Jami Curl / Quin
It is unmistakably clear that Jami Curl has a calling. And that calling, is candy. Jami, founder of QUIN, has been concocting flavors for decades, first dreaming up ice cream sundae flavors as a child and today, devoting her days (and dreams) to the science of sugar. The QUIN approach to candy making is re-imagined, with a slight nod to the nostalgic, producing exquisite and often non-traditional results. Every piece is mixed and cut by hand from locally sourced all-natural ingredients. Flavor reigns over simply adding sugar. The possibilities are endless, luckily for us. Jami invited us into her home in Portland, Oregon to witness a homage to the classic chocolate chip cookie and to share some sentiments on the possibilities that food creates on both sides of the kitchen.
What originally drew you into the culinary world, and eventually, candy making? Was there a particular event, or more of a progression?
I have been drawn to the process of food for as long as I can remember. I was very fortunate to be raised by a very accomplished home cook – my mother made really perfect food from scratch and I saw the process behind getting a meal on the table nearly every evening growing up. My father was equally amazing in the kitchen – and where my mom was much more of a homestyle cook, my dad liked to pull out all the stops – seared Ahi tuna, Bananas Foster for dessert (it was the 80’s – these were the height of fancy!). And while I of course loved the end product of my parents in the kitchen, I loved equally (if not more) the work behind it all. As a kid I spent a lot of time in the South and one of my favorite things to do was go to these establishments called Fish Camps. You would walk inside a barn-looking building and arrive in a wood-clad reception area and then be taken to a table in the midst of a crowd of people all eating fried cat fish, hush puppies and french fries. I would sit through those meals thinking through the steps it must take in a kitchen like that to get that food out to customers. The exit required you to walk through a candy store; I was mad for it – we’d fill up sacks with bulk candy of every kind imaginable. I’m not sure that I have had this restaurant experience topped – ever! So the draw to the culinary world in general started very young with a big emphasis on how kitchen magic was actually possible. As for candy and treats, I have been a devotee of the sweet life forever. I got my first job the summer I turned 12 at the Dairy D’Lite in Geneva, Ohio. My very favorite thing to do was dream up sundae flavors – I loved combining all kinds of things to create one of a kind sundaes that I would sneak on to the menu. I really think this experience is what started me thinking of sweets as more than something I could just eat – the idea of creating my own was so addicting.
To what do you most attribute to the development of your craft? Formal study? A certain mentor or personal practice?
When I was about to turn 30, I’d been baking all kinds of desserts from wedding cakes to party treats for a few years and I decided to open a bakery. For nine years I operated the business while also working as a production baker – creating recipes, managing staff and dreaming about flavor. Those nine years were really amazing – I learned so much about myself, about running a business and about making food in a production setting. I have no formal training in either pastry or candy making, but I do have pastry and candy in my soul. I am not kidding at all when I say that I think the majority of my thoughts are in food – usually sweet foods. I can be sitting in a meeting, stuck in traffic, watching a movie and I can pretty much guarantee you that part of my thoughts during these times are dedicated to sweets. I am very, very lucky because my life’s passion, my favorite hobby, my obsession is also my job. The things that I want to spend the majority of my time doing are things I have to do for work anyways, so I am almost always in a state of practice – constantly honing my own skills or learning more about the science of sugar or trying to test the science of sugar by working to create new candies.
What risks or challenges have you come across in getting to where you are now?
Turning your hobby into a business is tricky. Because what if you do it – you take the leap to make your life’s love your job and then it’s difficult? What if it gets so tough that you start to hate the thing you previously loved the most? Running a business is nothing like baking cookies or making lollipops. And I got into all of this because I love to bake and because I love to play with sugar and because I love to give treats to others and watch their faces light up. But none of that is really business. And business sure does have a way of taking the fun out of things – so my biggest challenge to date has been balancing all of that. Hiring the right people so that I can have the freedom to continue with recipe development and flavor exploration, understanding clearly my own strengths and weaknesses when it comes to operating a business or managing people or watching costs. I am so thankful for all of it, but balancing my love for it all with the necessary business side of things can be a challenge for sure.
When thinking about the future of your work, what are you most excited about?
I’m writing a book! It’s set to come out in March of 2017 (with Ten Speed Press) and I think it’s going to be a pretty amazing new approach to handmade candy. I’m also including some recipes for baked goods, ice cream and other sweet treats. I am so excited to share my approach with others – especially in book form!
What is something in your own home kitchen that would surprise most people?
Right now I’m deep in recipe testing mode for my book and I have in my pantry a tub of marshmallow fluff. Marshmallows are one of our best selling candies at QUIN, so to have a tub of mass-produced fluff is kind of embarrassing! But, really I’m trying to figure out how to replicate the texture without using egg whites, so it’s kind of “for work”…I think?
We love that all QUIN candy is made by hand, from natural ingredients. What’s the most rewarding outcome of this approach to candy making?
My favorite outcome (and also the most rewarding) is that we are able to produce candy that is very rooted in flavor where mass produced candy is very rooted in tasting sweet. Yes, we use sugar, but we use it in ways that allow other ingredients to really come through. So, the first lick or bite is never “oh this is sweet”, but instead its “WOW! This tastes exactly like strawberries.” I love what we are able to do with flavor. It’s a never ending quest for me to keep finding ways to make candy that tastes of more than straight sugar.
What advice would you give to aspiring cooks, chefs and bakers?
You have to put the work in. You will never get from A to Z simply by thinking you deserve to be at Z. Do the work, do the work, do the work. I promise you it’s worth it.