2021 Cook of the Year: Tara Jensen
Spreading the gospel of artisanal baking.
Whether hosting a virtual cooking class on croissant making or a week-long sourdough camp, Tara Jensen helps people find their inner bakers.
A native of rural Maine, Jensen landed in Asheville, North Carolina, in 2006, working for Farm & Sparrow, the baking-and-milling project founded by David Bauer that focuses on heirloom grains. When Bauer moved on in 2012, Jensen opened her first bakery, Smoke Signals, in the space. It had an outdoor wood-fired oven, which became an impromptu school for bakers of all skill levels and the heart of her business. "The quality of heat in a wood-fired oven is the very best to bake with," she says. Cooking this way also means people hang around and tend the fire. This leads to conversation. "They would come in and ask me questions," she says. "Sharing my craft just came naturally."
And so did her following. Thanks to Instagram, she became known all over the world for rustic loaves made with freshly milled grains and flours and fruit from local orchards. Although her work is beautiful—Jensen uses handmade paper stencils to pattern the tops of loaves with flour and embellishes her pies-- with pastry shapes—she doesn't aim for perfection. "It should look like it came from your hands," she says.
In 2018, Jensen closed Smoke Signals to focus on teaching at her home and other locations, like the Pine Mountain Settlement School in Kentucky, where she offers in-depth workshops on one of her favorite topics: sourdough. Jensen loves talking about starters, fermentation, and how the natural bacteria gives bread a "tangy, interesting, and just plain delicious taste."
With a new cookbook and a studio for virtual and in-person classes, Jensen will have even more opportunity to do what she loves: gathering people together so they can make and break bread.