In this interview, we get a chance to learn a little about Ree Dolnick's early life, her career, why she set up Jeca, and what she is most passionate about.
Q: Tell us about your early life
A: My family immigrated from Korea when I was a young child. Growing up, I remember we didn't really have desserts. My parents' idea of desserts were cutting up fresh fruit. All around me in America, everybody was eating these wonderful desserts. I started cooking to make up for the lack of desserts. I think that really started off my desire for cooking and figuring out various flavors.
Q: Can you pinpoint a moment when you were cooking something perhaps and you thought, "I just love this. I always want to make sure this is part of my life"?
A: I think it was when I made a my first cake out of a box. Obviously, I was too small to really understand all about making it from scratch. I remember going to the grocery store with my mother. We were going down an aisle and there was this box of instant cake mix. The picture on the box looked so great. I wanted a homemade cake. My mother didn't know how to do it. I pleaded with her to please buy this box of cake mix. It was a complete disaster. It didn't look right, but it tasted good.
Then, it took practice. We went and got another box. She was very encouraging and told me it was delicious. Then I tried different icings. It progressed from there. One step at a time, making it better and making it from scratch. The whole time, mum was very encouraging. My mother really instilled this love of food and exploring and making that part of our life. By her encouraging me to embrace this and helping me to learn how to cook, it was great. That's something she and I had. I think that first box of cake was what did it.
Q: Let's go forward a little bit now. Tell me a bit after university. Your early career all the way through to founding Jeca.
A: Growing up, my parents always encouraged me to become a physician. I was fairly good at math and science. I started out my university education as a pre-med and found out very quickly it was not a good match. I hated being in the hospital. Seeing people that were not feeling well depressed me to no end. I moved away from the idea of becoming a physician, but I still loved science. I continued on in that way, studying molecular biology and biochemistry and graduated with a degree in biology with molecular emphasis.
During that time, I got bitten by a 'research bug' while doing my senior thesis at National Institute of Health. From there on, I continued to go in that path. Going to graduate school, and continuing on with research and leading me into interesting areas in various problems related to cancer. One of the ways I subsidized my education was actually working in a restaurant as a sous chef. It made sense because cooking is chemistry. It was a really interesting marriage of two fields. I've simply been doing that my entire life.
Q: What made you decide to launch Jeca Energy Bars? Why do you think you're perfect to lead a healthy foods product and a brand? Also, tell us more about this idea of "cooking is chemistry".
A: With my mixed science and professional cooking background it made sense to start a company to create cookies and all our healthy options. It's incredibly interesting and fulfilling.
As you know, especially in baking, it's a very precise thing. Unlike culinary arts, where you're bringing in all kinds of creative concepts and sauce reductions and all those things where things are a little more fluid, in baking, things are very precise.
Things have to be mixed in certain orders and in certain quantities. Flavors have to come together in a way where you get a nice balance of your acids and bases. The actual reaction that happens when you actually bake something is a chemical reaction. The concept of the balancing of the acids and the bases and the salts are directly related to all of the scientific background that I learned in my chemistry class. It's just a matter of understanding how the ingredients work and what they do and how you could bring it together to have this marriage of wonderful flavors and sensations. It all comes down to understanding the basics of what's happening at the chemical level.
Q: Do you support any good causes? If so, which ones and why?
A: We believe we're on a concerted crusade to help people eat better, to make better choices, at the same time, enjoying those choices. Personally, aside from all this science and cooking, I'm a real supporter of the arts. I think the arts is really what separates the human spirit from I don't know, any other animal.
I think everything begins with our children. I'm actively involved in our music community and music education for the children. Several years back, I actually did start a non-profit, decide to help that along. It's amazing to see these children blossoming from the point when they're really young, picking up an instrument. Growing and loving and becoming this person who can express all their emotions through music. Personally, that's something I do as a side. It's a great passion of mine.