by Nate Widom
Whether you needed a post-workout meal, a quick snack, or a morning smoothie, chances are you’ve stopped by the HAC Café. And there, you’ll likely see the familiar and friendly face of Jenni Holcomb cooking up your order, all inspired by her love of cuisine, travel, and being a mom.
Jenni and her food have been a HAC staple for just over ten years, and she puts her love into every meal she makes. But it’s her customers that she cares about the most. “I love the camaraderie I have with a lot of them,” she says. “I’ve been here so long that I know so many of them by name. I know their kids’ names and what’s going on in their family.”
Jenni takes full advantage of the HAC Café’s uncommon layout which is precisely what allows her to be so interactive with members. “We have a unique situation here where we have an open kitchen,” mentions Jenni. “It’s not typical, but I love it. I’m a chitty chat person, love to talk.”
And now that Jenni is head chef, she has increased creative control and plans out most of the café specials, which are all inspired by her visits to different restaurants throughout the country. According to her, the most popular specials are stuffed French toast with berries and her homemade biscuits served with creamed chipped beef or sausage gravy.
But interestingly, Jenni wasn’t in love with cooking at first. In fact, she was introduced to cuisine when she took a home-ec class during her senior year of high school. The course gave her a new passion and career ambitions, even though she only intended to take the class as a credit towards graduation.
“I fell in love with the teacher and she took me under her wing,” Jenni remembers. “There was just something about being in the kitchen and being responsible for what was in front of me that drew me in. I loved it! And from there, I was like, ‘that’s what I want to do.’”
After high school, Jenni went to culinary school in Pittsburgh with the plan to be a pastry chef. However, she quickly realized it wasn’t for her. “It just wasn’t what I thought it was going to be,” she explains. “[It was] very early hours, which at that time in my life I was not used to.” As she progressed in the program, she realized she wanted a broader, more generalized culinary education. Jenni eventually switched her area of study and graduated in 1999 with an associate degree in Culinary Arts.
After graduation, Jenni became pregnant with her son Andre and moved back to Delaware to be with her family. From there, Jenni took a chef’s internship at the Hotel DuPont. Two years later, she officially joined the team, only to decide that she wasn’t a fan of working in fine dining.
“I love having my own creativity and doing what I wanna do, and when you’re in that kind of establishment, you follow specific guidelines,” says Jenni. “Every plate has to look the same, and you have to do it the head chef’s way.
A New Opportunity
After moving on from Hotel DuPont, Jenni worked at different culinary establishments, including Pike Creek Coffee, located inside Zingo’s Supermarket. Funny enough, this is how Jenni got her job at HAC. The HAC Café sells Pike Creek Coffee, and upon a routine delivery to the café, Jenni’s bosses overheard Michelle Shaw, HAC’s then Café Director, discuss the club’s search for a new chef.
Jenni’s own bosses at Pike Creek Coffee recommended her to Michelle, knowing it would give Jenni a better opportunity. “I came in [to HAC] two days later, interviewed, and was hired two days after that,” Jenni recalls. “So, my bosses from my one job actually got me connected here to HAC.” Jenni initially worked at both locations for a year and a half before joining the HAC Café full time.
At HAC, Jenni started as a prep cook but worked her way up over several years to line cook and eventually to head chef. Currently, Jenni has been working at HAC for just over 10 years.
“Now that I’ve gotten into the head chef position… I’m in a little more control,” explains Jenni. “I definitely have a lot more input in what we do day to day and what we put on the menu, and I love that about my job!” She’s grateful to have found at HAC the culinary freedom she craved in other roles.
And over time, Jenni has refined her strong philosophy with food. “They’ll say it’s Jenni’s way or no way, and that’s pretty much how I am,” Jenni explains. “So, once [Chihiro and I] find something that works, I don’t like people to change it.”
While Jenni recognizes the irony of enforcing the same rigidity at HAC that she disliked while working at Hotel DuPont, she now sees that there is good reason for it – and that’s consistency. Aside from any special requests for an order, all food must be prepped and cooked in the same uniform way.
“Consistency is key!” Jenni explains. “If you come in today and I make your sandwich one way, and you come in tomorrow and Tanya, for example, makes it a different way, what do you want? It needs to be the same for every customer every time they walk through that door. There is a certain way we make each and every dish in there, and we are all supposed to make it the exact same way, so whether I’m cooking it, or Gibby is cooking it, or somebody else is cooking it, you’re getting the same experience every time you get it.”
Inspiration, Dance, & Travel
As a mother to her 22-year-old son Andre and 14-year-old daughter Arianna (Nani), Jenni is grateful to work in a place that has afforded so many opportunities for her kids. In addition to being involved at HAC as a chef, she was heavily involved as a dance mom for the past ten years in Stage Stars Dance and Acro.
“I love being able to have everything right here,” she notes. “…knowing [Nani] was down the hall from me, it was like an all-in-one stop here. Like with the childcare, the kids’ programs, the café, working at the pool, this really is an amazing facility. I couldn’t have asked for a better dance education for my daughter.”
“They really listened to what she needed. They worked well with her,” proclaims Jenni. “They’re amazing. Angie’s programs are amazing, and her teachers are amazing. I have nothing negative to say about that program at all. I love it.”
While Nani just finished her last season, Stage Stars has provided the opportunity to travel the country for dance competitions, mainly within a couple hours from Delaware. On these trips, Jenni would take a chance to check out a local restaurant to find inspiration and experience something different. Most recently, Stage Stars traveled to San Diego.
“I just went to California and I tried all different kinds of stuff out there… really fresh seafood, fresh produce, and I found a couple of things I’d love to bring back here and do here,” mentions Jenni. “That’s a nice thing about being able to get away and try different areas and try different foods. I get inspiration from every menu that I see when I go out to eat. There’s inspiration everywhere if you look!”
Clearly, Jenni loves being a chef and dance mom and wouldn’t change a thing. “Really, my life for the last 10 years was dance and work,” concludes Jenni. “That’s the thing about being a family person – they come first.”