August 12 2019

J&E SmallGoods is About Changing the System from the Ground Up

New York-Eat
Butchers Erika Nakamura and Jocelyn Guest are busy: last year they started a new business, J&E SmallGoods and welcomed a baby. what enticed them to do both things at the same time? Change. We met up with the couple to discuss how the American food system needs to change–drastically...
The Standard

Seafood is not a cuisine typically associated with acclaimed butchers Erika Nakamura and Jocelyn Guest, who co-owned White Gold, the now defunct whole-animal butchery-cum-restaurant on the Upper West Side. “While we love meat, we’ve always been such strong believers in the fact that it’s more of a condiment,” says Nakamura, who’s worked behind butcher counters for over a decade. “I have so many moments where I’m sitting around just dreaming up all these incredible seafood dishes. I really, really wish that there was a space for me to do that and have people appreciate it without being like Whoa, look at this butcher cook a fish.” 

The couple will have the space to realize some of those dishes, like a red prawn crudo, at The Standard, East Village this Fall. The dinner, which will also feature meat dishes and rosé pairings, is an homage to self-care, inspired by a trip they took to Sicily last summer for a friend’s wedding. After toiling under the demands of the service industry, it was their first real vacation in ten years. “Especially in our industry, self-care is something that falls by the wayside,” says Guest, a 2019 recipient of the Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership scholarship from the James Beard Foundation. “Since leaving White Gold last year, we’ve really been trying to reinvent our home within the food industry and what that looks like. We’re a lot less willing to work a 20-hour day seven days a week.” 

It’s been a year of major life changes: the two married, gave birth to their first child, moved north of the city, to Westchester, and launched J&E SmallGoods, their line of organic, locally sourced packaged sausages (motto: “A Mom & Mom Shop”). The Standard caught up with the couple to talk about all of this and more. 

"You start seeing, from place to place or restaurant to restaurant, the subtle nuances and differences of the exact same dish. Just the beauty of food in general and the way it tells a story according to the ingredients." - Erika Nakamura
Was there anything in particular that struck you about your trip to Sicily, particularly in relation to food?

Erika: We’d find the actual markets that happen with all the street vendors. It’s so wild, but we’d schlep across town on foot and then schlep all the way back, very New York City style. We were like, ‘is this how it works?’

Jocelyn: We also packed our chefs’ knives into our luggage, and we stayed in Airbnbs that we knew had outdoor dining spaces and nice kitchens so that we could do all that. We’re also those people that like to talk to our farmers and food purveyors. I remember in Palermo I parked myself next to that older dude at the end of the market and he just fed me pickled garlic cloves for five minutes. He was like, ‘try this, try this; put this in your mouth; what about this thing.’ And I was just like, ‘A, marry me. And B, I’ll take all the garlic.’

Erika: You start seeing, from place to place or restaurant to restaurant, the subtle nuances and differences of the exact same dish. Just the beauty of food in general and the way it tells a story according to the ingredients. It was such a nice reminder of all the things that Jocelyn and I are so passionate about around food. Sometimes when you’re just working as much as you do, and it starts to feel thankless and crazy, you forget all the reasons why you’re doing it.

Jocelyn: I think that this [dinner] is really representative of that time for us. So often, especially when you’re on vacation, you’re like, ‘okay, I’m going to practice these better habits. I’m going to meditate and I’m going to take care of myself.’ And then when you get back home, especially to the city, you’re like, ‘Oh fuck that, I have so many things to do.’ So this food, for us, is a way to transport ourselves back to that beach, to that town, to that market where we bought the most beautiful seafood ever for five euros. We wanted to give people what we hope is a little piece of what we found there.

The Standard
The Standard

You started your sausage company J&E SmallGoods around the same time you had your first child—does it feel like your second baby?

Erika: It was so neck and neck because I think we started working on J&E SmallGoods the same month that I got pregnant.

Jocelyn: They’re kind of like twins.

Erika: They are, totally. It’s funny–idea twins–but I think Jocelyn and I had already been really focusing on wanting a child. As we were still going through our day-to-day at White Gold, we were like, ‘how is this going to look when we actually have a baby? Do you want to go to work every day?’ I still struggle with it a little bit because I’m like, ‘oh man, I don’t want to ever miss dinner time or bath time.’ J&E allows us to carve out a lot more space for us to be parents and for us to–getting back to self-care–really zero in on the things that we’ve always wanted in our lives, what we want for our family, and really make that a reality.

What sparked the idea?

Jocelyn: You know when you go visit your family, and you’re like, ‘well, I’m just going to eat a vegetarian meal instead of buying meat I can’t stand behind?’ We wanted to provide those options without making life more difficult, which is why we’re trying to get a foothold in this more mass market space: you can be as artisanal as you want, but you have to approach it a little bit differently if you want to have a broader impact. 

Part of the business model is working locally with farmers in New York and Pennsylvania. What can you tell me about the importance of fostering those relationships?

Jocelyn: We are working with a family-owned distributor that works with a co-op of farms, so the onus isn’t just on one farmer. It’s not, ‘hi farmer X, trim out your ribeye because we need X amount.’ This way it’s a little more sustainable, and all the farmers we’re working with practice regenerative agriculture, which is super important to us because we don’t want to be part of the problem. We’re doing this to try to really make an impact on the bigger agricultural industry.

"The fact that people who are recovering from surgery and going through cancer treatment are eating powdered eggs and factory farm beef, which are full of antibiotics and hormones. That to me is just criminal." - Jocelyn Guest

You’ve mentioned that the ultimate goal is to get your products into schools and hospitals?

Jocelyn: I think that the food offered to the kids in this country and the elderly and infirm is some of the worst food in the country. The fact that people who are recovering from surgery and going through cancer treatment are eating powdered eggs and factory farm beef, which are full of antibiotics and hormones. That to me is just criminal. I just think we should all be embarrassed. But until these small farmers who are doing it the right way are empowered by either tax abatement or the support of lobbies that lift up the corporate farming industry in this country, nothing’s going to change. This isn’t going to be a five-year plan. This is a decade at least, and it’s really daunting, but I think you have to have these crazy ideas in order to get change. 

Erika: Yes, I feel that way about school lunches too. I think it would be so incredible to get placement in public schools because that’s how you change the system: from the ground up. 

Were there any unexpected challenges to starting a business together, particularly as a couple? 

Erika: Honestly, we met working, so there’s that. We’ve always had a great partnership, and that’s been fantastic. I think we bring such different strengths to the table, and so most of the time we jibe really well and –

Jocelyn: We divide and conquer.

Erika: Yes, we play a really great supportive role for each other. As we grow I think what is cool is that there’s different things that excite me, and there’s different things that excite Jocelyn. So, we get to bring those things to the table, and sometimes it’s like, ‘oh, you’re into that; because I’m super not.’ Those are always really funny and fun conversations to have, but I think that’s the excellent part about growing as a couple and growing as entrepreneurs, and just kind of seeing where this all goes. 

Writer
Mitchell Kuga
Photographer
Elvin Tavarez