Cooking has been a strong presence in Jessica Tom’s life for many years.
It all hearkens back to being raised in a family that placed nearly the same premium on life’s gustatory delights as it did on togetherness.
“As I was growing up, I was cooking alongside my parents, learning from my family members, watching cooking shows and reading cookbooks,” she says.
“We’re the type of family that, when we get together, it’s just nonstop eating, cooking, snacking, thinking about the next meal, and talking about where we’ll shop for the ingredients for our next project,” she adds. “They’re why I learned to love food.”
So it was no surprise that the West Windsor resident, lifelong food enthusiast and author of a fiction novel about the New York food scene was a perfect fit for the We’re Talking Food panel hosted by the West Windsor Community Farmer’s Market, which placed the culinary enthusiast among the likes of bloggers, journalists and food writers on Sept. 8.
Tom simply loves creating something from nothing, a drive that has steered her toward not only cooking but also science and architecture. But it wasn’t until her days as a Yale University student that she realized her literary destiny, and summarily pursued an undergraduate writing concentration.
“I always was into English and humanities but also really into math and science, too, so it wasn’t until college that my interests kind of crystallized,” says Tom. “I feel like I could have gone in any direction, but I decided that writing was a skill I was going to cultivate in college.”
She absorbed everything she could from the writers who spoke at her classes; Tom moved to New York City soon after graduation and studiously attended readings to immerse herself in the world of professional wordslingers. Her debut novel, Food Whore, was published in 2015, and combines her lifelong love of not only eating but also reading, as it was her goal to write the kind of novel she would pick up and enjoy herself.
“I have always been a reader,” says Tom. “I read tons of food blogs and magazines and cookbooks, but I also love novels. When I brought it all together—loving food, loving books, writing a food book—I just wanted to write a book that I wanted to read. While there definitely are great foodie novels out there, there could be a lot more. So I set out to write one.”
Being a student at Yale put Tom in the company of aspiring young novelists looking to becoming award-winning writers; life in The Big Apple had her rubbing elbows with people who inspired her to keep pushing forward. Both experiences left her feeling a little outside her element—which she used to her advantage.
Unlike Tia Monroe, the main character of Food Whore, Tom never ghostwrote restaurant reviews for a New York Times food critic who was suddenly stricken with a career-ending loss of taste. But she does keenly empathize with her heroine’s desire to find not only success but also her niche, and infused her story with that familiar uncertainty of a fledgling writer desperate to stake her claim in the world she wished to be a part of.
“There are things that happened to Tia that also happened to me,” Tom says. “If not an actual scenario then the feelings we shared: stepping into a new situation and feeling uncomfortable or insecure, not knowing your place, moving to a big city, feeling that everyone is more accomplished or more beautiful or has it all together and you don’t. At the end of the day, Food Whore is a coming-of-age novel. I really tapped into my own experiences to give weight to what Tia was feeling.”
Of course, at the heart of Food Whore is Tom’s and Tia’s shared affinity for food, which has propelled Tom in an array of directions. With so many passions and interests guiding her, Tom finds they all have a way of playing into the various reasons why she loves cooking so much.
Everything from the adventure of seeking out ingredients to making a recipe her own to the meditative act of bringing a dish to life appeals to Tom, and being a largely autodidactic chef with an array of interests has imbued her with a sense of practical wisdom when it comes to navigating kitchens and recipes alike.
“I think that cooking is just endlessly fascinating because you can come at it from so many different angles,” she says. “You can approach it from a creativity standpoint: a beautiful structure with all these colors and textures that make it an experience. You can look at it from a scientific aspect: Tweak the temperature and the ratios and substitute ingredients.
“You can make it anthropological: It’s a chance to understand a different culture, a different society, by exploring what it means to make a meal from that culture and honoring its traditions. And the last part is its mechanical aspect: just working with your hands, prepping the ingredients and watching them transform. It’s a nice analog escape from our very digital lives.”
Tom says she finds inspiration for pushing her own boundaries with untested recipes almost anywhere: Instagram, articles, links that her friends and family send her, cooking shows. In fact, she is such a self-professed “backseat driver” while watching chefs on TV that she decided to walk the walk and apply for a spot on the first season of The Food Network’s Cooks vs. Cons. After a series of auditions, interviews and a mini cooking challenge, Tom was told to come to the show’s New York studio for filming in January 2016.
The show features two professional chefs (the titular “cooks”) and two “cons” trying to pass as culinary masters. A panel of celebrity chef judges tries to determine who is lying and who the real chefs are.
“I was obviously a con—I’ve never worked a day in a professional kitchen,” Tom says with a laugh. “It was a 14-hour day with a lot of waiting, a lot of interviews, super-speed cooking and just so much fun. There is this special kind of adrenaline that you get from competing in a cooking show.”
If all goes well, Cooks vs. Cons won’t be Tom’s last foray into food as an entertainment medium. Roughly a month before her first novel was released into the world, an excerpt from it was run in “Entertainment Weekly”—which immediately caught Hollywood’s eye. Tom soon found herself in a position she desperately forbade from entering her mind while writing Food Whore: being courted by movie studios that all wanted to put her book on the silver screen.
“It was so unexpected,” she says. “And it’s by no means a sure thing that my book will become a movie—books get optioned all the time but only a small fraction become films—but I signed with Dreamworks, a well-known, respectable studio that assigned a screenwriter to it right away. It’s not a certainty, but it’s on the right path.”
In the meantime, Tom is taking her future one day at a time, mulling over her second book while still plugging away at lofty food goals, like baking the perfect loaf of sourdough bread or recreating dishes that challenge her to recall just exactly what she did to tweak it so successfully.
“I’m figuring out the writer path, as well as the other paths in front of me,” she says. “I’m always pursing and experimenting with new things. I have this book in my back pocket, which is its own form of expertise: I know I can do it, and now I have these contacts that have opened up more doors for me—and it’s opened up conceptual doors in my head, too, giving me a better sense of what I can do as I figure out what it is to be a full-time writer.”
You can learn more about Tom, her passion for food, and her novel Food Whore by visiting her website jessicatom.com.