jenn de la Vega
Jenn de la Vega’s recipe for “Shumai, Oh My” may be be the sole nod to dumplings in her first cookbook, but, like a lot of the other recipes in Showdown, Comfort Food, Chili & BBQ, her shumai (aka sio mai, aka siu mai, aka shu mai) are open-faced pockets full of the porky, bacon-laden, complex flavor bombs Jenn is known for as a competitive chef.
In Spring of 2018, Jenn was chosen as one of 12 New Yorkers to participate in Kickstarter’s Creators-in-Residence Program. I caught up with her at the Kickstarter offices back in May to learn more about the only pockets she has in her first cookbook. Aside from being a chef and author, Jenn is a visual artist known for pushing the limits of her culinary endeavors with ambitious cooking projects that require focused documentation. The Super Nacho Bowl and the Eggcentenial, for example, involve de la Vega and her comrades attempting to make 100 types of nachos in one sitting and document each one with “some sort of food pornie action (taking a bite, cheese drip, etc)” (they made it to 58!) or filming 100 egg yolk popping videos, respectively.
Kickstarter’s program provides the office space at their rustic-tech-chic building in Greenpoint that Jenn needs to complete the compilation of videos from the Super Nacho Bowl and the Eggcentenial. While in residence, she is also launching a Drip account, which is Kickstarter’s shiny new platform that provides a tool for people to fund and build community around their ongoing creative practice. Jenn’s Drip aims to reboot Facts N’ Cheese, a show she created with Vance Spicer 9 years ago that delves into the history, culture, and tasting notes of cheese from around the world.
Taste Cooking's Cook in Residence
She also has full reign of the KS kitchen during her tenure there this Summer, where she can test recipes and host photoshoots. After 12 years of juggling careers in music, tech, theater, and food, Jenn chose 2018 to be the year she focuses entirely on culinary pursuits--including serving as Taste’s Cook in Residence in tandem with her residency at Kickstarter.
At Taste, Jenn is focusing on testing traditional Filipino recipes and writing about them, which is quite a transition for a competitive chef who has spent most of her career and childhood in California, steering clear of the cuisine she was raised on by her family.
“I was a really picky eater growing up, and I was definitely scared of Filipino food my family was cooking and sharing. The bones, the offal–– the culture tends to not waste anything, and so for me, a delicate Filipina who had never seen a field or a real cow, or animal, I was mortified. I never really gave it a chance. Most of the food is soupy and stewy, so I would navigate around the veg and meat, the bits and go for the broth, or the sabaw. Just broth on white rice for me. Other than that I avoided anything Filipino, except for snacky things like lumpia or chicharone.
“I flipped the switch in college though. I dove into French and Spanish cuisine, and sort kind of harkened back to my 90’s fast food roots but with healthier ingredients, which is where my crunchwrap comes in.”
During our visit to talk about her shumai, Jenn was testing a recipe for Bulalo, a traditional Filipino beef shank stew. The article that accompanies her recipe, titled “Spoon Over Fork”, talks about why both at home and in restaurants, Filipino people tend to prefer spoons over forks and knives:
Jenn goes on to talk about Magellen’s influence on the islands, starting in 1521, and by the end of her article my understanding of the history of the Phillipines (and the world) has grown exponentially through her newfound appreciation for Bulalo and her love for spoons.
“I have only made the time recently to focus back on Filipino food. It has an image problem. Like me, there are a lot of people who are also scared of the big cuts, etc. So I am taking taking traditional Filipino recipes and sort of modernizing them. The shu mai (in my book) is an example. It’s known as a dim sum dish–– usually pork and shrimp in a wrapper. But I have added bacon to entice people who love bacon and hopefully introduce them to a new format. That’s my mission (with the Taste Residency). A little bit more education as I continue to learn about traditional Filipino food. And it has been challenging. I don’t live close to my relatives and they are a huge source of information and they’re getting older and older, and so I’m hoping it’s not too little too late. I’ve been making a lot of visits back to California where I grew up and where most of my family is. First half of my life we lived in the Bay area, then my dad was transferred to an Air Force base in the Mojave Desert.”
It was 11:30 am at the Kickstarter offices in Greenpoint when Jenn fried up bacon from The Meat Hook in the communal kitchen, and her colleagues begin to stream in to see what she was up to. She continued to prep the shumai as folks pulled their lunches from the communal fridge, eyeing the dumplings, some of them asking boldly if they were ready for a taste test. Jenn shrugged, firm in her snack-time boundary, saying she’d send a signal on her Slack snack channel at 2pm when everything would be fair game. A day spent recipe testing at the KS kitchen always ends with snack time for her comrades.
Jenn made sure I left the Kickstarter headquarters with a belly full of the best shumai I have ever had, a spoonful of bulalo broth (all I had room for after so many shumai!), and a better understanding of Filipino history through food. She left me with firm instructions to look up the work of Toronto-based podcaster Nastasia Alli, who runs a project called Exploring Filipino Kitchens, where I could find more information about food and Filipino history.