What's Been Cookin' with Jenny Breen of Good Life Catering?

When I was asked whether I was interested in doing a profile on “local legend” Jenny Breen, I jumped at the chance. I didn’t know who Jenny was, but with a name like that – so lyrical and fresh – I knew I wanted to meet her. Jenny Breen, Jenny Breen. She sounded like a lass some lovelorn Irishman might sing about. She sounded like a lady who might know her way around a garden, might even wear a tiara made out of snap peas and scallions, carrots and asparagus. Yes, I said. Yes, I would very much like to write a profile on this local legend cooking lady with a crown of veggies.

I set up a phone interview with Jenny, Googled her, and discovered that she’s a very busy woman – one of those people who seems to find more hours in the day, more days in a week, than the rest of us. Either that, or she’s a well-preserved octogenarian to have accomplished all she has. She’s been a caterer, restaurant owner, cooking and nutrition educator, health advocate, cookbook author, mother and student. In addition to her veggie crown, I pictured her with eight arms, one holding a book, one scribbling notes, the others each holding a different cooking implement: chopping, whisking, stirring.

When we spoke, I found her to be easy going yet passionate about educating others about the value of cooking fresh, local, organic, sustainable foods as a path to health and wellness. This message seems to be on everyone’s lips right now, but Jenny has been thinking about this, talking about this and finding her life’s work in this for a very long time. She points to a year she spent living on a kibbutz in Israel during college as having awakened her interest in agriculture, health and eating what is available. After coming back to the U.S. and experiencing a bit of culture shock, she managed to finagle a job in a bakery after college, and it seems like her professional life has been driven by her passion and creativity ever since.

Currently, she and her longtime friend and business partner, Karn Anderson own and operate Good Life Catering, which embodies their philosophy to “live simply, eat well, and enjoy life.” Jenny also received a Bush Fellowship which has allowed her to enroll as a full-time student at the University of Minnesota so she can pursue her Master's degree in Public Health Nutrition. While Jenny is enjoying the intellectual challenges of being a student again, she sometimes feels frustrated by the fact that academic life doesn’t feel like real life. As a mover and a shaker, as a doer, as an “older” student, she brings a different perspective to the issues they are studying and sees that in some ways, the theoretical is still catching up with reality. Something tells me she may be shaking things up a bit over there. I picture her waggling some fennel fronds to make a point, or banging a gooseneck squash on her desk for emphasis during discussion group. I know, I need to stop it with the vegetables. I just can’t help it!

When I asked her if she had any heroes or mentors, Jenny didn’t hesitate: Lucia Watson, Brenda Langton, and Tracy Singleton. Of course! More ladies with crowns of produce who have been bringing us gorgeous, local and sustainable food since way before it became chic to do so. She also talked about Mary Story, a professor in the school of public health who is especially inspiring to her.

But Jenny is no slouch in the mentor department herself. Most recently she and Jayme Anderson, the Program Manager at the St. Paul Community Design Center, worked with three students to develop a healthy school lunch recipe for a national contest called Cooking Up Change, organized by the Healthy Schools Campaign and the National Farm to School Network. They had an unenviable list of ingredients to work from, a set of nutritional guidelines, and were required to incorporate one locally grown item. The dishes also had to be completed in six steps or less, among other requirements. Based on their menu of Crunchy Pesto Chicken, Minnesota Slaw and Polenta Pizza (using cornmeal from local Riverbend Farm), the CDC students were chosen as finalists and have received an all-expense paid trip to Detroit to compete in the Cooking Up Change finals. The kids will have to prepare their dishes with no help from their teachers, for a panel of judges that will include the wives of the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture and the U.S. Secretary of Education. The kids met with Jenny at the Kitchen in the Market in the Midtown Global Market to practice and Jenny invited me to meet them and watch. (You’ll be relieved to know that although I was slightly disappointed to discover that in lieu of a vegetable tiara, Jenny has a head of pretty brown curls, I kept these thoughts to myself.)

Xia Lee (age 17), Vinnis Lee (age 18) and Kou Lee (age 16) are all interns in the Community Design Center’s Youth Internship Program and were chosen to participate in the contest because of their passion for food and cooking. Right away, I was floored by how comfortable the teenagers seemed in a commercial kitchen – and with an audience, to boot. Debra Stone, the Board Chair from the CDC was there to watch, along with a photographer for the Star Tribune and myself. The kids each picked a dish to work on and began gathering ingredients and reviewing their recipes with furrowed brows. Vinnis had enviable knife skills and made short work of the apples, pears and carrots in front of her. Kou stirred polenta to perfect consistency and then set about making a tomato sauce with spinach. Xia was careful to keep her chicken thighs out of the way of the other food and pulled together a delicious crunchy pesto after working out some rather complex measurement conversions with Jenny. The kids were encouraged to ask questions, but most were answered with a gentle “what does the recipe say?” Jenny showed them how to work the stove and oven, good naturedly pointing out that they were sure to be different at the contest. She reminded them of kitchen etiquette when you have to itch your nose, eliciting giggles from the kids. She taught them how to check the temperature of the chicken, to give the polenta time to settle, to scrape down the sides of the blender. She encouraged them to scribble reminder notes onto their recipes. But mostly, she watched and smiled.

Lucky me, I was invited to sample their dishes and I can honestly say they were delicious. The Minnesota slaw made with shredded carrot, apple and pear was refreshing, crunchy and light. The Polenta Pizza was perfectly chewy and spongy and the tomato sauce with spinach tasted like something that had been cooking away on the stovetop for hours. And finally, the Crunchy Pesto Chicken was tender and savory, with an ever so slight hint of sweetness from the vanilla yogurt used in the pesto. (Remember that ingredients list? Who knew vanilla yogurt would work so well?) I couldn’t believe how this team had managed to come up with such creative, complex tasting dishes that were relatively simple to make and also met all the parameters of the contest.

As we ate and talked about the contest, I could see the excitement playing across Xia, Vinnis and Kou’s faces. Their smiles, giggles and shrugs reminded me of just how young they are, and, my goodness, they couldn’t be sweeter. They plan to practice one more time, but from what I saw and tasted, they’ve got it in the bag. On May 17 Jenny and Jayme will get to watch Xia, Vinnis and Kou compete. I can just see them now, sitting on their hands, smiling, craning their necks to get a better look at the kids. Jenny may even be fanning herself nervously with some leaves of swiss chard.

What? It could happen.

Gabriela Lambert gave up practicing law to stay home with her three kids and live a life of leisure. Given the choice between salty and sweet, she will hit the salty every time. Given the choice between pig and cow, she will clutch her chest and whimper that it’s like asking her to pick her favorite child. On her birthday, she's most likely to choose a trip to the farmers' market with her family, but that’s one of her favorite things to do on any day. In addition to minding her brood, she spends her time practicing yoga, driving around in her minivan, and blogging at Her last post for Simple, Good and Tasty was Celebrate Cinco de Mayo with Rhubarbaritas and Stuffed Poblano Peppers.