Edible art is part of this pastry chef’s skill set
Sarah H. Jones’ art transcends mediums. Whether baking, designing gardens, sculpting, painting or teaching workshops at her studio practice, a quote on her website aptly sums up the mindset of the multi-hyphenate artist: “From her creative vantage point, there are zero limits.”
Owner of Sanaa Design Studios and co-founder of Jones Garden, a nonprofit that provides fresh, organic food and nutritional education to neighborhoods with limited access, Jones grew up in a creative household. “I always thought of myself as artistic.” She credits her father, Jerome Jones, a talented painter and musician who wrote songs and played the harp and flute.
Her mother, Theresa Martin Jones, proved cooking is a form of edible art for Jones, the seventh of 13 children. Sarah enjoyed tagging behind her mom in the kitchen of their Staunton home. As a 6-year-old who stood eye level with the kitchen counter, she enjoyed watching her mom create delectable dishes.
“I’d watched her hands work and I was just infatuated. That’s probably where my love [for cooking and baking] was born, in those moments as a child,” said Jones, 33, a pastry chef and visual artist. “To this day, she is one of the best cooks I know. She always was able to develop layers of flavor.” The family of 15 lived on a limited income, but the family’s matriarch always found a way to feed her family healthy, nutritious meals: “Just watching her do her magic was the inspiration for me.”
One favorite meal she said tastes like heaven: potato salad and fried chicken with homemade rolls so delectable. “I remember asking to taste the dough raw. I still like the taste of it because it has a nostalgic quality.”
Jones discovered her own artistry in the fourth grade while in her school’s gifted and talented program. One day, she painted a watercolor of a sunset with a bluish, purple sky and a white duck in the foreground. “No one believed I did it even though we were all sitting in the same class.” Their reaction left her a bit disheartened, but she was undeterred. “I knew I had something special.”
Her artistic ability aligned with her passion for food in the 11th grade while in the ProStart Program, a two-year certification program designed to teach skills for restaurant and foodservice careers. An instructor encouraged her to compete in a national competition for culinary arts.
“That was when the passion was really born. I won first place in the district and the state and then I went to the nationals.” Jones didn’t win, but the experience boosted her confidence.
After high school, while working and attending college, she started a specialty cake business she ran on the weekends. She thought about opening a bakery, but decided to pursue more learning and experience. Her last job as a pastry chef was for Paul USA in Washington, D.C. where her duties included leading the training program for new hires.
“I was enjoying my job, but working 60 hours a week on my feet. I had no energy or drive to work on my art. I was trying to ease out of the kitchen a little and do it part time and try to focus on my art.”
The CEO of the company agreed to give her a contract to train the employees and develop recipes part time. “In mid-March of 2019, we had the contract signed and then COVID hit. I wasn’t able to do anything. I said this is the perfect opportunity to be in the studio full time for real.”
In 2020, her sister Naomi discussed her idea for Jones Garden, which included turning an unused urban lot into a community garden. “I told her if you do that, I will have to move from D.C. to help you with it. In 2021, we broke ground. I designed the garden, and she came up with the plans and we bought the community together and got it done. We expanded last year and this year. It’s been a nice journey,” she said.
Jones develops recipes for the “Sample Saturday” program, and hosts cooking demos with such items from the garden as Swiss chard and beets to educate the community on delicious and healthy meal preparation. One popular recipe calls for roasting beet slices with pepper, salt, garlic powder and olive oil. “I learned from my mom you can make anything taste good if you know how to prepare it. Healthy food has a misconception that it is not as flavorful.”
Jones Garden is a meaningful cause for Jones. “I can see the result of it in the community. It’s very fulfilling. It does get exhausting when garden work is at its peak. I go in the mornings and evenings when it’s coolest and I try to be in the studio in the middle of the day and get as much work done as possible.”
She mainly cooks and bakes for Jones Garden these days, although she hopes to open a bakery in the future.
In her studio, she uses her knowledge from her culinary training to develop unconventional artistic methods and push the limits. For example, she enjoys sculpting with gypsum, which has a consistency similar to cake frosting or pastry cream.
“The first time I used it… it felt so familiar. It didn’t require a lot of experimentation. I took the tools that I used from the kitchen to accomplish the look I wanted. It was a huge lightbulb moment. I was hooked.”
At VPM’s booth at the Harrisonburg Farmers Market on September 23, Jones will demonstrate her mother’s recipes for homemade dinner rolls and potato salad, which has “been passed down and of course altered here and there.” Jones will also provide samples of her mom’s fried chicken. “The fried chicken and potato salad combination is so iconic.”