Jennifer Johnson has been a healthy chef for over 20 years, but she also spent more than 30 years with a another “c” word hanging over her head, and that word was “corporate.” As in, corporate America. “I didn’t think I’d ever own a catering company,” said Johnson. “I went to engineering school and have a degree in electrical engineering. But I went to school while my kids were small, and I felt guilty about being gone in the evenings, so I’d make them homemade meals at night.”
What started out as a loving gesture for her kids eventually propelled her into an entirely new career, with a little push from her son. “One year, my son put in his Mother’s Day card, ‘I love a million things about my mom, but not her cooking.’ So being a perfectionist, I went to culinary school to spend time with my kids and really learn how to cook.”
Now, as head chef and owner behind Witnessing Nature in Food, a local, organic, farm-to-table catering business, Jennifer gets to keep cooking healthy meals for people she cares about. And she does it with skill, joy, passion and a laser-focus on healthy ingredients and sustainability.
JA: What a total 180 your career took. Could you tell us more about making the switch from the board room to using a cutting board?
JJ: I worked for corporate America for many years, and one day I decided I want to do something that brings some joy! Since the kids had moved out, I wanted to do something else. And food brings me joy, so I opened my own catering company. I wanted a boutique style of food and to be able to pick my customers a little bit.
I was so sick of going to parties and thinking, “Wow that’s really pretty! It should taste great!” But then it just didn’t taste great. We do all organic food, because when you start with great ingredients, you don’t have to doctor it up too much. Your body knows how many vitamins and nutrients you’re getting in your food.
I love catering because I get to help people celebrate and have a great time. I like walking out feeling like we cleaned up better than when we started. And we’ve brought joy to people’s lives! I really like meeting people and cooking for them.
JA: You offer many different services, like creating low-sugar, healthy lunches for schools (which are great for kiddo’s mouths as well). Could you tell us about those partnerships?
JJ: We do school lunches. We bring organic food directly to the students because I think you learn a lot better when you’re fed. Kids that don’t have such a sugar high pay attention better in school and they learn better. And it’s easier on the teachers too. We have all organic crust and cheese and homemade sauces for the pizzas, for example. Every Friday is pizza Friday. We’re out of school right now and I just miss making pizzas so much.
JA: Whether it’s for a kid’s lunch or an adult’s dinner party, what does your creative process look like for developing a healthy menu?
JJ: We technically have a set menu, but very few people order directly from it. It’s mostly about stimulating people’s thoughts about food. I might start with a main course that’s on the menu, but then we might add something extra on the side. A lot of our clients have dietary restrictions, maybe they can’t have gluten or dairy or too much sugar. We try to make sure there are a lot of vegetarian, vegan or gluten-free items so everybody can enjoy something. We do a lot of apple poppyseed or honey mustard dressings for salads, those kinds of things, so that even something as small as a salad dressing is flavorful and healthy. We want to have fun trying different things together.
JA: When you’re not cooking for others, what do you like to make for yourself?
JJ: I have a balcony garden, so I grow a lot of fresh veggies. I’m not a big meat person. So fish, shrimp and fresh ingredients. I’ll pull fresh cherry tomatoes off and sauté them in with my fish. I like rice. I like quinoa. It just depends what I have in the fridge. I like fresh ingredients and seasonal food. I make awesome shrimp. I think people don’t realize that if you go to the seafood counter, you can have the butcher cut your shrimp and devein them for you. Fresh shrimp is the key.
I use all sustainable ingredients. I live and die by an app called Seafood Watch; it’s part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. At the fish counter they must tell you where it came from and whether it’s fresh or wild. You can plug that info into your app, and it will tell you if its been treated fairly or is sustainable. We like to know about our food and where it came from. Most of our food that I work with comes locally.
JA: What ingredients do you like to cook with as the weather heats up? Is there anything local to Arizona you can recommend that’s good for our oral health?
JJ: We eat with the seasons. Lots of squash in fall and winter. Right now, its cherry tomatoes, zucchini and purple cauliflower and Romanesco. We use a lot of oranges and lemons. We do a citrus chicken that uses a variety of different citrus. We use a lot of apples.
JA: Since you work so closely with people in their homes, what trends are you noticing in the way people are dining and eating?
JJ: I have noticed a lot more requests for organic and seasonal foods, but I’ve also noticed a lot of the events happen to be more intimate. People are getting together in their homes. People are doing big family meals at home instead of going out and drinking and driving. We do a lot of Airbnb catering. There are a lot of huge homes in Paradise Valley and Scottsdale—they’ll fit 20 people. Big groups come in and we serve them meals at night. Arizona is perfect in the evening time, so to sit and enjoy a meal with your family is great.
JA: We know you’re a Phoenix Green Business leader. What role does sustainability play in your cooking and your business model? Why is that important to you?
JJ: We put less than 1 pound of trash into the land fill every month. Everything else we reuse. Plastics, all that gets taken to Safeway or Fry’s. We do a lot of recycling and a lot of donation. We won the City of Scottsdale Environmental Achievement award in 2018. We use all chemical-free products. We have compostable delivery containers when we cater or meal prep.
JA: How do you like to stay healthy? What do you do for your health and for self-care?
JJ: I like to mediate. Go for walks. I don’t like the treadmill. I prefer to be outside walking and breathing fresh air. Sitting and relaxing and drinking a glass of wine and listening to music helps me drain whatever the day brought.
JA: You have YouTube videos of some inspiring chefs on your website. How do these chefs motivate you and keep pushing you forward?
JJ: One of the reasons I love Dan Barber is he didn’t settle for the status quo. He found ways to bring sustainability into a turn and burn environment. He figures out how to grow everything he’s serving. He’s a friend to the farmer or he may be the farmer himself. I really want to know where my food comes from, how they grew it. It means something. It’s a passion for these farmers. What nourishes you, makes you. You should enjoy that a great deal.
Even Jamie Oliver—part of the reason I love doing school lunches is because Jamie Oliver genuinely cares about what he’s putting in kids’ lunches. By teaching kids what good food tastes like, they’ll be more inclined to make better choices as adults.
JA: It’s important that these chefs are helping to teach our kids what a healthy meal looks like—it’s key for oral health and overall health. When you’re at work, what brings a smile to your face?
JJ: Definitely not dishes! I really like preparing the food, tasting the food and seeing how it turns out. Enjoying the pleasure of it being there. Preparing for an event can be hectic, but I really enjoy the look on people’s faces when they really like something. When the plates come back empty, you know they enjoyed it.
JA: Culture plays such a big role in how we think about food. How does that seep into your love for cooking?
JJ: My husband is from Milan. His dad is there. His kids are there. He’s been stuck there for 2 months. It’s been an adventure. (This interview took place at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in Italy.) But I grew up in Michigan, moved to California when I was 16 and have been here in Arizona since 1988. In my corporate job, I traveled all over the world so I just love culture. And that’s part of the reason why I got back to enjoying my food, because I love creating things from other countries. When I worked in corporate America, we had a factory in Hungary, and I had an apartment in Paris. I just really enjoy food, wine, travel, getting to know people. It makes me happy to know you can learn about how people create and celebrate their food. And everybody eats.
JA: What’s something a home cook can do to feel confident in the kitchen?
JJ: I would say two things: number one, most of us grew up with grandmas that cooked all day. And baking can be an intense process. However, making quick, easy meals can be done if you stick to the recipe as a guide. And take notes about what you liked or didn’t like about the recipe. Don’t stress about it. If you hate it, throw it away and make it again.
And two, keep it simple. Five ingredients or less. We just made a pasta with garlic, white wine, olive oil, herbs and shrimp. Threw in olives from the fridge and roasted some tomatoes. Tt was fantastic! Don’t stress. Cooking can be easy and fun if you do it with somebody else. Make it fun! It doesn’t have to be hard. I think we try to do too many things that other people are doing or we pull a huge recipe off the internet with 70 ingredients. Don’t do that.
Chef Jennifer Johnson’s Mediterranean Chicken Breast with Broccolini
Ingredients for the chicken:
- 4 breasts pastured organic chicken
- 1 cup Greek yogurt
- 1 cup kalamata olives
- 2 cups cherry tomatoes, sliced in halves
- 2 tbsp shredded parmesan
- ¼ cup diced red onion
- 2 garlic cloves, diced
- Pinch of salt and pepper
Ingredients for the broccolini:
- ¼ cup red onion, sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, diced
- 4 cups broccolini
- 1 tsp olive oil
Ingredients for the rice:
- 1 cup brown rice
- 2 tsp bullion (vegetable or chicken)
- 2 cups water
- 1 diced bell pepper
- ¼ cup red onion, diced
- ¼ cup raisins
- ¼ cup blanched, chopped almonds
- Bake chicken for 20-30 minutes at 350 degrees with 2 tsp of olive oil and salt and pepper. Let rest for 5 minutes. Slice breasts into ½-inch filets. Serve 4-5 per person. Drizzle sauce over chicken and pair with rice and broccolini.
- To make the rice, steam with water and bullion for 20 minutes. Once cooked, add the fresh onion, bell pepper, raisins, and almonds.
- To make the broccolini, sauté the onion and garlic with olive oil until translucent. Add the broccolini and sauté for another 2-3 minutes.
- To make the sauce, sauté 1 tsp olive oil and garlic until translucent. Reduce to a simmer and add Greek yogurt, tomatoes, olives, and parmesan. Serve warm over chicken.
Optional: Use bone broth instead of bouillon to amp up the nutritional value.