Food for thought: Q&A with Jenn Harris ’03, Senior Food Columnist at the L.A. Times 

by Leah Weidman '11, Alum Council Communications Co-Chair

Mayfield on her mind?
Journalist and foodie Jenn Harris ’03 recently posted a story about Mayfield—the one in Orange County with the famous cauliflower shawarma, that is. We were intrigued by this not-so-subtle link to her alma mater, so we decided to catch up with Jenn and talk about her journey as a writer and digital content producer.
Best Mayfield memories?
“I loved Mayfield, honestly,” says Jenn. “I had such a good high school experience—I loved every second of it.” She finds it difficult to pinpoint a single element that defined her time at 500 Bellefontaine, but self-discovery was a recurring theme. Although Jenn has fond memories of her time on the tennis team, it’s the moments she pushed herself out of her comfort zone—like when she joined the improv club—that stick with her. “I think it's just such a safe environment to learn more about yourself and just to develop into the person you're going to be.” She says the combination of boundless opportunities and a strong support system “helped me really flourish… and kind of grow into myself.” 

Any influential Mayfield mentors?
Although she remembers crafting short stories and other “little things, just for myself” as a kid, the inspiration to pursue it beyond the classroom came during her time at Mayfield—in particular, from her English teacher, Jim Moran, who prompted her to enter (and win!) the Cabrini Literary Guild Contest. “He was super encouraging and a great mentor,” she says of Mr. Moran. “I think I've always been a writer, but I feel like [having] a great teacher there really helped me want to just do it more and get a lot better at it.” 

School, work, write, write, write
After Mayfield, Jenn went to UC Irvine, where she was part of the school’s inaugural class of literary journalism majors. She covered “entertainment, food, just anything to get more experience” for the school newspaper, but her professors strongly encouraged her to get some real-world publishing experience under her belt before graduation. Starting her junior year, Jenn worked for the Duncan McIntosh Company, where she wrote about maritime news for titles including The Log newspaper and Sea Magazine. Although boating and fishing held “zero interest” for her, Jenn still values the hands-on lessons she absorbed. “It just taught me that, yes, the subject matter is different, but your reporting, getting the facts right, working with an editor, a page designer—it's all kind of the same process,” she explains. “And so that was super valuable to get to do that, even though I didn't love what we were covering.” 

After college, Jenn was hired by Coolhunt, an L.A.-based editorial agency, to write about restaurants, hotels, and fashion for Asian publications like Vogue Taiwan and Cosmopolitan Hong Kong. And although she couldn’t actually read the final pieces (which appeared in Chinese, Japanese and Korean), she was on her way to becoming a seasoned lifestyle journalist—one step closer to her dream job: eating (and writing about it!) for a living.

Armed with a hefty—if somewhat eclectic—writing portfolio, Jenn decided to pursue a master’s in online journalism. During her two years at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, she helped launch the student news site Neon Tommy (where she authored what she now considers to be a “really embarrassing” dating column) and interned at Los Angeles Magazine, where she began to hone her food writing skills.

How to create your own opportunities
Jenn graduated from USC in 2010—right in the middle of a historic recession. As a self-described “very Type A” person, Jenn remembers applying for more than 55 jobs (she kept a spreadsheet), including one as a web producer at the Los Angeles Times. “I didn't think I had a chance, but I applied anyway,” she says. Even though it had become clear that her passion was writing about food, she accepted the job, with her mom’s advice ringing in her ears: “Just get in the door and then you can kick it open.” Mom was right, of course. Driven by her own unofficial credo of “create opportunities for yourself,” Jenn pitched the idea of a celebrity fashion column to her editor, which became a regular feature of the weekend Image section. She introduced herself to the food editor and offered to write stories on her own time. Her first “foodie” assignment? A deep dive into fried food at the Orange County Fair. Two years later, she was appointed deputy editor of the Food section and even stepped in as acting editor after legendary food critic Jonathan Gold died in 2018. In March, Jenn was named an L.A. Times food columnist, which let her get back to doing the kind of work she was craving—hands-on reporting and creating video content.

Is there such a thing as a “dream job”?
“I love getting to try something new every day, getting to meet new people every day, getting to learn about something new everyday... I am never bored.” One day she might be tasting spicy chili crisps from China and the next she’s trying to help restaurant owners find ways to pay their rent during a pandemic. During COVID, a catastrophic time for many in the industry, Jenn says she was especially gratified to be able to find a way to help her readers sift through the confronting wall of information. “Sometimes I pinch myself and think, wow, I really do love my job,” Jenn says. 

Why is it “all about food, all the time?”
“Everyone loves to eat, but I grew up in a family that especially valued food,” says Jenn. “It was all about food—where are we going to take grandma to eat, grandma's making us this, or my cousin’s showing us how to make this... It was just all about food, all the time.” But, she says, as a storyteller, the food itself is usually secondary: “I just feel like food is such a great, great way to write about so many other things,” Jenn explains. “It's such a great way to get to know a person, a neighborhood, a culture—it's just a great window into almost anything.”

Any advice for Mayfield students and recent grads?
“Try all the things!” she says. “Take advantage of every single thing that Mayfield offers.” And work on your friendships, too, she says: “Try to make an effort to keep those relationships that are important to you.” She’s still good friends with her best friend from high school, who now lives in Dubai, and they take turns visiting each other. Her biggest career lesson? “I think this is not just about writing, but just in general—take the assignment, even if you don't love it.” 

And when you're not writing about food?
“I love baking!” (Why are we not surprised?) Jenn recently took a cake decorating class (think fresh flowers, not fondant) and is now the designated cake baker for her family and friends. “It brings me so much joy to [bake a cake] and to give it to someone for their birthday or anniversary.”

Hungry for more? Read Jenn’s online articles and subscribe to the L.A. Times Food YouTube channel to hear Jenn dish about her favorite foods, restaurants and chefs. You can also find her on Instagram and Twitter @jenn_harris_. 
Established in 1931, Mayfield Senior School in Pasadena, CA is a Catholic, independent, college preparatory school for young women grades 9-12. Noted for its rigorous academic program, which includes 28 Advanced Placement and Honors courses, Mayfield’s curriculum is underscored by a philosophy of educating the “whole child,” which also encourages commitment to and excellence in the arts, athletics, community service and spiritual growth. The nurturing environment at Mayfield Senior School allows each student to flourish in an atmosphere of personal attention.