Meet the Chef: V Smiley returns to family farm in New Haven, runs small-batch preserves business
At the tender age of 11, V Smiley wanted to be the fashion editor at Vogue.
After graduating with a degree in art history and English from St. Mary's College in Maryland, she wanted to be part of the Los Angeles arts scene.
Now the 31-year-old is back home on the family farm in New Haven with her mom Susan and her partner Amy, making preserves with fruit, honey and aromatics.
Smiley's a dreamer, to the core.
“Here, with my mother and Amy, we shall re-grow the farm as it provides inspiration and ingredients for V Smiley Preserves,”reads Smiley's goals on her website, “and expand the farm into an agri-cultural hub —seed-saving, arts, education, dining and events.”
“I am the child of two 1970s back-to-the-landers,”Smiley's online bio continues. “My mother milked cows and made yogurt on our kitchen woodstove, delivering mason jars of yogurt for sale to stores and homes. My father (the late Jerry Smiley) fixed fences, turned the grassland to hay each summer and homeschooled his children. Our school year circled around the growing season. Food lay at the center of life. As a child this produced many discomforts. Mandatory chores, mulching, weeding, wood-hauling and putting hay in the barn made childhood more about labor than play. But the upbringing gave me absolute comfort in the kitchen and deep admiration for food craft.”
While she was in California, Smiley began having gastrointestinal problems. “I got really sick and it put me in the position where I had to make everything from scratch,”she explained in a recent interview. And when she says everything, she means everything. “I even had to make my own condiments like mayonnaise and mustard... It definitely put me in the kitchen a lot more.”
Along with more kitchen-time, came Smiley's desire to share her food with friends and nourish others. So, she started hosting community dinners, which led to her first prep cook job at Elf Cafe on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park. That job led to another, and another; looking back on her nine years spent on the West Coast in Los Angeles, Whidbey Island and Seattle, Smiley was proud to have cooked in the kitchens of chefs Renee Erickson and Matt Dillon.
During that time, Smiley also developed her preserves company.
“I got obsessed with preserving and canning food,”she said. “The more I dug into it, the more I had questions about it. How do people make these beautiful preserves? When I threw all those ingredients in a pan it was either runny or set really hard. Preserves seemed so mysterious.”
Smiley discovered Rachel Saunder’s “The Blue Chair Jam Cookbook”when the author held a round of classes in a Seattle teaching kitchen. “Her cookbook is a picturesque dissertation on preserving fruit,”Smiley explained. Saunders runs a jam company in Oakland, Calif., where where she makes jam, marmalade, jellies and conserves with sugar. “I used Rachel Saunders’work as the springboard for researching and developing recipes,”Smiley said.
The main difference: Smiley can't eat sugar, so she uses honey.
“People told me: you can’t do these things with honey,”she said. “But you totally can. Honey doesn’t have quite the thickening power that sugar does, but it's doable.”
Smiley started serving her preserves to close friends at those community dinners. Then in 2012, Chef Erickson offered to put her jam on the menu. “Chef Erickson's new restaurant focused on vegetables and room temperature food... It was an incredibly supportive environment. I was given the space to sell my product at farmers markets, do production and still cook for the restaurant.”
Later that year, Smiley's father passed away. “That changed things and Amy and I kicked into gear: to start the preserve business and move to Vermont. I wanted to move here with the business in tow.”
And so they did. V Smiley Preserves formally started in 2013 and the couple moved two years later to the 1800s family farmhouse situated on 150 acres by the New Haven river. At first they thought they'd recreate their life from Seattle here (where Smiley worked in a kitchen and Amy drove a city bus), but that didn't work. “It's a cultural shift here,”Smiley said. Amy now focuses on growing aromatics and food for the preserves, Smiley is in preserve production and her mom is the cheerleader.
Smiley first started production in Middlebury, but after about six months she connected (through social media) with Jess Messer at Tandem in Bristol and has moved 100 percent of her production to their space on Main Street.
“Jess has been such a good person to connect with. She gives us so much support and has been instrumental in keeping my head up,”Smiley said. “I developed the product in a West Coast city; the food culture is a decade ahead of where we’re at here. We don’t have a culture of buying expensive preserves.”
And Smiley's preserves are “necessarily expensive.”
Because Smiley doesn't use Pectin ?the gelling agent that makes jams and jellies have that uniform texture ?or sugar, she uses a lot more fruit to get the right consistency.
“The key is working in tiny batches,”she said. But that ups the cost. “What it also means is that the flavors are really concentrated. My preserves are so much more vibrant and intense than what people are used to. A little goes a long way.”
But still, “markets have been tough,”Smiley said. She fills in with other gigs during the winter months to help make ends meet. “It has started to change in the past few months. Vermont is small, so it makes it competitive... it just takes more time here.”
You can find V Smiley Preserves at Vermont Honey Lights, Tandem and Almost Home Market in Bristol, at the Shelburne and Burlington farmers markets, at Dedalus and Vermont Farm Table in Burlington, and Healthy Living in South Burlington. She also sells her product online at vsmileypreserves.com. Follow her @vsmileyjam.