A Conversation with Best Quality Daughter — Jennifer Dobbertin
"I strongly believe that dining is an immersive experience. The feeling of inviting people over to my home and feeding them everyday at a commercial level. It’s very Asian."
After the success of Tenko Ramen, Quealy Watson and Jennifer Dobbertin embarked on their next joint project -- a full-scale, full-service restaurant that practically everyone told them not to pursue, because of its inherent risk. So naturally, that’s exactly what they did.
Five minutes into our conversation, Jenn gets a call from her bartender. The roof is leaking, and rain is pouring through the pink mirrored ceiling. “Sorry, this is an emergency situation” she says, smiling a bit wildly. Her face betrays only a slight hint of panic before regaining composure. Bar service starts in an hour. A couple quick calls later, and she’s on her way to handle the crisis. “Rain check!” she jokes. I chuckle because I’m all too familiar with this scene. Being a business owner and operator, especially in the hospitality industry means putting out one fire after another, all while smiling through it. In many ways, it’s not too far off from American immigrant culture. Work hard, don’t complain, embrace the chaos… and sometimes smile.
Born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, Jenn moved to Bangkok where she lived for nearly six years. “I’m half Chinese, my mom is from Taiwan, but her parents are from the mainland, and my dad is from Michigan.” She recalls how she went through a cheesecake and Mexican food phase while living in Thailand. Back in Texas, she now mostly cooks Thai-Chinese. Food is very personal. It can satisfy our nostalgic cravings, bring back textures, olfactory experiences, and taste. But it can also be a narrative, a shared dialogue between the host and guest. And it is in this intimate space, where Jenn shines bright.
Q — You’re known to create very personal dining experiences for your guests, back when you ran a supper club series, and now your first full-service restaurant. How much of that was intentional?
I strongly believe that dining is an immersive experience. The feeling of inviting people over to my home and feeding them everyday at a commercial level. It’s very Asian. It’s not just a means to satisfy hunger. How you interact with the menu and surroundings, the names of all the meals are very personal. Best Quality Daughter is derivative of the Joy Luck Club, and centered around the family meal. In the film, one of the daughters who June is always compared to takes the best quality crab, while June takes the worst quality crab, and the mom says “You take worse quality crab, because you have best quality heart”. It’s a snapshot of first generation Chinese-American daughters and their mothers. I have a complicated relationship with my mother, so the name is personal.
Jenn rolling dumplings with mom in Taiwan
Q — One of the things people first notice when dining at Best Quality Daughter is the interesting name choices. Tell me more about that.
Drinks on the menu that are pretty narrative... So “I Used to Live in Thailand” is a joke poking fun at myself, because when I first moved back (to San Antonio), I started way too many conversations with that opener. My favorite is Taipei Personality, because I am definitely Type A, and it’s on the nose a nod to my Chinese roots. There is a vulnerability, but I’m not embarrassed by my decisions in the past. I’ve made decisions that hurt people and were life changing for me, and I’ve worked through all of that to try to be a better person, so nothing is sacred. It’s all kind of fun and I try not to take it so seriously.
Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margarita
Q — How do you handle critics who say your food is not authentically Thai or Chinese?
(Groans audibly) I had a review once by a non-Asian guy who visited Beijing once, and said this is not Chinese food, and I’m like, why are you the arbiter of my food? There’s often a question of authenticity with Asian restaurants, as the Asianness of America evolves. I am not “authentically” Chinese. I am half Chinese, I grew up in San Antonio attending a conservative Texas University. I lived in Bangkok for nearly 6 years. So I’m not “Chinese”. I’m Chinese-American. Whatever that means to me is what I’ve expressed through the menu. But when there is a table of Asian people, that’s when I’m most concerned, and my internal imposter syndrome comes up, of not being Asian enough. But then they always end up liking the food.
"When there is a table of Asian people, that’s when I’m most concerned, and my internal imposter syndrome comes up, of not being Asian enough. But then they always end up liking the food."
Q — That is quintessentially very American though isn’t it? Coming from an immigrant family, with a multicultural background.
People get it. Some people don’t get it. But overall, more people get it and want it. There’s finally representation that is not just the authentic Szechuan restaurant. We’re (Asians) not a monolith. It’s not one or the other. More and more of us are mixed-race growing up multi-culturally. There was a period a few years ago, where I was slightly embarrassed to be an American because we really have our faults. But the mixing pot of America is very real. I don’t always watch the Olympics but I did this year, and America’s teams were super mixed-race. I’m into that part of the US.
Q — You, along with your partner Quealy, run two businesses together. How do you find downtime at home?
I’m a regimented planner. If I don’t have a plan I spin out a little. It can be an unhealthy trait if you don’t know how to manage it effectively. All my energy goes into work. If not, I would just micromanage my dog all day. I have circus brain especially at night time. The mental load of everything that you need to attend to. I’ve gotten into meditating which helps a ton. Reigning in the beast. It’s a rewire on the brain to break those loops. Take time to slow down and turn off the circus brain.
Q — Lastly, you went from doing social work to running food businesses. How do you stay involved with the causes you care about?
I feel more impactful being a small business owner now than when I was working as an hourly caseworker, and driving Ubers part-time. We provide our employees with a healthy place to work, that you don’t always find in restaurants. It feels more powerful to me to see the impact on our team on an individual basis, helping out in real ways when a need arises. We have the ability to donate more to causes we care about like Planned Parenthood, where we have quarterly donations. I would never be in a place where I had the means to do this before. I have a more direct impact on the people around me, my employees, my peers and my community. And that is very fulfilling.
"We’re not a monolith. It’s not one or the other. More and more of us are mixed-race growing up multi-culturally."