Jess Cerra quickly climbed through the XTERRA off-road triathlon ranks before making a transition to pro cycling career, which includes winning stage four in this year's edition of the Redlands Bicycle Classic. But off the bike, whether it’s moonlighting as a professional chef or coming up with the next flavor for her burgeoning energy bar company JoJé Bar, Cerra always has a way to fill her time with industrious productivity.
In a sit-down interview, Cerra explains how she strikes a balance between different facets of her life.
Out of the three main aspects of your life, which one came first? The cooking, the cycling, or the bars?
In 2007 I was finishing my master’s degree in exercise physiology and performing lab tests on elite cyclists. I discovered that I have a very high VO2, which impressed my professor, and she gave me a mountain bike. And then I read about XTERRA off-road triathlon and really wanted to try because it sounded gnarly. I started training for my first XTERRA, and ended up placing really well at that race and qualifying for the World Championship
At the end of 2012, I had surgery to repair an artery issue and ended up spending a lot of time on my road bike. Local road races let to the first big NRC [National Racing Calendar] race in the middle of 2013, where I did really well at that race and decided to try road racing.
In the meantime, when you were developing your career as a professional athlete, how did you come about the cooking and the catering?
I got a full-time job working for UCSD [University of California, San Diego] coordinating a program that was funded by the USDA, and I worked very closely with a nutritionist who helped me design the protocols for our clients. She was a private chef and a caterer and asked if I’d help cater some parties. She ended up moving out of the area and basically passed her weekly clients to me, so it was very accidental but enabled me to quit my job.
How did this transition to starting an energy bar company? And how did your relationship with food and working with elite athletes influence that?
I grew up with a mom that really liked to cook. My dad's side of the family is Italian and family engagement was centered around cooking, food and being in the kitchen, so I was always attracted to food and really liked cooking. The science side of me always liked baking.
I was attracted to it because it was something familiar as a child, and when you grow up cooking, it’s like growing up riding a bike: you just have a knack for it. When I first started racing, I was able to apply my educational background and knowledge of physiology and combine that with using nutrition for performance. Even though I used the science, it was a learning curve for me of figuring out, “Oh, if I eat these foods or don’t eat these foods, I perform better or I feel better,” and I could make my body do A, B, or C. So that really fascinated me.
I was really interested in the performance side of foods like energy bars and nutrition drinks and supplements because I was having G.I. issues when I was racing. I would get off the bike and start the run in XTERRA and it was really bothering me. So I thought, “I want to figure something else out," and at the same time, my coach, Leslie Patterson, did a race called Mooseman in Vermont, where she got bit by a tick and got Lyme disease. It took her a while to figure that out, but her doctor finally said, “You need to start eating a gluten-free diet.”
Was this before “gluten-free” was part of mainstream diet trends?
There were products out there, but maybe only one or two energy bars. I thought, “I can do this, and I think I can make it better.”
That meant figuring out how to bake gluten-free and yet still taste like cookies because that’s our favorite thing to eat during training, not to mention getting all of the nutritional and macronutrients right. In order to do that, I was looking at research at the time that was kind of revolutionary with using higher fat-content in products for endurance athletes. You still need carbohydrates for endurance activity, but a higher fat content is better because your body will utilize fat when working out at up to seventy percent of endurance capacity.
Blending multiple facets of your life into one goal, it seems cycling and professional racing led to the ability to figure out what works for an athlete, and thereafter, your cooking and catering went into making bars.
It’s funny because if you had told me that back when I was in college, I would have said, “No, I’m pursuing a PhD.” I would have laughed if you told me I would be racing bikes professionally, or doing any sport professionally. It’s surprising, but it does make sense, and I can’t imagine doing anything else.
An interview with a chef wouldn’t be complete without a recipe. Here is one from Chef Jess’s list of her own personal favorites to both start her day and cap off a large ride during her training blocks.
Breakfast: Butternut Squash, Spinach & Charred Tomato Hash
This comforting breakfast recipe can triple as lunch or dinner. Butternut squash adds fiber and a healthy dose of immune-boosting vitamin C. Spinach is a great way to add iron, which bolsters blood and aids in recovery. With just the right amount of crispy bacon and a dash of maple to bring all the flavors together, toast up some crusty bread and enjoy this replenishing post-training meal.
Makes 2 servings
2 cups butternut squash, diced (about ½ medium squash)
8 heaping cups fresh spinach
2 tomatoes-on-the-vine, cut into segments
1 shallot (or ¼ red onion), finely diced
4 strips bacon, diced
2 TBSP olive oil
1 TBSP maple syrup
salt and pepper
- Heat 1-TBSP olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the squash, shallot, bacon, maple syrup and a sprinkle of salt and pepper and sauté for about 10 minutes until the bacon is crispy and the squash is golden and starting to soften (lower heat if it starts to blacken). Add any fresh or dry herbs you like to the pan.
- Add the spinach and tomatoes to the pan with another sprinkle of salt and pepper, and cook about 5 minutes until the spinach is wilted, and the tomatoes have a nice char on them.
- Remove ingredients from the pan on to two plates.
- Return the pan back to the same heat, and heat the other 1-TBSP of olive oil. Crack two eggs into the pan, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and let cook until the whites start to set. Using a spoon, spoon the warm oil onto the whites of the eggs until they are cooked through. Finish by spooning oil over the yolks of the eggs, to ensure the white portion under the yolks has cooked through.
- Remove the eggs with a spatula, and place on top of the hash on the plates. Repeat this step with two more eggs if desired. If the pan is large enough, you can cook all four eggs at one time.