Today we’d like to introduce you to Jess Wang.
Alright, so thank you so much for sharing your story and insight with our readers. To kick things off, can you tell us a bit about how you got started?
I’m a Chinese American fermentation specialist, pastry chef, and micro-entrepreneur based in Los Angeles. I divide my time between hosting fermentation workshops through my project Picklé Pickle Co. and bringing a neighborhood market concept called Gu Grocery to fruition.
Food was always interesting to me as a medium for the expression of emotion and identity and a means to make new connections. This became really clear to me when I lived in Thailand with my family during my teenage years. It was only natural for me to be drawn to working with food as I was figuring out my identity when I moved back to the US. I was formally trained as an artist in college and kept teaching jobs since a young age, and I thought it made sense to pursue a career in teaching art, but my college roommate called it when she said I should just move my bed into the kitchen.
Currently, the main focus of my work is to help create greater access to healthy culturally relevant food through education and community partnerships. Connecting to the deep roots of my cultural heritage through my family’s Chinese and Taiwanese food traditions, preserving them through recipes and sharing them with others is a huge part of this work. I have always been drawn to the culinary arts, symbolism surrounding food, and creating meaningful connections and caretaking through feeding others. It’s the most exciting part of our culture to expand on, especially with the inspiration that comes from the other vibrant cultures and beautiful ingredients here in Southern California.
I’m sure you wouldn’t say it’s been obstacle free, but so far would you say the journey has been a fairly smooth road?
After art school, I pursued a career in baking and found that the busy American restaurant culture was not a healthy environment to stay in. I was diagnosed with prediabetes in my late 20s, and my work-life balance was in bad shape. Fortunately, I found a new life in the fascinating world of fermented foods and was able to pay the bills through recipe development and food styling freelance gigs my best friend Rach sent my way.
Volunteering with the LA-based nonprofit Asian Pacific Islander Forward Movement gave me a new sense of purpose and clarity in centering health and community within my work. I met farmers growing sustainable produce and folks who were committed to connecting community members in disadvantaged situations to resources to improve their lives. Teaching fermentation workshops through APIFM programs showed me how fulfilling it could be to share information about healing foods, to source ingredients responsibly, and I was able to deepen my ties to my cultural heritage in the process.
We’ve been impressed with Gu Grocery and Picklé Pickle Co., but for folks who might not be as familiar, what can you share with them about what you do and what sets you apart from others?
I have two sibling projects that exist independently of each other, but often work in tandem. Gu Grocery is a neighborhood market concept I developed for a brick and mortar in Chinatown. The concept grew from a pastry pop-up of four years (Pique-Nique L.A.) so pastries and snacks are still a big part of our menu. “Gu” is a homophone for the words “aunty” and “mushroom” in Mandarin. The brand embodies the spirit of caretaking and maintaining community and health through healing foods.
We’re known for our experimental takes on classic Asian desserts like Chinese niangao, which are steamed sticky rice cakes, and our butter mochi creations. We use less sugar and alternative sweeteners as much as possible to lower the glycemic index of our desserts, and incorporate seasonal produce such as sweet potato and ripe stone fruit in our offerings. Currently we are operating at a farmers market at the LA River Farmers’ Market, which is at the LA State Historic Park on Thursdays.
We are working toward securing a physical location in the next year, and look forward to offering a full pantry spread, mainly focusing on Taiwanese ingredients. Also in the near future, we plan to offer customers access to cooking and fermentation workshops and educational tools through our project, Picklé.
Have you learned any interesting or important lessons due to the Covid-19 Crisis?
I learned to be flexible and observant to understand the needs of my community, including myself. As a micro-entrepreneur this was essential as it helped me to stay connected and able to adapt and maintain mutually beneficial relationships with collaborators and customers. Throughout the pandemic I have been able to develop new lesson plans adapted to virtual learning, and discovered some wonderful collaborators.
My family has been very generous in supporting my endeavors and for being there for me as my friends. Shoutouts to Mama Peggy and Joyce for showing up to put on pop-up events! Thanks to my dad, Willie, for sharing Chinese food history, etymology, and language arts with me. Thanks to my sibling Shui for their guidance and magic touch on the brand identity of my babies. Thanks to my big brother Josh and all my cousins and extended family for all the positive energy.