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'It's not rocket science'

Trysta Eakin

By Trysta Eakin
Dec. 20, 2010 at 6:20 a.m.


What does kung-fu movie production, cooking gourmet meals and writing a book have in common?

Shiner native Jennifer Schaertl.

Although this hodgepodge of adventures might seem disjointed to the casual onlooker, these three chapters of the 31-year-old Dallas resident's life are serendipitously connected.

Schaertl worked her way into a comfy executive chef's position by following her heart, starting with an inclination toward city living.

"You know how some people will go to New York and say, 'This is a great place to visit, but I would never live here'? Well I'm the opposite. I looked at Shiner as a great place to visit, but not to live. I'm a big-town kind of girl."

New York, New York

Being third-generation "Shinese," Schaertl graduating from Shiner High School in 1997. After earning a degree in management information systems from University of Texas at Austin, she migrated to the Big Apple, eventually living in a small Brooklyn brownstone apartment, where the idea to become a chef and write a quirky recipe book first began.

"I was able to eat at a lot of fancy restaurants (in New York), because by then I was making a grown-up person's salary," Schaertl said. "Living in Austin there's a lot of great restaurants, but as a college student, I couldn't afford to eat at any of them. So now I could taste a lot of different foods and ingredients, and that's when I started cooking a lot more at home."

Working as an office manager for a company that produced Brooklyn-based kung-fu movies, she spent free time in her tiny kitchenette, perfecting her cooking skills and feeding her friends.

"The book title actually came from a friend. He said to me once, 'You cook the best gourmet meals in a crappy little kitchen.'"

The phrase stuck with her and several years later, it transformed into a book title, "Gourmet Meals in Crappy Little Kitchens."

Living the dream

As it seemed more and more apparent that business field and office work just weren't working for her, the former Miss Shiner (1995), decided to move back to Dallas and pursue the passion she'd been slowly developing - cooking.

As a child, influenced by her parents' and two grandmothers' amateur culinary skills, she said cooking and eating delicious foods denoted happiness.

"Food was always considered a celebration. Food was fun."

Despite a few mishaps along the way - "My dad likes to tell the story about how I burned water cooking spaghetti, and I once made a Boston cream pie with salt instead of sugar" - Schaertl was eager to do what she loved, graduating from Dallas' El Centro College Food and Hospitality Institute in 2003.

At 24, she was older and perhaps more confident and focused than the others in her class, but she wouldn't have had it any other way, she said.

"I think I might have traveled first (instead of college), but I would have gone to culinary school at the same time that I did."

Since then, working in several restaurants in the Texas metropolis, she's been the sous-chef for Savory, as well as Taste, executive sous-chef for Grape and a pastry chef for Suze.

For the past two years, Schaertl has been the executive chef at Dallas' North Central Surgical Center, serving meals to private rooms of high-profile patients, including several members of the Dallas Cowboys.

Claim to fame

If many publishing companies out there had their way, "Gourmet Meals in Crappy Little Kitchens" would not exist.

After several no's, a couple of yes's turned the tide on Schaertl's story, but the journey didn't start there.

"If you count all the time I spent not realizing I was writing a book, it took about eight years. But from the time I sat down to put it all together, it was a year."

Her experiences of cooking in limited spaces, both in small New York apartments and at many of the Dallas restaurants on her resume, along with the practice of standardizing recipes for many chefs, Schaertl realized she had valuable advice she could impart on many would-be cooks out there.

Clueless as to what it would take to write, publish and sell a book, she did what most of us would do - Googled it.

"When I decided to finally do the book, I Googled 'how to write a book.' After that, I Googled 'how to get published,' and when I wanted to find a literary agent, I Googled, 'how to find a literary agent.'"

Making its debut in April 2010, Schaertl said the book's success is unexpected, as is the position of semi-celebrity in which she finds herself.

Parting advice

Being a chef is not all glamour, as she gives up holidays, grinds out 14-hour days and makes sacrifices for the craft, Schaertl said, but cooking from your home is a piece of cake, sort of.

Many people who think they can't cook or don't get a something right just might have a simple, easy-to-fix problem, she said.

Seasoning with salt and pepper goes a long way in the outcome of a dish.

"So if you're making sauce and when you taste it, it doesn't taste like anything, add a little salt. By adding a little salt, you'll start to taste the mushrooms in it. If you add a little more, you'll start to taste something else . When you get to the point where one taste is exactly the same as the last, then you're there."

Otherwise, it's all there in the recipe.

"If you can read, you can cook. It's not rocket science; if it was, I wouldn't be doing it."

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