A CHEF’S JOURNEY: GLOBAL TO LOCAL

interview NANCY GORDON
photography courtesy GOOD TO-GO

. . .

 

“Clearly, food and cuisine came first in every single
aspect of my life. I was making cheese fondue at 8,
cooking my own rendition of Benihana’s sesame chicken
and fried rice at 10 and trays of lasagna for family
dinners in my teens.”
—Chef-Owner Jennifer Scism, Good To-Go

Chef-Owner Jennifer Scism at the Portland Farmers Market.
A few of the delicious dishes offered by Good To-Go.
Chicken Pho Bowl.
Cuban Bowl.
David, Jen and Bella (adored Border Terrier)
hiking the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
Dinner on the trail ...
Pouring hot water on Chicken Pho.
Jen and David hiking the Grand Canyon.
Chef Jen in the Good To-Go kitchen.
Photo: Tayler Aubin

Your professional career has taken you to some interesting places and given you extensive experience. Can you tell us about it?

I’ve been very lucky to travel to many countries over the past 20 years, sometimes for work and often for pleasure, but always for food. Most of my travels have centered around great places with fabulous food that I can relax and enjoy. I’ve also traveled to cook in several instances. I spent a week on the Queen Elizabeth 2, sailing from Southampton England to New York City. I was the commis cook on that trip for my past business partner, Anita Lo. We cooked in kitchens the size of ballrooms with giant refrigerators filled with enough product to feed thousands of people. I think my favorite travel-for-work gig was the two-week trip we spent in Tokyo at the Park Hyatt—the hotel where Lost in Translation was filmed. It was a wild experience. We cooked on the 52nd floor at the New York Grill Restaurant. We worked side-by-side with dozens of skilled Japanese chefs. The surroundings were amazing, the kitchens outstanding and while working on the 52nd floor, a small earthquake tremor happened making the building slowly sway from side to side. Wow, what an experience.

Any words of advice that have stayed with you?

It’s not the most glamorous advice but it is important to note: “It’s the nickels and dimes you sweep up off the floor at the end of the night that make the difference.” This was told to me by Anne Rosenzweig, the owner and head chef of Arcadia Restaurant in New York. I worked for Anne for just over four years. Since then, I’ve owned my own restaurant for 10 years and now I’m the co-founder and chef of Good To-Go. I took that advice to mean, don’t be wasteful, be careful, be mindful, do good work and don’t take things for granted, always be aware. Owning your own business is challenging and rewarding and being aware of the challenges is paramount. I thank my staff everyday for their hard work. They are our greatest asset at Good To-Go.

What led you to start Good To-Go?

I hadn’t intended to start a career in food manufacturing. I had been living in New York City for more than 20 years. From 2000 to 2010 I owned a restaurant with Anita Lo called Annisa. Annisa was a wonderful small restaurant in the West Village of Manhattan. It was very well regarded, it had three stars from the New York Times and one Michelin star. While at Annisa, I was the restaurant’s general manager and sommelier. In 2009, the restaurant had a terrible fire and had to close for nine months of renovation. At that point, I decided I wanted to move to Maine as a full-time resident. I had been coming to Maine for three years prior to the fire as a weekender and fell in love with its seacoast. Anita and I worked out an arrangement that I would stay and help with the renovations, staff and train the new employees and once all the reviews came in, I would leave.

In the summer of 2010, I sold my half of the restaurant to Anita and moved full time to my house in York. Not sure of what to do next, I helped Anita with her first cookbook. I did all the recipe testing. After six months, I realized recipe testing was a lonely job and not for me. I decided to give catering a try. Catering is not lonely, no, but it is crazy! I guess you’ve got to try something to know if it’s for you or not, and catering WAS NOT for me.

At the end of my catering tenure, I was hiking and backpacking a lot with my husband, David Koorits, who was and is an avid outdoorsman. He loves spending time in the mountains and showed me his passion. I, too, became very fond of our outdoor adventures. One thing I was not so fond of, though, was the prepackaged food that was marketed to hikers. So, to please myself and David, when we hiked out on a quick overnight, I would pack in steak tips, blanched and seasoned green beans with mashed potatoes or something on that line, but always fresh and yummy. That served us well for an overnight hike, but I was challenged when our trips extended to several days at a time.

I began playing around with my tabletop dehydrator and soon realized I could make some of my favorite comfort meals—pasta with marinara sauce, Thai curry, mushroom risotto—dry them and rehydrate on the trail. They were almost as good as my home-cooked meals. We ended up sharing them with fellow hikers and friends, many of whom suggested we sell them. So that’s what we decided to do, and Good To-Go was born.

Do you and your family eat this healthfully?

Eating healthy all the time? Heck no. Quality ingredients all the time, yes! I just made the New York Times’ recipe Pumpkin Layer Cake with Salted Caramel Buttercream. But that was for Thanksgiving, and maybe once or twice a year I bake sweets. On a daily basis, we eat super well. We are members of a local organic farm’s CSA, which supplies us with yummy vegetables all summer and well into the fall. David is sensitive to several food categories so most of our meals are dairy free. He also doesn’t do well with refined sugar and wheat.

The past nine months have been fun cooking dinner every night. We do miss going out to restaurants, but it really hasn’t been too bad. I do look forward to the day we can eat out again.  Sushi, that will be my first dinner out.

Do you add new items to GTG’s menu?

When Good To-Go began we had three different meals. Today we have 13 entrée style meals and two breakfasts. I get inspiration mostly through dining out or cookbooks. When I try something that I think could be a Good To-Go meal, I cook that dish over and over. I’ll go to as many restaurants that I can find that have that same meal to see the flavors they focus on. It takes time but the more I investigate the better the outcome of the GTG meal. As we grow, I will continue to add more meal selections and perhaps move into desserts.

How has “quick” and “healthy,” as your website says, served as your brand?

When we began Good To-Go, all the other freeze-dried brands that had been making fast and easy meals for years had not been focusing on clean, healthy ingredients. Quick and light was always part of their plan, but an overabundance of sodium and cheap fillers was also part of their meals. My motto, when I started food manufacturing was, “If you can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.” I didn’t and still don’t understand why food manufacturers use so many additives and preservatives. I assume it’s to make it cheaper and fill you up with less of the good stuff and more of the cheap stuff. Our tag line at GTG is “Real Food. Real Adventure.” As a French trained chef, I only used the best ingredients so it would only make sense for me to create a quick and healthy meal with all the same principles that I’ve cooked with my whole life.

What is the biggest compliment someone can give you about your food?

If you mean my Good To-Go meals, it would be the time I was serving our Thai Curry at a trade show in Salt Lake City. A woman came up to the booth where I was cooking and serving samples. She introduced herself and told me she was from Thailand. She had lived in the States for several years and had eaten at plenty of Thai restaurants. She was so excited to have my Thai Curry because as she exclaimed, “This is the closest thing to real Thai Curry that I’ve had since I’ve been back home. The flavors are just amazing. Thank you so much.” Needless to say, I was thrilled.

Do you have a favorite combination of ingredients?

Noodles and anything else. Well, not ice cream but you know what I mean. I just love noodles.

Which came first, the cuisine or the business concept?

Clearly, food and cuisine came first in every single aspect of my life. I was making cheese fondue at 8, cooking my own rendition of Benihana’s sesame chicken and fried rice at 10 and trays of lasagna for family dinners in my teens. There is no doubt that food will always be part of my life and how I make a living. My dad really understood me and marveled at my love of cooking. He told me one day after I had spent hours in the kitchen preparing dinner, “Jennifer, I eat to live and you, you live to eat.”

Which item(s) was the most difficult for you to get right? And how did you get there?

There were a couple Good-To-Go meals that did not translate to larger scale cook batches. I spent a good amount of time reworking them in many ways. Now they are so much better. It’s also totally top secret how I made them work—kidding, not kidding.

What inspires you?

Travel! Someday, we will all get to see new places, try new foods, smell new aromas and learn about foreign cultures again. Until then, I’ll keep Googling cool places to travel to and buy a plane ticket when the world has spun back onto its axis.

Where are you from and what are your food memories?

I was raised in Cleveland, Ohio. I was the youngest of two. My parents both worked. My dad was a banker and my mom worked as a secretary, but her passion was writing. She published two children’s books: One of which was also published by Scholastic Books and to this day makes me wildly proud of her. I was adopted by my parents when I was 3 months old. They were the most interesting and loving parents. I believe I won lotto as an infant up for adoption.

One thing that did become apparent as I grew and cooked more, I loved food, fine dining, unusual ingredients, and my parents did not. To this day, I never feel like an outsider about being adopted, except for the moments when I remember as a kid the catch-as-catch-can dinners. My mom would be happily eating cold cereal, my dad finishing off a couple hotdogs on stale buns and me, I’d be twisting my toasted chunks of warm French bread into my homemade Gruyere cheese fondue. That is what I would call a proper dinner. I offered to share, they always declined.

What is it that you love about being a professional chef?

Knowing how to cook almost anything. It makes that thing we do three times a day—cook a meal—so much easier. I began cooking as a kid by copying meals that we would have out in restaurants and then moved on to cookbooks. Cooking is a skill that most people need and use several times a day, I’m fortunate that cooking is really easy for me. And fun!

Name three dishes you’ve eaten that have changed the way you think about food—good or bad.

Three dishes that changed the way I think about food, huh, that’s tough to pick only three. I feel like anytime I try something new or prepared in a different way, I learn something. I may appreciate things differently, but rarely do I change the way I think about food because I really adore good food and eating.

Most memorable meal?

In 1998, I spent most of the year traveling through Southeast Asia and Europe with Anita. We were planning on opening our restaurant in NYC and wanted to try food from all over the world before we settled down and got to work. We had just flown into Singapore from Bali, Indonesia and had dropped our bags at our hotel. We headed out to check out the stores on the main strip, when we came upon a Takashimaya department store. We had been into the Takashimaya in New York, so we decided to head into this one and check it out.

We wandered around the entire store finally landing on the top floor, which was home to several restaurants. There was a small sushi restaurant that was overflowing with patrons waiting in line for dinner. Anita poked her head in and saw that all the commotion was about the gorgeous delicacies beautifully plated and presented to each diner with such care. There was no room for us that night, so we made a reservation for several days later.

When the night came for our dinner, we arrived at the restaurant right on time. We were quickly seated and asked if we wanted to see a menu or to have the chef’s omakase dinner.  Omakase, translates to “respectfully leaving another to decide what is best” in Japanese. We of course chose an Omakase dinner.

It was more than 22 years ago that I had that meal, but I remember the courses like it was yesterday. There were things I had never eaten, like fresh Japanese mountain yam and bowls of tiny baby eels, as well as food I had eaten before, but were not nearly as delicious as at that moment. Chilled sake was poured from a beautiful glass pot, almost like a teapot with the center holding the ice to keep the sake cold. As we looked left and right, all our fellow diners were eating the omakase as well. They were a course or two ahead of us and as each new plate was presented to our neighbors, Anita would squeal, “Oh, I want that, I want that, too!”

Our sushi chef was dexterous and pleasant, he didn’t speak English and the only Japanese we knew were names of food, but I think that was enough. He could tell we were utterly thrilled with our meal, hoping it would never end. Several hours later, we walked out into the warm Singapore air, still elated with the meal and feeling blessed we found that little gem of a restaurant. I hope it still exists.

goodto-go.com

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Favorite ...
Number one resolution for 2021?
And my resolution in 2021 is to learn Italian. David and I want to spend more time in Italy one day and speaking the language is pretty important to us. I got Rosetta Stone Italian for David for Christmas. I hope he shares it with me.

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