We sat down with Jenny Craig’s new Vice President of Culinary Strategy and Executive Chef, Justine Kelly, to talk about her passion for organic food, where she gets her recipe inspiration and how excited she is about Jenny’s new line of fresh meals.
Meet Our New Executive Chef, Justine Kelly
JC: What got you into food and cooking? Did you always have a passion for it?
JK: My passion for food started at a really young age. When I was in kindergarten, my dad would ask me what I did in school and I’d always respond, “I cut carrots!” I loved snack time.
I started throwing fancy dinner parties for friends when I was 16. My father was the main cook in the family, he was the adventurous one. My passion for trying new things came for him. I learned that it was better to try and fail at cooking (and life!) than to not experiment at all. He’d sit at this famous Italian restaurant in San Francisco, watch the cooks, go home, and try to remake the dishes. He was the experimental one.
Cooking and eating were also a big part of our family. We always ate dinner together. I might have been a latchkey kid, but when dinner was served, it was dinner time for the entire family.
When I graduated high school, I wanted to go to the California Culinary Academy, but it was too expensive. So I decided to work my way up through kitchens while I was attending college. It was probably two years into my first restaurant job — one of the first restaurants in San Francisco that served organic food — that I realized the environment, the food, was something I wanted in my life forever.
The more time I started spending in kitchens, working at restaurants that I liked, and working under chefs I admired, I learned different cuisines — Italian, French, French Bistro and French Moroccan. I was able to hone my skill set.
JC: You’re a self-taught chef. How did you learn to cook so well?
JK: I was introduced to global cuisines when I worked at the Flying Saucer in San Francisco, which is sadly no longer there, under Chef Albert Tordjman. He was French, Moroccan and Jewish. He specialized in fusion but did fusion in a way that made sense. He taught me about bold flavors. It was when I was working with him that I found my love of spices and Asian flavors. I started using fresh citrus and herbs instead of salt and fat which is more traditional French.
JC: And you worked for one of the most famous restaurants in San Francisco, the Slanted Door. Could you tell us a little bit more about your time there?
JK: I started as their pastry chef. It was a family-run business. They needed someone with a little more organization to run the kitchen and I quickly became the CDC (chef de cuisine). I knew nothing about Vietnamese food when I started. And I learned from the “mammas” (all the aunts and relatives of the owner’s family). I learned authentic, traditional recipes from Vietnam.
I was there for 17 years. The last seven years I spent opening restaurants under the Slanted Door Group. We opened a New Orleans-Style, British Pub-Style, Chinese, Mexican, and South American-Style — eight restaurants in total. I oversaw all the menu creation and menu development. Between opening the restaurants and helping write all the recipes for the first Slanted Door Cookbook, it really sparked my love and obsession for recipe development.
JC: Have you always had a healthy relationship with food?
JK: I didn’t have a great body image growing up. Working in restaurants, you either don’t eat all day and then you gorge yourself when you get off or you’re eating cold food standing up.
The biggest thing that changed my eating habits was having a child. I do menu planning with my daughter, but I’m still learning. I’m also someone who’s not too hard on myself or super strict. I try to eat intuitively.
JC: So what is your favorite cuisine?
JK: That’s hard. Probably Southeast Asian — it encompasses Thai, Vietnamese and Cambodian food. I tend to like sweet, salty, spicy — the balance of all those things. And bright flavors. I could also live on Mexican food or the rest of my life.
JC: There’s nothing like a good taco! Tell us, do you have a food philosophy?
JK: I believe in clean eating and whole foods. I believe in supporting farmers and small producers whenever we can. I believe we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously and that cooking should be enjoyable and fun for everyone. Don’t be afraid to experiment, even if you’re just making tacos for dinner. Even when I was running restaurants, I would still come home and cook every night. I’m so lucky that I get to do what I love for a living.
Never be afraid to try new things. Even if you don’t like it — at least you tried it and allowed yourself to move outside your comfort zone.
JC: Love that philosophy! Let’s talk Jenny Fresh — what are you most excited about the new line?
JK: I’m so excited to introduce people to new flavors, textures, and even foods that they’ve never tried before. The meals are so nutrient-dense and taste so incredible, I’m so proud of each meal. It was very important to me to be able to use lots of whole grains, and organic vegetables — every meal has clean ingredients. The line is a mix of comfort classic twists and foods that aren’t found in Jenny’s current portfolio — like fresh Salmon, tofu and braised pork. We want to nudge people out of their comfort zone a bit.
JC: Do you have a favorite Jenny meal right now?
JK: The Chicken and Wild Rice Soup, hands down.
JC: What about your favorite Jenny Fresh meal?
JK: Swedish Meatballs and Garlic Mash. It’s my own recipe. It’s a family-owned business that produces the meatballs and they taste so good. I like being innovative, so we combine the Lingonberries with the braised cabbage and serve it over the mashed potatoes, it’s super yummy. It’s a really well-balanced dish.
JC: What ingredient can you not live without and why?
JK: Fresh herbs. If I had to use a cupboard of dried herbs, I would not be okay. I make my daughter a pot-sticker salad – which is some lettuce but mostly herbs — Thai basil and mint. They’re game-changers. Dried herbs are good for some things, but they can lose their punch.
JC: Do you have a food you can’t stand?
JK: Probably foie gras. It’s fattened duck liver. It’s a “cheffy thing.” The process and how it’s made is not great. It’s a little overindulgent for me.
JC: What are you most excited for people to try from the Fresh line?
JK: I’m really excited to listen to how people receive the Fresh meals so we can shape the program. We’re definitely looking at seasonal offerings as we expand the program and variety. Please share your feedback with us as we’d love to hear it. Customer feedback is so important to me!
JC: What can people look forward to with you being on board the Jenny team?
JK: I’m working on a lot of exciting things that are in the Fresh realm that go beyond prepared meals and weight loss and embrace wellness. I want to meet people where they are on their health journey. Beyond the food, we’ll have cooking tips and techniques that I can’t wait to share with the Jenny community.
JC: What’s a fun fact most people don’t know about you?
JK: I was on Iron Chef when I was the chef de cuisine at Slanted Door — battle almond. It was one of the most exciting and hardest things I’ve ever done in my life besides giving birth to my child. The hour time limit is real — it was intense! I was responsible for the appetizer and dessert. I made a fresh almond milk tofu with sweet soy and chive oil — it was pretty. And then I did an almond souffle cake with a plum granita and almond cream for dessert.
Drooling? We are too. Try Jenny’s new Fresh meals today! Order Now.
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