At 30, Jessica Brunelli has accomplished a lot. As a private chef and owner of her own business, she is no stranger to living in the fast lane. Something she credits to being an only child and having a family who supported her interests while growing up.
For her, having a connection to food is a fundamental component of her personal and professional life. “It evokes feelings and emotions, and sometimes a little dance,” laughs Jessica. “I’ll be sitting there, having a good bite of something and it just happens.”
Growing up, Jessica’s family never really ordered delivery or takeout – most of their meals were homemade and prepared fresh by a family member. From her mom’s feast of afterschool snacks to her grandfather’s tailgate roasted lamb, cooking is an activity that the whole family enjoys. It is also something they could do together, anywhere.
“My family is adventurous; we would spend 10 days in the middle of nowhere and have a full Thanksgiving dinner out of our little camper kitchen,” recalls Jessica. “We would do the same thing for Memorial Day weekend, camping on the beach, four-wheeling and we would do all these crazy camping meals. When people camp with me now, we can tent camp, but the food is going to look like we went to a restaurant.”
That sense of adventure is something that was introduced to Jessica at a young age. At three years old, her dad had her on ski’s. Soon after, she was riding horses and by seven she could outride other kids on her four wheeler. At nine, she asked her dad for a go-cart and they quickly realized she was very skilled in racing. By the age of 12, Jessica was one of the youngest licensed drivers who was able to drive Formula 1 cars.
Jessica would continue racing, competing in quarter midgets and stock car races. By 16, she applied to NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity Program – an academic style developmental program designed to provide training and opportunities for women and minority drivers within the NASCAR industry. Out of the thousands who applied, only 10 were picked, one being Jessica.
For the next three years, Jessica would race for the team. However, as much as Jessica loved the thrill of the race, she admits that asking for sponsorship was hard and something she did not enjoy. Additionally, there were other passions that were calling her. When she was offered to race for another year, she politely turned it down.
After 13 years of professional racing, Jessica decided it was time to pursue a new career path – one that involved food.
Jessica’s parents wanted her to go to traditional college, but she credits her grandmother for the push to go to culinary school. It was all she needed. Shortly after, she enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu.
At the time, she lived two hours away from the campus and also maintained a full-time job. Life was hectic, and consisted of getting up at 4:30 a.m., driving two hours for school, attending school for five hours, driving back home and then heading in to work an eight-hour shift in a local hotel kitchen. The next day, she would repeat it all over again.
After culinary school, Jessica moved to Los Angeles, where she had the opportunity to work at more diverse kitchens and culinary events, including restaurants, corporate kitchens, food and wine festivals and pop-ups. To her surprise, racing and working in the culinary field were more closely related than she had expected.
“It’s super similar – it is the precision, it’s the over and over again… you have to know what you are doing,” shares Jessica. “You have to work with your teammates and everyone is bumping into each other; it’s high stress and it’s a long time, as fast as you can go, for like eight hours.”
Jessica spent a few years in Los Angeles before she eventually moved back up to the Bay Area. Unfortunately, around the same time, the unforeseeable happened – Covid 19 was spreading across the United States. Soon lockdowns and restrictions on business operations were set nationally, causing countless food service employees to be laid off or furloughed. Jessica could not escape the inevitable and was furloughed shortly after securing a new job.
It was during this time that Jessica thought about pursuing something on her own. She knew there were families who needed additional assistance in the kitchen and individuals who either didn’t know how to cook or did not prefer the task. In addition, food delivery services were still seeing activity, so she knew people still had a preference for meals they did not create themselves. What she did not know is how open individuals would be to letting a stranger come cook for them in their house during the pandemic.
Fortunately for Jessica, the concept of a personal chef was intriguing to others. Slowly, but surely, she secured a client and then eventually another client. As restrictions around the pandemic started to subside, work for her slowly increased. Soon enough, events were on the rise again and the catering inquiries started coming in. With the experience she had secured previously, Jessica knew this was something she could do and set out to create her own business.
The Catered life
Working as a private event and personal chef is something that comes naturally to Jessica. Coming from an Italian household, she is used to entertaining people and knows all about hospitality and the importance of a shared meal. Regardless of her hectic schedule, Jessica makes it a priority to enjoy mealtimes with her family, even if it is only having a cup of coffee with her partner before she heads into an 8-12 hour day.
“Sitting down together, I think that affects people at their core and has a huge impact on their mental well-being,” says Jessica. “I think there is no better way to be close, to let loose and enjoy yourself. To be stimulated, but relaxed at the same time.”
She also believes in providing customized service and ensuring her clients are happy, oftentimes providing additional services for free, like decor, serveware, rental and staffing coordination. “People hire you because they know what you do is difficult and they don’t want to do it themselves,” shares Jessica. “ However, if the service isn’t good, and you don’t have all the things you need for their event, then it doesn’t really matter how good your food is, especially if you don’t have plates to serve it on or servers to help pass it out.”
Most of the menu items Jessica creates incorporates a blend of her culinary experience with a focus on Asian and Middle Eastern foods, paired with California culture. “Being in California, having it be a melting pot, does allow me to kind of make a menu that doesn’t seem classically Italian or Middle Eastern,” says Jessica.
However, Jessica is also open to a challenge, and if a client wants a specific menu item that she does not have a taste preference for, she takes the time to understand the meaning and the feeling behind the recipe request. She also admits this is a great learning experience for her, noting that she appreciates when clients share their cultural and culinary knowledge with her, “it’s a great way for me to get education without having to work in that type of [restaurant] kitchen.”
One client, in particular, is currently teaching Jessica some of her personal Indian recipes – a cuisine that intrigues Jessica.
“There are some ingredients that I just don’t know what they are and [my client] is teaching me, showing me where to get it, the best stores to go to and how much to buy,” shares Jessica. “Sometimes, it’s also how you read the recipe, like when it says ‘hot’ – For me, I think spicy, but she taught me it can actually mean the quantity – meaning [the recipe] calls for a lot of different spices.”
When Jessica thinks back on where and how she really learned to cook, she credits three primary individuals – her grandmother, her father and a mentor chef named Jason. The passion and love for cooking comes from her family, something that was ingrained in her at a young age. The discipline and creativity she learned from Chef Jason, who she says held her accountable to proper labeling and cleaning, but also who encouraged her to step outside of her comfort zone and make new menu items such as pig ears, cured bacon and homemade kimchi.
“These are items that you are not going to necessarily learn at home,” says Jessica. “There are some things that you just have to do live. Working in [Chef Jason’s] kitchen really allowed me to [make] a whole bunch of new stuff, which was cool.”
The fast-paced, meticulous detail involved in catering individual meals or an event for 100 attendees actually soothes Jessica – it takes her anxiety away. Focusing on the steps required to make a recipe, even if it takes hours or multiple days, helps her concentrate and push any fear aside. She also credits her clients for trusting her and giving her the creative freedom to run with ideas, noting their feedback is always helpful, “they do it in a way that makes me feel like we are working together and it makes it really fun and easy to give my best performance.”
Looking forward, Jessica is optimistic, invigorated and flexible. She is happy that she landed on a career, one in food service, that can accommodate her goals and passions, and one that she can do from anywhere.
“I feel like food is survival to me,” says Jessica. “It gives me a lot of freedom… and is an awesome excuse to travel. It’s also an amazing form of community and a great way to get to know someone, or their family, or their culture.”