I’ve been busy working on some exciting new ventures which I’m looking forward to sharing in 2022. One of them is a new collective of local women entrepreneurs, business owners, founders, philanthropists and investors gathering to support each other, share resources, and mentor the next generation. For now we’re calling the group Westchester Women Making Waves and we’ve built some real momentum over the past couple months. The response has been overwhelmingly positive which indicates to me we’re tapping into a real need and hunger in our community. Part of what motivated me to start the group were the incredible women I’ve met since moving to Northern Westchester over the past year. The stories behind how these women have built, grown and sustained their businesses are ones I felt worth sharing and will hopefully inspire the next generation.
Read below my full interview with Jen Vellano who was kindly willing to be featured as my very first Woman of the Week!
Three Cheers for Ice Cream, Candy and Jen Vellano the woman who keeps us fed, fueled and inspired through her three Bedford based businesses.
As the chef and owner behind the beloved G.E. Brown and Provisions, Maison Prive Chefs and the newly opened Bedford Candy Bar, Jen Vellano is the one responsible for giving every person passing through the quaint but sleepy town of Bedford Village a reason to stop. Jen and her three businesses provide needed sustenance, caffeine and now delightful sweets to get us through the day.
Jen started her career as a line cook at Per Se, one of the finest kitchens in New York City and then went on to work for Dan Barber at his Blue Hill restaurant and at Stone Barns. Jen recently told me that “being a female chef in high-end restaurants was helpful in creating strength and perseverance,” which she would eventually rely on to open G.E. Brown with an infant at home and then to open the Candy Bard in the midst of a global pandemic all while keeping her private catering business afloat.
Read below my recent conversation with Jen to learn how her own kids’ handling of the pandemic inspired and motivated her to open the Candy Bar, how she and James, her husband and business partner are able to build boundaries between work and family, and why Jen thinks it is not just possible but necessary to be a “nice boss.” I guarantee by the end of this interview you’ll be booking your next vacation to Sicily!
You and your husband James met as line cooks at Per Se in New York City, I’ve read that you had a bit of a competitive relationship – what would you say both of your professional goals were at that time?
Per Se was a very difficult and challenging place to work, it was the Harvard of restaurants and did not accept many cooks. Just to be able to get to that point was beyond an accomplishment. At that time our goal was to maintain, survive, and continue to learn. We were young, and sponges of all tastes and techniques. I think the kitchen naturally made the 6-8 of us on the line competitive, as we all vied for more attention so we could continue to hone our skills and move upward in the culinary field.
How did your work in the kitchen together help prepare you to open your three businesses?
We worked together for approximately 72 hours per week. Kitchens have no place for makeup, cologne, perfume, accessories. We saw each other (arguably) at our worst: tired, sweaty, anxious, stressed, nervous. When you meet someone in that way (vs. a typical NYC dating scene), you build a very strong foundation; you hold hands at night, you wipe tears and sweat away. We don’t really know how to work without each other. We’re elbow to elbow every day. Being a female Chef in high-end restaurants was also very helpful in creating strength and perseverance. That’s another story!
How did your work at Blue Hill at Stone Barns inform your approach to food and cooking?
Working for Dan Barber was my very first culinary job (first at Blue Hill in NYC, then the opening meat chef (Saucier) at Stone Barns. Dan’s approach to food theory taught me how to respect everything that you cook, and eat. Understanding the ethics, socio-dynamic principles and culture of the food industry is eye-opening. If I eat fish, I should be able to fish for it myself. If I eat meat, I should be able to hunt. If I eat vegetables, I should have the knowledge of how to forage. I’ve incorporated all of these principles into my life.
Where do you find your greatest inspiration for menu ideas?
Sometimes I will open and decant a very special bottle of wine. Let it breathe, sip slowly, and think about what the wine wants. Other times I try to pair food friends with food friends. For example, if I’m craving something salty (like capers), my mind will wander to Sicily. Capers grow on the side of the road there, as does fennel. Lemons are abundant, as well as salt cod. They are all friends. Sicily is surrounded by water and the air is briny. Oysters would be a good appetizer, some light fish with a lemon sauce of capers, fennel, Italian parsley, pecorino could be dinner. In Sicily they drink Malvasia, it’s offered on the side of the road by street vendors in the hills. Jim and I once rode a motorcycle up to try a bit and the whole mountain was perfumed with the scent of fennel and salt. I’d drink that with my dinner and let my mind wander.
You opened G.E. Brown with an infant at home and decided to open the Bedford Candy Shop in the middle of the pandemic, I wouldn’t say those were the easiest circumstances to start a new business. Where did you find the energy and what kept you going?
Most chefs are used to organized chaos as a way of life. You never know what’s going to hit you–you just stand behind the line and wait for the orders to roll in. It’s not for everybody–you have to be able to handle and manage extreme stress; the rush that happens when the guests first sit. It’s a way of life, built into our personalities. I suppose I work better when in the middle of Chaos. I also needed coffee before 9am when I had an infant, a definite reason to open a coffee shop! When thinking about the Candy Bar, my kids kept me going. They were fully remote for almost a year and handled it with confidence and smiles. I thought, if they can crush this pandemic, so can I.
As a husband and wife team with young kids, how do you create boundaries between work and homelife?
Ha! That is the never ending question. We are together a lot more than most couples due to the nature of our work, but it’s all we have ever known. We are avid travelers so try to book trips with our kids whenever possible. We love taking road-trips and booking hotels along the way from an app (unplanned on purpose). When we are away we make a pact to not talk about work, and phones are never allowed during meals or activities. We also watch movies with the kids every night (or play a board game), no electronics allowed. Currently on Harry Potter!
What have been the greatest challenges about keeping one shop going and opening a new one in the middle of a pandemic?
Making sure that we have valuable time with our kids where we are focused solely on them and their needs.
How have you managed staffing shortages for both your catering business and cafe?
For our catering company it was/is very difficult. Thankfully for G.E. Brown and the Bedford Candy Bar, we have very loyal and caring staff. You know when people say, “you can’t be nice as a boss”? That’s not true. Sure, there will be one person who takes advantage of you. But if you’re a kind, caring business owner and you take care of your employees, they become like family. We are truly blessed.
How have you maintained morale amongst your team?
We constantly remind our staff that we couldn’t do this without them. We celebrate their birthdays, have fun around the holidays and create a jovial environment at work. We have the most incredible staff, I think about this daily.
What advice would you give to others who are thinking about opening a brick and mortar in the food space?
If you are opening with a partner/investor, make sure that the foundation between you is sealed and dry before you build more bricks.
Favorite Candy? Heath Bar Crunch
Ice Cream Flavor? Sea Salt Caramel
Dream Dinner Party – Who would you cook for and what would be on the menu?
Robin Williams. He was an eclectic person, I’d probably pick something that represented his work like “Mork and Mindy,” Alien egg pod aka Smoked Deviled Egg, Chives, Sturgeon Caviar or “The Birdcage,” Bouillabaisse and “Good Will Hunting,” A bunch of caramels.
Meal you dreamt about most when restaurants first closed their doors?
Le Coucou (NYC) I’d order tartare de boeuf with osetra caviar
First place you’d travel to if Covid didn’t exist? Eze, a small village in France
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I love this!! So we’ll deserved!! I’d love to be added to your newsletter!