In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Jerrelle Guy.
Jerrelle Guy knows what it means to blaze your own career path. After earning her master’s degree in gastronomy from Boston University, Guy quickly got to work building a name for herself in the food world. While contributing recipes to the Boston Globe, Guy launched a food blog, Chocolate for Basil, and quickly began cultivating a massive following thanks to her Instagram — which is truly one of the most killer food ’grams in the game.
In 2018, those successes led to the publication of Guy’s first cookbook, Black Girl Baking, which intertwines her childhood food memories with recipes like orange-peel pound cake. In no time, Black Girl Baking earned praise as one of Eater’s most notable cookbooks of the spring — and earned a nomination from the James Beard Foundation as one of the best baking and dessert cookbooks of the year. Guy and her partner, Eric Harrison, have also formed a food photography business, shooting and styling cookbooks. All this, and she hasn’t even cracked 30. In the following Q&A, Guy explains how she made it all happen — and offers a ton of great advice for young people looking to break into the industry.
Eater: What does your job involve?
Jerrelle Guy: A lot of different things to do with food — developing recipes, writing food stories, digital hosting (cooking and talking about food for online audiences), food photography — but my main business and focus at the moment is shooting and styling cookbooks.
What did you originally want to do when you started your career?
I had no idea, but I knew I did not want to be an entrepreneur! I wanted to do something, anything with food or design, and I wanted to pay off my student loans because I was terrified about those.
Did you go to culinary school or college? If so, would you recommend it?
I got a master of liberal arts in gastronomy. I know school is not for everyone — you have to figure out what type of person you are. Attend if you need a confidence boost and if the curriculum sounds fascinating and you like the idea of learning in a classroom setting. But, in my opinion, don’t attend if your only motivation is gaining skills so you can get a job and make money. Not saying that path doesn’t work, but I think you can save time and lots of money by landing an internship or entry-level job instead, since you’re probably gonna have to start there after you graduate anyway.
What was your first job? What did it involve?
My first job was in undergrad at one of the school’s coffee houses. I just made (pretty bad) cappuccinos and heated oversized cookies and croissants in a toaster oven for people.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?
Not getting attached to people’s ideas and opinions of the way the industry has to work.
What was the turning point that led to where you are now?
In retrospect, the biggest decision I made was picking up everything at 23 and moving across the country to Boston for grad school. It was the ballsiness of that decision — relocating in the dead of winter with no money, furniture, or job lined up and a boyfriend and an entire support system still back home; it was the moment I fully committed to my career and there was no recoiling.
What were the most important skills that got you there?
Unwavering enthusiasm, an open mind, and a lot of restlessness.
What’s your favorite part of your job?
Getting to read people’s manuscripts and laying out my plans to visually bring them to life, coming up with the concept, learning more about the authors, and watching the photos evolve once we get on set and zoned in.
What would surprise people or something you didn’t know going into your job? Why?
Half the time I don’t know what I’m doing, and I’m just following my heart and internal compass to the best of my ability. There is a spontaneity that comes with this lifestyle and it helps to be as adaptable as possible.
What’s one of the coolest things you’ve gotten to do?
Speak on a panel at my alma mater, the Rhode Island School of Design! I went back for alumni weekend, and I got to show [my partner] Eric where I went to college and reflect on how much happened since I left. ALSO, going to the James Beard award ceremony with my parents! All the amazing food and inspiring people!!! It was unforgettable.
How are you making change in your industry?
Since I’m not following any career map, I think it can help open people’s eyes to the infinite career possibilities within the industry. I’m excited to push convention if it means allowing hope for someone who wants to follow their passion but also make money doing it.
What advice would you give someone who wants your job?
- Ask yourself what aspects about it you’re really drawn to so you can tailor it to fit you.
- Make “food storytelling” one of your life passions and pursuits.
- Find things about food that keep you engaged and curious.
- Learn how to shoot and style food.
- Maybe start a blog so you can practice some more.
- Ask if you can shadow the people who do this job. Observe them at work. Work for free. See if it’s something you’re really fascinated by and can imagine yourself doing — that’s really important.
- Always pay attention to your food. Think about what you might say if you were writing about the experience or what it would look like photographed. I sometimes make a viewfinder with both my thumbs and index fingers and go around looking at my food experiences through them.
- Always be looking at inspiration photos because it helps you train your eye and spark new ideas.
- Keep practicing.
Amy McKeever is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
Photo of Jerrelle Guy by Eric Harrison.
Illustrations from the Noun Project: camera by Dhika Hernandita; covered dish by Made by Made; wine by Made by Made; lightbulb by Maxim Kulikov; hand writing by Pongsakorn.