We had the good fortune of connecting with Jess Modzelewski and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Jess, what led you to pursuing a creative path professionally?
I’ve always been drawn to the arts… I actually have a Masters in Fine Arts from SMFA/Tufts. University! Since I was just a kid, I’ve wanted to have a career where I use my creativity and my hands to make beautiful things. Once out of grad school, I held so many weird jobs: professional dog walker, safari tour guide, textile design, operations manager even community management for a tech company based out of Krakow Poland! Everywhere I interviewed, I told them I held a Masters degree in “creative problem solving.”
When I was living in Krakow, I came to miss American treats and sugary bliss, and took it upon myself to learn how to bake. I was bringing my body weight in treats to the office every day, from apple pie to layer cakes to chocolate chip cookies. Baking after work provided me with that creative outlet I was so desperately missing in my life, especially dealing with a thankless tech support gig day in and day out. When I left Poland in 2016, I worked remotely for 3 years, giving myself even more time to experiment. Soon I was putting out specialty cookie boxes, loaves of braided babka, even more complicated cakes and pies. It became my love in a way that a studio practice of visual art never did for me. There was so much less pretension than the microcosm of the art world, less judgement, more joy. *EVERYONE* likes sugar and butter! I make the pie, I put it out in the world, it’s consumed and gone from my life, and I do better next time.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
I’m most proud of my courage to quit my day job (most recently, bakery manager at a grocery store) and take my side hustle full time to the next level: a full blown business, where every dollar spent and earned is coming directly from my own checking account. I’m still in the beginning stages of my small business taking shape and have been experiencing some major growing pains along the way. Just this week, I submitted my permitting to be in a shared commercial kitchen space! I had signed up for a cottage license and was working out of my home kitchen, but the Dept of Health has a bunch of willy-nilly rules about what is acceptable and what isn’t… they got up in my grill about serving cream cheese buttercream, key lime pie, and I had to completely shut down my website and lock my Instagram to private while I got the right paperwork in order. Meanwhile, orders are still coming in full force, and I’m just one woman trying to bake my cakes, deliver orders from LA to Ventura to Ojai, answer emails and inquiries about custom orders, plus the occasional opportunity to take on a bulk wholesale order, collaborate on a pop-up, handle recipe development… It’s easy to get underwater! Yikes!
My advice to others: Don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness. Say yes to everything in the beginning, and learn your lessons on what can be scaled back. Don’t overpromise and under-deliver: don’t take on any project that doesn’t excite you. I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me for cakes decorated with fondant, or cookies decorated with royal icing for a baby shower. Nope! Not my jam, let me refer you to someone that will do it better. Know your style, where you thrive, what you can do and do well. And build your network so when you get overwhelmed, you can refer out to your friends!
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
If I had a week to show my friend everything, I would bounce around all over So Cal! First I’d take them on a tour of my favorite hotspots on the NE side: Virgil Village, Los Feliz, and Silverlake.
Skylight books art book store, and Stories to browse, hike around Griffith Park a bit, eat as much Mexican food as possible at El Condor, drink margs on the patio at Casita del Campo, eat vegan softserve from Magpies, check out the Huntington Gardens in Pasadena. Get some natural wine from Vinovore and drop by for a juice from my friends at Rick’s Produce. Walk around Echo Park lake and check out all the turtles!
Next I’d spend a day on the west side: Santa Monica, Venice, Malibu. I’d grab us some pie and sandwiches from Gjusta, or lobster rolls from my buds at Broad Street Oyster. I’d go high-low: walk along Abbott Kinney and show how bougie this side of town has developed with a million candle shops and boutique clothing we can’t afford, and then I’d take them for a stroll along the Venice Boardwalk to peep at the buskers and street performers (my favorite being the sunglass-wearing bicycle-driving terrier!) I’d take them for a drive up the coast and we’d go by Point Dume so we can re-enact Charleton Heston in Planet of the Apes. “You maniacs!!!!”
I’d spend a day taking my friend to my hometown Ventura to eat Beach House fish tacos on the pier (the best in the west, seriously!), check out the hot guys surfing at The Point, the little known Patagonia outlet next to Patagonia HQ (Real Cheap Sports! I love you guys!). I’d take them into Ojai to see the white sage growing off the side of Matilija Canyon, downtown Ojai to see all the cute, small businesses from local honey to turquoise jewelry. I’d stop by my favorite beach in the world, Rincon Point.
I’d spend a couple days in Joshua Tree, showing off the gorgeous desert landscape, my favorite boulders to climb, my friends at Coyote Corner, a burger at The Saloon. I’d take us on a detour to Palm Springs to check out all the bitchin’ mid century Neutra and Eichler homes, the Eames furniture stores.
If there was time left, I’d go wine tasting in Santa Barbara and ride bikes around from downtown to the beach, and of course yelling our lungs out under the freeway. Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
I’d love to shoutout my babes at Butter Cake Shoppe, co-owners Sasha and Ari, for encouraging me along the way, teaching me so many skills, inspiring me to go out on my own. They took me on as my first job in baking, knowing I would like to learn more and eventually open my own business. They’ve been so supportive of me as I scale up, and even more, will always be there to answer a text from me with technical questions… “Hey Sasha, if my curd is too runny, can I rework it with more egg yolks?” They’re the epitome of supportive women, looking out for one of their own. They’ve also both taught me so much about looking out for my fellow up-and-coming chefs: Go to each other’s events! Buy their food and pay full price! Repost their work! Offer advice and feedback whenever you think you can help someone else grow! The food world is like any other, a microcosm of competition and hierarchies, but it really doesn’t have to be that way… there’s room for everyone.
All image credit is to myself Jess Modzelewski