Jennifer Russo

3603 E. Indian School Road 

Jennifer Russo’s first experience in the kitchen came with standing on a crate in her family’s kitchen, attempting to cook the perfect scrambled egg. As an adult, she moved her way up the ranks from being part of the staff to owning and operating a catering company and restaurant in the Gaslight Square Plaza, called The Market by Jennifer and Jennifer’s Catering. Read on to learn more about one of Arcadia’s culinary dynamos. 

Where are you from?

I was born in New Jersey but grew up in Scottsdale. We moved out here in the late-70s. My dad was a dentist and wanted to start a practice out here, plus my uncle was already living here, and we were all tired of the snow!

Did you attend culinary school?

Yes – California Culinary in San Francisco. I graduated in 1997. My first job was with Lewis Stevens. I worked banquets at The Princess, then The Golden Swan – oh my gosh, this is aging me [laughs] – which was fine dining at the Scottsdale Hyatt. After that, I went to culinary school, then worked for Vincent’s, Tarbell’s and now my own restaurant. 

Where did the inspiration for the market come from?

I’d had Jennifer’s Catering for about 15 years, and many of my clients would say, ‘We don’t want to have to book a party to have you cook for us. Why don’t you open a restaurant?’ And I was always against the idea because the great thing about catering is that even when it’s chaotic, it’s organized chaos. You know how many people you’re feeding, you know what they’re eating, you have staff – you have control over what you’re doing. With a restaurant, you basically open the doors and wait to see what happens. 

It was probably around 2011 when I started looking around for places. It was one of those ‘why not?’ moments. We lived in the neighborhood, and it started much more casual, more of a grab and go, order at the counter-type place. We didn’t have service, beer and wine were to-go, and it was a complete flop! So we took some time to regroup and decided to keep to-go but added full-service, a full liquor license, and flipped it to a complete restaurant. 

How did you get into catering?

I was the sous chef at Tarbell’s – who I love – and I messed up my knee and had to get a couple of surgeries. I didn’t think I’d be able to go back to line cooking, so I had the brilliant idea of starting a catering company. It started small – I had a friend who worked the front, and I was in the back – and it just blew up.

What is the biggest event that you’ve catered?

Oh my gosh – we’ve done groups of two to groups of 1,000! We don’t cater a ton of weddings, but we do a lot of celebrations, corporate events, that kind of stuff. 

Inspiration behind your dishes?

Seasonal is a big part of it, but it’s also whatever’s going on in the world. I watch all the trends, see what’s exciting and what other chefs do. I love everything classic with a twist, so that’s another thing. 

When it’s springtime, you know certain foods will be beautiful, and we want to use them because the flavor will be incredible. Then again, whatever someone wants, we can do! I like a lot of Mediterranean, southwest; which is awesome for vegan, gluten-free, and the colors are amazing. The coolest part is getting to see those foods served at the perfect time. 

Most popular dishes on the menu?

The chicken piccata – a fun twist on the classic. Steak and Frites, the gnocchi. I make a Bolognese sauce that was my grandmother’s recipe, but we freshened it up. The chilaquiles are by far the favorite for brunch, and we make our beignets in-house. 

Did you always know you wanted to be a business owner?

I always knew I wanted to be a chef. The business owner part fell in with that [laughs].I started in culinary classes in middle school. As soon as I could get a job – Lewis Stevens Catering was about a mile from my house – I started prep cooking there, and the rest is history. 

Did you do a lot of cooking with your family growing up?

My great-grandmother was from Italy, which really got me so excited about cooking. As a child, I would sit on the counter, watch her and was just fascinated. My mom is an incredible cook – she cooks healthy but with great flavor, and she’s also amazing with pastry. She was my original pastry chef. I’ve always loved the feeling – cooking calms me, and I love watching people gather, food and wine together, that whole thing. 

What was the first thing you cooked on your own?

Probably eggs. Standing on a little crate to reach the pan [laughs] and I nailed it! I hate brown eggs, so I think I just practiced until I perfected it. 

Favorite dish to cook?

Protein and vegetables. I love searing or braising meats, and I think vegetables are beautiful, so playing with the different styles showcasing what they are. I’m all about savory. But it changes all the time. I see something one day and another thing another day, and I’m like, ‘oh, I love that!’

What is the toughest part of owning a business?

I think it’s probably everyone’s thing right now, but finding people to work. I have an incredible staff, but managing people is tough. And then the operations – I hate the operations. I want to cook, and I feel like I’m cooking less because I’m managing and doing the operations. So much paperwork!

The best part?

Cooking! We do these incredible wine dinners with winemakers who come out, and I’m able to match my food with their wine; it’s fresh, it’s exciting. The same goes for catering. It’s exciting from the first call with a client until the end. It’s like watching a baby grow – putting together a plate, pairing it with wines, seeing the whole thing from beginning to end.

To what do you attribute the popularity of The Market by Jennifer?

I think it takes a minute to find it [the building] – but once people do, they come back for the food, the wine. The atmosphere is fun. During brunch, it’s lively and open, and at night when the sun goes down, it’s sexier. It’s fun. You can come in wearing yoga pants or a suit – it’s comfortable here for everyone. And, you know, the food is good!

What does a day in the life of Jennifer look like?

Long! I get up earlier than I want [laughs], check emails, get my son to school. Try to make it to a pilates class; come here, and it’s just “go.” Phone calls, writing proposals, operations, ordering, working with the kitchen. It’s a long day, but it goes fast and what’s cool is that it’s never the same. I can’t say yesterday was the same as today. 

What do you do to relax?

Spend time with my 13-year-old son and my boyfriend. We travel – my son doesn’t care about traveling. He cares about sports and hanging out with his friends – but I love it. Hanging with friends, veggin’ out. I love television – if I had an addiction, it would be TV. 

Do you think your son will follow in your footsteps?

No – he thinks I’m insane. In the long run, he respects that I work so much, but he would rather be a professional golfer or baseball player. If not, he will be the best car salesman you’ve ever met. He’ll be in sales – he’s all personality!

What’s next for Jennifer Russo?

Coming up, we’ll have brunch and special items for Mother’s Day. As far as the business,I don’t think we’ll expand – I have my whole kitchen here for catering and the restaurant, everything under one roof, which helps control the chaos. I would be too nervous about having another location and not being there. But catering – we are so blessed to be going into our 25th year and continuing to grow. We’re just excited when people come through the door and enjoy themselves.