Meet the Queen of Jam Nation: Gillian Reynolds
Jams are one of our favorite things. They should be one of everyone's favorite things: jam is just a concentrated, tangy, mouth-watering version of all your favorite fruits. Plus, some jammakers go that extra mile and add herbs, floral flavors, and spices that augment the fruit's flavor in ways that no other preparation does.
Gillian Reynolds started making jam out of a love of fruit, and we're glad she did. We talked with her about how she started Jamnation, how she makes her jams, and generally pried into her life history. Read on and get to know the Jam Queen!
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in New York City, but I spent every summer from when I was seven until twenty in rural Pennsylvania—my family had a farmhouse in Bucks County. My mom told me that once, when I six years old, I saw a patch of grass in NYC and I would not leave. Whenever I saw I star I would wish on it—quite loudly—“I wish we could go to the country!”
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
I’m not entirely sure...I’ve always had a lot of different interests, which is maybe why being an entrepreneur is good for me, since I get to wear a lot of hats. When I was younger I loved science, cooking, and arts and crafts. I made my own soaps, perfume and tried to make my own make-up once (my friend Tatiana from pre-school was never allowed to come over again after that!). At my grandmother’s house I would take all the flowers and put them into the sun with water to “make my own perfume” (which obviously didn’t work, but hey, I was, like, eight).
As I got older, I blended my own dried flowers and essential oils and made “eye patch pillows” with fun fabrics that I sewed myself filled with flax seeds. I dried flowers from hikes and from my garden and arranged them to make candles and art...I also made my own recipes for sorbets, granitas, “berry soup” and hand-pies. I’ve always preferred making desserts.
Who taught you to cook? If the answer is different, how did your interest in food and cooking ignite? (For example, my mother learned to cook in her 20s, but didn’t love cooking until she lived in France.)
Cooking is in my blood. My mother taught me all my basic knife skills, measuring, baking, stir-frying—you name it. She is a master in the kitchen, very precise and organized, and has an amazing palate. My great-grandfather was chef in Hawaii—he came over from China—and my grandmother was an amazing cook. My Chinese grandparents owned mom-and-pop grocery stores in Phoenix—my grandfather came over when he was 10, and brought my grandmother over when they married—and she would teach customers how to cook. Her cooking is legendary in our family.
My mother almost opened a pie shop (sweet and savory) with my godmother, Madeline Lanciani, who was the first female chef at the Plaza and now owns Duane Park Patisserie. My brother trained at Le Cordon Bleu, was a sous chef at Morimoto and is now at Marea in NYC.
So, had you made jam prior to the trip to Brazil that blew your mind? If not, what led to jam as the conclusion you came to from having tasted amazing Brazilian fruits?
I had never made a single jar of jam before going to Brazil. Those simple fruits in Brazil—papaya and mango, from small local farms—stayed on my mind, and I thought, “If I could eat fruit like this, I would never eat another cupcake again!” That has since proven untrue. However, when I returned to San Francisco, I scoured the local farmers’ markets for the best varietals of fruits that had the same intensity of flavor. I found it in arctic star nectarines, royal Blenheim apricots, and Josephine raspberries.
I wanted to share it with my family in New York, but I couldn’t ship them a carton of raspberries, so I decided to make them jams for Christmas. My family are all foodies, so I knew I had to step it up a notc. I create flavors that were inspired by shared memories—raspberry and basil for my brother, because we would pick raspberries together as children; apple butter for my father because we would eat apple dumplings together at Reading Terminal Market—each one infused with herbs and florals to make them truly unique.
After 40 batches in 30 days, my friends from Stanford, or my “beta taste-testers,” told me I should be selling them. I spilled the beans to my family about my project and they loved the idea and the fun names. My brother even started helping me with the names (he’s a creative writing major from USC turned chef).
How do the flavors of Northern Californian fruits compare to those in Brazil? How did you find the fruits you wanted to use?
Each fruit has its own unique flavor profiles, but they have the same flavor intensity. I’ve tasted and tested an incredible number of varietals to find what I believe is the best varietal of each fruit. Because each is from small, organic farms within 200 miles, they are picked at the peak of ripeness and flavor. Large corporate farms tend to overwater their fruits and choose varietals with larger yields to increase profits; however, this means you get less flavor per ounce.
How much experimentation did it take to get to the recipes you now use for your jams?
I’ve actually done 300 batches of recipe testing—200 of them in my studio apartment with no dishwasher! One of the hardest but most rewarding parts is finding the secondary flavor that enhances but doesn’t overpower the fruit. It’s like finding the umami flavor in the fruit.
What other flavors do you want to try to make down the line?
That’s for me to know and you to dream about...mwahaha.
What’s your favorite way to use your jam?
I love eating it on greek yogurt for a high-protein breakfast or snack. Since they are low in added sugar, it’s a great way to have a healthy, delicious treat. I also like it because I can “customize” my yogurt.
When you were at Stanford, what did you plan on doing after college? Any inklings of a jam company-to-be?
I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I knew I wanted to do something that helped people. I worked at a think tank in DC on economic policy related to low-income families and children for two years. That’s one of the reasons my jam company has been fair trade certified from day one.
Who designed the labels and branding? Who came up with, or how did you come up with, the different flavor names?
I direct the art and branding, and then I have an designing draw my vision. My brother and I work on the different flavor names, which can be fun until you’re on a deadline!
Just a taste of Jamnation Jam's dazzling personality
What’s your favorite local restaurant, café, or market?
Tuba—it’s an amazing Turkish Restaurant here in San Francisco
Do you listen to music or podcasts while you cook? If so, what/which?
My favorite thing to listen to is 80s pop music!
What are your favorite cookbooks?
How to Cook Everything by Mark Bittman.
What’s your favorite comfort meal to make?
Dan Fan: it’s a family recipe my mother has tried to convince me is Chinese. It’s rice cooked with butter, egg, and Lawry’s seasoned salt (try and you’ll believe it).
What’s your go-to dinner party meal to make?
Vegetable catalan paella, grilled marinated flank steak, salad with avocado and passionfruit-shallot vinaigrette.
What’s your favorite drink of the moment?
Dark and Stormy. I’m digging real ginger beer.
Who’s a celebrity that if you met, you think would really like you?
Mindy Kaling or Ellie Kemper, but I think maybe everyone thinks that?
We're going to ask you some quick-fire questions now—answer before you have a chance to think too long about them. Dog or cat?
Cat for sure.
Tomato sauce or pesto?
Regular fries or waffle fries?
Chocolate or caramel?
Pizza or pasta?
Wine, beer, or cocktail?