Today's interview is with Jayme Marie Henderson. Jayme is a sommelier in a very busy restaurant just south of Denver. She also writes (and photographs) the blog Holly and Flora, which she describes as: "a sommelier's take on cultivating, cocktailing & creating, from garden to kitchen". In addition, Jayme is the wine columnist on the blog The Kitchn and as well as contributing to other food, wine, cocktail and gardening publications.
Hi, Jayme, I'm delighted to have you here for a chat.
I have to admit that I'm so curious about how you became a sommelier (which you describe as "study[ing] wine and creat[ing] cocktails for a living"). What drew you to the occupation? What sort of training and experience led you to your current job? What goals do you have for the future?
Anne, first of all, thank you so much for asking me to stop by and chat with you for a bit! Right now, I’m imagining both of us seated across from each other in your living room, on a lazy Sunday, laughing and catching up over a glass of bubbles. As a sommelier, I co-write a wine list at a landmark restaurant here in Denver, Colorado. Contrary to what my mom or dad wants to think, I don’t sit around and drink wine all day, even though that sounds like a fun gig. A typical workday might include a tasting appointment or two, reviewing the inventory (we have over 700 different bottles of wine on our list!) and making appropriate orders, setting up for dinner service, teaching a wine class to the staff, managing the frenetic dinner shift, and closing down the restaurant, not without sitting down to a well-deserved glass of wine at the night’s end, of course.
I was drawn to this occupation because I thrive on the intensity and excitement of fine dining. The immediate gratification that happens when a diner takes that first bite from a dish that’s been in the making for days or even weeks is magical. As humans, we all need to eat. In our busy lives, eating and drinking can become mundane or more of a chore, so when I’m able to help guests slow down and appreciate the flavors, textures, aromas, and emotions that go hand-in-hand with food and wine, I feel I’ve done a great job. I’m constantly reminded how much I love this profession, when I help a guest choose a great bottle of wine. And I’m especially fond of talking wine with those who are new to it all. They are so open and happy and explorative.
I started actively studying wine nearly 15 years ago, purely out of personal intrigue. My boyfriend, who is also a sommelier and a sculptor, and I would sit down together over dinner, researching that evening’s wine selection. We loved how each grape, each bottle, and each vintage could vary so immensely. Both of us were working in restaurants at the time, with the notion that those jobs would be temporary situations. Together, we signed up a wine certification course and exam. Taking that rigorous exam together solidified our love of wine and is a fond memory we will always cherish. Since then, we’ve visited grape-growing regions around the world, helped out with harvests and winemaking, and continue to be fascinated by this diverse field.
What’s the next big leap? We want to make our own wine together within the next two years!! I’m nervous but beyond excited about the idea.
You are constantly creating new cocktails, often seasonal, with ingredients you have grown or harvested yourself. Do you have an absolute favorite, one you come back to again and again or do you prefer to always experiment? Do you ever have experiments that flop?
Oh, man. I definitely have experiments that completely flop. It’s really sad (and expensive!) when I have to pour those experiments down the drain. I recently aged a Negroni cocktail in an oak barrel for way too long. I was left with nearly five liters of an almost undrinkable, oaky concoction. It was like sucking on vanilla-laced oak chips. Lesson learned.
I have gained a lot of bartending and mixology experience over the years, so experimenting comes a little easier for me at this point. I can imagine a new cocktail’s flavor profile in my mind and already know that it will most likely need a base spirit, something a little tart, a hint of sweetness for balance, and, perhaps, a secondary spirit for complexity. From that very basic and loose “recipe”, I then think about what else I’d like to add and how I’d like to serve it. Whenever I come across an amazing, fresh ingredient or am stumped by a tricky pairing, my solution is to wander through the produce section at the grocery or scroll through the pages of a book such as The Flavor Bible for inspiration. It’s one of my go-tos and is a necessity for everyone, from chefs and home cooks to wine lovers and cocktail enthusiasts.
As far as having an absolute favorite spirit, I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of gin. In fact, my consistent go-to cocktail is simply gin, grapefruit juice, and a splash of soda. If I’m feeling fancy, I’ll add a sprig of thyme. I love the creative energy it takes to make a unique cocktail, and I particularly love pulling fresh ingredients straight from the garden. To me, the process of creating a drink is just like cooking: you are looking for seamless balance. That also brings me back to the subject of wine. Good wines, like well-made cocktails, are balanced. They’re complex but aren’t overdone. They somehow leave you sated yet still thirsty for the next sip.
In addition to being a sommelier, you describe yourself as an urban farmer. Can you tell us a little about your garden? What's your favorite plant to grow? What did you most enjoy about last year's garden? What are you planning for this coming year?
I live on about a quarter acre corner lot, just ten minutes south of downtown Denver, so you still feel the city pulse while being slightly secluded. My garden is the epicenter of my creative inspiration and is truly a labor of love. What garden isn’t? My boyfriend and I started small and have created a beast of a garden, filled with herbs, vegetables, and fruits. Over the years, we’ve learned that only one zucchini plant is necessary, and that you can never have too many tomatoes. Case in point, we grew exactly 42 tomato plants this past summer. I can safely say that tomatoes are my favorite and most rewarding garden staple, albeit the most challenging plant to grow here in Colorado. Culinary herbs tie for that coveted first place spot.
This last season, I was mesmerized by the interplay between various flowers and vegetables throughout the garden, as companion plants. The pops of color peeking through the tomato cages and underneath the vines of summer squash not only brought vibrancy and aroma, but some also served as pest controllers and helpers. All of our culinary herbs went crazy last year, and we were there to harvest, when the plants were ready, even if it meant harvesting in the dark. Right now, we have eight, two-gallon jars in our kitchen, filled with herbs we dried throughout the summer season. We also have about ten freezer bags packed with pesto cubes. Growing a lot of herbs also lets you be more adventurous and decadent in both your cooking and your cocktail-making forays. And growing herbs is so cost effective.
I have been studying up on beekeeping and would also love to build a chicken coop this coming year. I’m still trying to convince my boyfriend to be as excited as I am. More realistically, however, I want to finish filling up our front yard with edible landscaping.
I’m blushing! First of all, that makes me so happy that you think of my posts “less like a cocktail and more like a complete meal.” My goal is to interweave my passions, the normal happenings, the inspiration, and a resulting recipe for each post on the blog. I have always enjoyed writing. Good writing is a careful mix of rules and structure, interspersed with lively storytelling, speckled with emotion, and balanced with a natural connectivity with the reader. That is my ultimate goal, just like that perfectly balanced cocktail recipe I talked about. Some days I can barely chase my thoughts with my pen or keyboard, while other days I’ll annoyingly rewrite one sentence over the course of an hour.
I’ve always kept a journal and have about five active journals at any given point. I love writing poetry, making up silly songs and haikus, and sending handwritten letters to family and friends. I’ve lately been writing a lot of content for food, wine, cocktail, and gardening publications, including the Coastal Table, Colorado’s Nourish Magazine, and Urban Outfitters. I also just found out that I will be contributing to Martha Stewart’s website. I just about lost it, when that happened. She’s one of my absolute favorite people and is such a creative inspiration.
I really admire the fact that you openly discuss your craving and need for alone time and for quiet reflection (often out in nature in your beautiful state of Colorado). Have you always been so open about this part of your personality? If not, how did you arrive at your current attitude? If so, what in your life has helped to support you in being comfortable with who you are?
I think that I would go crazy if I didn’t escape to nature on a regular basis, be it in the mountains, biking around town, beside a quiet stream, or in my backyard garden. My job at the restaurant is very emotionally and physically taxing, and I am actually quite the introvert. Being “on” for others and showing true hospitality is really rewarding, but it also comes with a price. Looking back, I see that I’ve always been encouraged to be outgoing and extroverted, but it always felt forced. It took a while for me to settle into the fact that I need alone time. I tried cheerleading back in high school, and that only lasted a year. In college, I was active in my sorority for just a few semesters. Over the years, I discovered that I felt my best, when I was quietly reading in a coffee shop, trail running with my dog, cooking peacefully in my kitchen, or lying underneath my favorite tree. Not only did I enjoy the quiet solitude, but I also found that I thrived creatively when I set time aside to be alone with myself in nature. When I take time to relax and recharge, I’m a better friend, partner, and creative individual.
I really haven’t been so open about this aspect of my personality, but some special relationships have nudged me to become more comfortable with myself and my quirks. I have a very strong relationship with my aunt, who is a successful and talented painter and designer. She won’t let me get away with being passive aggressive or beating around an issue or not “showing up." She has truly helped me find my voice, thus becoming more confident with my creativity. My best advice to anyone wishing to find or feel more comfortable with their voice would be to set aside time to actually listen to and heed your own thoughts and make it a priority to cultivate the relationships that both nurture and challenge you.
Your photographs are one of the things I love about your blog (and why it's so fun to follow you on Instragram). You describe yourself as being self-taught. Can you share a bit about your development as a photographer? What are your favorite resources for learning and what are your favorite photography tools?
Your words make me so happy!! Yes, I am a 100% self-taught photographer. I feel that I’ve always had an eye for balance and composition, but I never received any formal training in photography. In fact, I started my blog in 2012 simply to chronicle the happenings in my backyard garden and my kitchen. My first camera was a point-and-shoot Nikon Coolpix, and I used it that first year on the blog. I have the blurry, dimly lit photos to prove it. Later that year, a friend of mine, who is a professional photographer, mentioned that he was selling his Nikon D90, which is a DSLR. I had no idea how to manually operate one of those cameras, but I was determined to learn how. I purchased that gently used camera, printed the user manual at work, and read it from cover to cover.
Within a week of owning that camera, I came across a job posting at the Kitchn, a cooking blog I had been following for quite a while, calling for new contributors, who would write about and photograph kitchen tours. That new camera’s technology seemed completely out of my league, but I wanted this particular job so badly that I submitted an interview-style piece, along with 15 photos of my friend Caitlin’s kitchen. Those photos were the first photos I’d ever taken on that camera. I was so nervous that I took something like 2,000 photos on that shoot!
When I heard back after a few weeks that I’d actually gotten the job as a contributor, I was not only elated, but I was also completely terrified. I’d actually have to learn how to use that camera! I wrestled with self-doubt, but if I hadn’t jumped on that opportunity, I wouldn’t have forced myself to learn how to take digital photos, and I wouldn’t have the photography work that I have today. Lesson learned? Fully embrace the crazy dream and run like hell with it.
- My favorite, most helpful books on photography - Understanding Exposure, by Bryan Peterson and Plate to Pixel: Digital Food Photography & Styling, by Helene Dujardin.
- My favorite online, video-based learning sites for photography - Skillshare and Lynda.com (I have taken courses on both platforms on Photoshop, Lightroom, and basic DSLR photography).
- My favorite post-processing software or tools for digital photography - Adobe Lightroom for processing (their monthly Creative Cloud Photography plan is great) and VSCO FILM for filters.
- My best suggestions to improve your photography - Sign up for a daily photo challenge for both accountability and community, start out by choosing something you love as a photography subject (I garden, so I take a lot of photos of flowers, vegetables, and plants), and always plan your shoots by sketching out your photo ideas and making sure any necessary props are nearby.
Even when life gets challenging you seem to maintain a positive outlook. You are also such a curious, creative person -- experimenting, learning, trying new things. Do you ever find yourself creatively blocked? What are your favorite ways of returning to inspiration, recharging your creative batteries and staying joyful?
Maintaining that positive outlook is a CHOICE. I have to tell you: I have been in a complete rut this month. I have been full of ideas, but I have lacked the energy and excitement to actually put my goals into play. Multiple times a year, I will go for weeks at a time, where I don’t feel like doing anything, or I question why I do the things I do. I really try to plan ahead, during the awesome stints of high energy and drive, so that when I feel creatively blocked, I can look back to ideas that I sketched out during a clearer and happier time.
Like most artists, I deal with multiple slumps during any given day, so when I am confronted with those doldrums, I resort to a few tried-and-true tactics. Sometimes, if I can’t finish a sentence or feel foggy, I will go for a run or even do a quick series of jumping jacks just to clear my mind. It sounds silly, but getting the blood flowing helps. I also have a stack of lively CDs or a few “happy” playlists at the ready, so that I can fuel myself with positive energy. Pounding a big glass of water works wonders, too. It’s better than any jolt of coffee. I also chose to have my studio and writing room window face out to the garden. It not only calms me but inspires me as well. And I love my cats!
If I’m really struggling, I like to turn on Tiffany Han’s podcast, Raise Your Hand, Say Yes. She regularly interviews creatives, and just hearing her no-nonsense encouragement reminds me of the strength I have residing within myself. I also like to reread Austin Kleon’s book, Show Your Work. It always gets me motivated to make things happen.
I thrive on learning new things, trying new techniques, and saying yes, even if I don’t know how it will all work out. So many of my most cherished accomplishments and opportunities have happened because I asked for them, or because I fought for them. I’ll close with a few mantras I absolutely swear by.
- It’s NEVER to late to try something you’ve always wanted to do.
- If you want something to happen, ASK for it, even if you don’t feel qualified or are scared out of your mind.
- STOP comparing yourself to others. Comparison is the absolute thief of joy and creativity.
Thank you, Jayme for taking the time to share your thoughts with me and my readers here on my blog!
Dear readers, I hope you have been inspired by today's interview. Be sure to stop by Jayme's blog, Holly and Flora, and check her out on Instagram, too.
Be sure not to miss the other posts in my Artists Series; they can be viewed here.
*photos in this post © Jayme Marie Henderson. Used with permission.