Jennifer Yu is the founder of Use Real Butter. She’s a freelance nature and food photographer who lives in Colorado Rocky Mountains. She loves time hiking, trail running, and free-heel skiing. She has a Ph.D. in geology from Cornell and a B.S. Engineering and Applied Science degree from Caltech. She also worked as a NASA programmer in the past. Yes, she’s that impressive.
Although you’d find numerous recipes on her website, her blog is more of a directive for life instead of a mantra for the kitchen. It’s a personal journey and a record of her random shenanigans.
1. A Ph.D. in geology from Cornell, a degree in engineering and applied science from Caltech, and a NASA programmer - your accomplishments are quite impressive. Are you still working in any of these fields?
No, I am not. I took a break from science after a breast cancer diagnosis in late 2007. I figured if I didn’t have much time left, I wanted to do something else. That something else was photography. When my cancer treatments had ended, and my health stabilized, I continued to pursue nature and food photography rather than returning to work in science.
2. How did you discover your love for cooking? And how does science influence your cooking style?
I don’t think there was ever a time when I didn’t love food and cooking. Part of that is because I lived in a Chinese immigrant home with three exceptionally good cooks - my mom, dad, and maternal grandma. In some way, it might be because I grew up in southern Virginia with its tradition of great seafood, barbecue, and southern cuisine. The real cooking began when I moved off campus in college. I honed my everyday skills and began exploring more advanced recipes as well as baking thanks to news groups like rec.food.cooking and rec.food.recipes back when the internet was a baby.
Today, I operate in two modes of cooking or baking. The first mode is by feel without a recipe, usually when I’m cooking for myself and Jeremy. The second is more akin to “science mode”. Typically I research a recipe online and in books, then document ingredients and methods for each recipe in a lab notebook. I make observations and adjustments along the way until the recipe is successful. At that point, I photograph the process of making the dish and publish the results on my blog to share with others. My goal is to show someone how to reproduce that recipe and perhaps teach them something they didn’t already know. Plus, I’m an archivist at heart, so I like having a library of recipes for my own reference.
When a recipe fails, I apply my science training to troubleshoot. The most common mishaps occur when I am baking or candy making because I live at an elevation of 8500 feet in the Colorado Rocky Mountains where atmospheric pressure is 75% that of sea level. Rather than looking for a quick fix, understanding the fundamental science (physics) behind my kitchen failures makes me a better cook and baker for the long haul.
3. Why did you start a food blog? What are the three favorite recipes from your website?
I started blogging in 2004 a few months after my only sister died. It was my way to deal with the jumble of emotions and thoughts in my head. The blog evolved from a brain dump of my grief into daily photos and musings of my life to share with friends: the dog, hikes, and food. By 2007, I wanted to join a group of bloggers - The Daring Bakers (now The Daring Kitchen) - who selected one recipe each month for all members to make and post on a given “reveal” day. This prompted me to split my blog into a private personal blog and a public food blog, use real butter.
Shortly after that, my cancer diagnosis came in, but I continued to blog throughout my treatments, reflecting on my life with each recipe and sharing photographs of Colorado. I was surprised and touched by how much love and encouragement I received from my readers. Despite surgically separating my food blog from my personal blog, the food blog has morphed back into a sort of personal blog, because it’s a part of me.
The three most popular recipes on my site (by hits) are:
Three of my favorites are:
4. What's the best thing about living in Colorado? Is there a dish that locals and tourists gravitate towards in Colorado?
For me? Hands down it is the mountains because we spend so much time outside telemark skiing (backcountry, resort), skate skiing, trail running, hiking, etc. We split our time between two homes in Nederland, Colorado (on the Front Range just west of Boulder) and Crested Butte, Colorado. Both of these tiny mountain towns have ski resorts, access to stunning wilderness, progressive attitudes, friendly and funky local culture, and great dining. In Nederland, we typically drive down the canyon to enjoy Boulder’s vibrant food scene.
The only dish I’ve heard about that is specific to Colorado is Chile Verde or Colorado green chili. It’s a pork and green chile stew, but I’ve never had it before, and my friends (and husband) from New Mexico are a little mortified at the mention of it. But if you want to talk food and beverage… Colorado boasts hundreds of craft beers (it’s a big thing here), great lamb, the best peaches from the Western Slope (sorry, Georgia), bison meat, and trout.
5. What do you see yourself doing five years from now?
I have no idea. I used to plan well into the future ever since I was a kid - my life was laid out on a grand map. But I’ve learned in my adult years that the nature of life is unpredictable. I now allow more flexibility when thinking about the future, and I try to accept changes to my plans with an open mind. If I’m still around in 5 years, I hope to be healthy, active, creative, and happy. I don’t know that blogging will be a part of that, but you’ll just have to stick around and find out!