There may not be many connections between fine dining and frozen chicken dinners, but Chef Jennifer Johnson is one of them. Formerly a Chez Panisse sous chef under Alice Waters and personal chef to Ann and Gordon Getty, Johnson now devotes her culinary talent to creating premium frozen meals for Hip Chick Farms, a company she founded on a sustainable and ethical foundation with her wife and business partner Serafina Palandech.
Together, Johnson and Palandech create artisan frozen meals like chicken wings and meatballs from locally-sourced and ethically-raised poultry. And the industry is taking note. They were recently recognized as two of the “Most Innovative Women in Food and Drink” by Food & Wine magazine.
SmartBrief talked with Johnson about the path that led her to Hip Chicks Farms, why innovation is so important and the role leaders — especially women leaders — play in the food industry.
What led you to organic and ethically-raised foods, and why are such products important?
I have been cooking organically for over 25 years, as well as
practicing sustainable sourcing for the whole time. I learned these
principles at Chez Panisse years ago. It is very important to me as a
chef and to our whole family. At our farm, we raise animals and do
some farming. We want our daughter to know where her food is coming
Regarding animal welfare, it is incredibly important to me that the
animals I use as a chef were treated with respect in life and death. Compassion and respect for all beings is at the core of our company
What role does innovation play in the business of Hip Chick Farms? What makes Hip Chick Farms stand out in today’s food and beverage market?
There are very few startups in the poultry industry — especially in
the organic and natural sector, and almost no women led businesses. What we are trying to do is unique — paying close attention to quality standards in production, utilizing artisan production
practices and refusing to use fillers. At Hip Chick Farms we are
passionate about only using chicken that is free range and humanely
certified. We clearly identify for our customer where the chicken was raised and are transparent from start to finish. All of these
practices are disruptive to the “normal” way of making a chicken
nugget. Folks are used to chicken nuggets that are poor in quality,
taste and made of suspicious ingredients. Hip Chick Farms is making a classically loved comfort food, that is frozen, and yet is impeccably made and tastes great!
We have invested huge amounts of time and effort into not mass
producing our products. It takes more time, more resources, more
thoughtfulness to ensure that our supply chain is regulated and
secure. Organic and natural poultry is still growing. Humane
standards are still being set. We have had large corporations ask us
to help them define humane standards. We are in touch on a very close level with our suppliers to ensure that the standards are in place.
This disruption to “big food” is about transparency, trust and
compassion. Big food has lied to consumers for so long that there is
very little trust. Hip Chick Farms is real food made with real
ingredients that folks can trust.
What have you learned about the importance of leadership in the food industry through your roles as a chef and business owner?
When we started, we just wanted to use the best ingredients available
and make the best tasting product. We quickly learned that most food
companies are cutting corners, using suspect ingredients and
processing food in ways that is not natural or healthy. We found that we were innovators by using artisan methods, knowing our ingredient sources, taking care and pride in making an impeccable product.
Perhaps more importantly, we are being seen as leaders in the humanely raised animal movement. Transparency is very important to who we are as a family, who I am as a Chef and how we make Hip Chick Farms products. More and more big companies are trying to model their behavior on little guys like us — and are asking for our help in creating humane standards which I am happy to help with.
I am proud to serve as a role model for big food companies, and to
show them how to do it right — if not the easiest way, but it is the
most sustainable way in the long run. Being a chef-led business, we
always put quality first.
How has your perspective as a woman played into your leadership in the food industry? Why do you think women leaders are important for the food industry?
As a woman chef, in an industry dominated by men, and as a female
farmer and chicken company owner, I have to stay true to my instincts. I have something new and unique to offer to our community as a new leader in the industry. I think difference makes all things better — so the more voices present the better any outcome.
What advice would you give to other innovators looking to become leaders in the food and beverage industry?
Follow your gut. As a chef, I have to taste my food. Taste your food — make sure you can stand behind your products. Stick to your guns. If you believe in a standard, stick to it no matter what.
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