Jennifer James picks up two empty coffee cups at the counter and hands them to Nelle Bauer, who relays them to the fixings station, where she fills them with breakfast roast and cream. As the two settle down at a small metal table in Ecco Gelato, in Nob Hill, they look at each other nervously. Talking about your relationship to a stranger must be uncomfortable, especially when you possess one of the town’s most memorable names, which hangs in lights over one of Albuquerque’s most well-known restaurants.
We start by talking about their different roles at Jennifer James 101, where both work literally side by side every day in a space the size of a walk-in closet. “I’m not capable of doing 90 percent of what Nelle does,” Jennifer says, to which Nelle chimes in, “I always defer to her.” On the restaurant’s website, Jennifer, Nelle and the third owner, Jennifer’s sister Kelly Burton, are listed respectively as “brawn,” “brains” and “beauty.” Kelly takes care of the front of house while Nelle handles communications and works in the kitchen with Jennifer, who prefers staying close to the restaurant’s four-burner stove.
The two met five years ago, when Jennifer was still at her previous restaurant, Graze. Nelle was back in town from New York, where she was getting her Master’s in Nutrition and Food Studies at NYU and working at Food Arts. A mutual friend thought the two would hit it off, due to their shared love of cuisine, and slyly brought Nelle to Graze for a meal. Over the next six months, Nelle flew back regularly to see Jennifer—and, on the side, to visit her family, who still lives here. The two would also occasionally meet on random trips around the country, like the time they met in Cleveland, when Nelle was acting as a judge for an event at The Chef’s Garden farm.
When Jennifer left Graze, she road-tripped to New York, with Nelle meeting her halfway and continuing the rest of the distance. Jennifer stayed in New York with Nelle for the next four months, while Nelle finished her Master’s and the two of them hatched a plan.
Nelle says she knew she’d end up going back to Albuquerque with Jennifer, but not because she craved the West. “I never wanted to move back,” she says, “but Jennifer was not going to go anywhere.”
“That’s not true,” Jennifer protests. “There was that tiny place in New Jersey I wanted to open, except you told me all the food would have to be kosher.” They smile at each other.
“I wanted to be with Jennifer and closer to my family,” says Nelle, so they packed up and came back.
Nelle grew up in Albuquerque but left when she was 18, gradually making her way to New York via an undergraduate stitnt in Philadelphia. Bachelor’s in Philadelphia (she also picked up a degree from the Culinary Institute of America once she got to NYC). She says she’s only really came to terms with being back in New Mexico during the last couple of months. “I hate driving in my car to work,” she says, wistfully recalling the twice-daily 40-minute train rides that gave her plenty of time to read.
Jennifer comes from a very different background. She grew up in small-town White Hall, Illinois, where there were nearly as many farms as people and the downtown basically consisted of Main Street. She got her Bachelor’s from the University of Illinois and found a job in St. Louis, thinking she would make a career in restaurant management. Around the time she realized she wanted to be on the other side of the kitchen, she decided to uproot. “I knew I was sick of the Midwest,” she says, “and I always had a romantic notion of the West.”
Jennifer didn’t come to Albuquerque right away. “I had a brief love affair with Cheyenne, Wyoming,” she says. “I bought two Stetson cowboy hats and line danced occasionally.” The affair ended, and she moved here and “fell in love” with the city. That was in her late 20s, or at least that’s what she thinks. Jennifer doesn’t know exactly how long she’s been in Albuquerque, so she and Nelle spend a couple minutes trying to figure it out.
“Were you here in ’93?” Nelle asks.
“No, definitely not.”
“Were you here in ’95?”
“I don’t think so.”
This continues, and eventually Jennifer eases back into her seat. “I’m not sure,” she says. “I’ve been here a while.”
When Nelle and Jennifer first moved back to Albuquerque, they didn’t have grand plans to open a restaurant. They were both living with Kelly and, Nelle laughs, “I didn’t look for a job. Jennifer didn’t either. We didn’t want one.”
“I still don’t want one,” Jennifer grins.
The desire to cook and create broke its way to the surface, though, and their household started throwing JUG (Jennifer Under Ground) dinner parties. They’d cook, and guests would chip in whatever money they could. They liked the model so much that they wanted to figure out a way to do it on a daily basis. They started looking for a space to open a restaurant while working at Chef du Jour. After a year of doing JUG parties, they opened Jennifer James 101.
The restaurant continues in the tradition of JUG with its community table, a communally seated table of eight that seats every Wednesday night at 6 p.m. The rest of the dining room operates like a normal restaurant, but Jennifer and Nelle like having something that brings people together under the umbrella of great food.
Most of Jennifer and Nelle’s relationship has evolved while working together. For the last three years they’ve spent the majority of every day standing nearly shoulder-to-shoulder. “We were forced to learn about each other more quickly,” Jennifer says. Developing a relationship in such a tight environment has its advantages and challenges. “There are both sides,” Jennifer adds. “In our industry we’re together 24/7. Then we go home and we’re there.” She pauses. “But on the other hand, I’m exhausted and she knows exactly why.”
They each have to set aside time for themselves to be alone, but beyond managing their personal space they also have to keep themselves from talking about work all the time. “We can’t go out to dinner and talk about our days,” Nelle says, “because we end up talking about work.” And when they go on vacation, Jennifer adds, they end up buying things for the restaurant rather than their house or themselves.
This is perhaps due to the fact that both are self-proclaimed workaholics, which is one reason why they get along so well. “That helps, and having the same passion for what we do,” Jennifer adds.
Working together so closely has also turned the pair into a serene but very quickly running machine. “Customers comment on how quiet and calm the kitchen is,” Nelle says. “We don’t have to speak—I know her timing, I know how she moves.”
“A lot of people comment on that, that it’s like watching a symphony,” Jennifer adds.
Even now, the two work off each other’s sentences, as if they’re both expressing a single thought. And there are plenty of qualities the two of them share.
“We’re both stubborn, hard-headed,” says Nelle.
“We’re both perfectionists,” adds Jennifer.
“We both have excellent fashion sense,” Nelle says, laughing. “Don’t write that.”
But Jennifer and Nelle, although they’re both working pieces that make up one symphonically smooth machine, maintain their differences. Jennifer is easy to smile but shy; Nelle is exuberant, doling out jokes effortlessly. Jennifer taught herself to cook (“I just love to eat,” she says), while Nelle was trained traditionally. Jennifer calls herself a “doer” and Nelle a “thinker.”
“And I don’t do laundry,” Nelle says. “For real, I don’t.”
Those differences complement each other. Jennifer will come up with an idea for a dish, and Nelle will figure out a way to make it a reality in such a small cooking space. They learn from and take care of each other, doing things like reminding the other to eat. It sounds silly considering that the two of them spend their days in front of food, but they stay so busy that eating is easy to neglect. “Literally, we have to do it for each other,” Nelle says. “I like to be her reality check—remind her what she’s doing and why she’s doing it.”
It’s easy to imagine how spending so much time with one person could create tension in a relationship, and the two talk and laugh about the ways they have to escape each other. But when asked what the best thing about working together is, Nelle’s response is immediate. “The best thing?” she repeats with a massive grin. “The best thing is showing up to work. And the person you’re head-over-heels crazy about is who you get to work with every day.”
Jennifer James 101 is located at 4615 Menaul Boulevard NE in Albuquerque. 505.884.3860. jenniferjames101.com.
Story by Christie Chisholm; photos by Gaelen Casey