Jess Brown: ‘I’m excited to see what’s next for me’
- Credit: Charlotte Bond
It takes a lot to pull off an event as prestigious as Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival. Even if, in her own words, organiser Jess Brown still considers it ‘tiny’.
Modesty could quite be Jess’s middle name. But during her tenure at Snape Maltings, the 40-year-old has achieved so much. She’s managed to (with the support of her small team) put this corner of Suffolk on the foodie map, has attracted big-name food stars and chefs to the region, and enabled cottage industry businesses to realise their dreams and grow into recognisable brands.
Jess admits the festival is her baby (alongside her five-year-old daughter) and letting go this year, after a decade, is going to be hard.
“It’s strange. It might hit me at the end,” she laughs. “I definitely feel like it’s going to be the end of an era. You don’t realise how much it’s become a part of your life. Since I’ve been working at the festival I’ve had my daughter, everyone knows her, and they’re part of that journey. We've been through all these life-changing moments together.
“With the producers too, you become a part of their family because you get to know them so well. It’s strange to even think about that coming to an end and there’s absolutely a part of me that thinks I should just stay.
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“Whatever I do next I hope it will still be part of what goes on. Maybe I’ll go on to work with some of those producers.”
Does Jess think she can look forward to going along as a visitor? Will she actually be able to switch off and enjoy the event after this year?
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“I hope so! I’m already doing a bit of work with Bella who’s taking over from me and I won’t disappear to start with so I can help and support her. It will be nice to see what happens and to see the festival through completely different eyes. All I ever see are things that go wrong. I never really get the opportunity to step back and think ‘that was great’.
“You get to the end, and as soon as you finish you have to think about the next one. The reality is we’re really lucky to have this event. That fact it isn’t about making money means it can stay true to its roots.
“I didn’t realise what the festival was when I first started,” Jess adds. “It’s like being a proud mum. To see businesses flourish, in part because of the festival, is a good feeling.
“It’s a community. There’s something special about the atmosphere. I always say to press or sponsors I wish I could bottle the feeling of being at festival.
“It’s the county’s treasure.”
Food and drink have long been a part of Jess’s life...but it was the world of dance that held her heart initially.
Born at Ipswich Hospital, she spent her early years in Burstall, before moving to Aldringham, just outside of Leiston when she was six, so her parents could take jobs at Sizewell power station. Her dad worked on the power lines until he sadly passed away when Jess was just 12.
A former student of Leiston High School, Jess says rural life was pretty formulaic. “You went to school...out on your bike. I worked at the coffee shop at Thorpeness when I was 13 and at the Parrot and Punchbowl for a bit. That’s just what you did there. I also used to go to dance classes. A lot of dance classes.”
Aged 18, drawn by the bright lights and apparent glitz of London, Jess studied dance at what’s now Bird College, having been a student of ballet with Dance East for many years. Despite competing on the dance circuit since she was 10, she says she had no idea what she was going to do with her skills.
“I didn’t want to be in the West End, I knew that much. That was it to be honest. I’d been a ballet associate for many years. It was a huge part of my life.”
Food was always lurking in the background. Despite being told by her ballet teachers to eat modestly – little and often – Jess couldn’t resist being involved in round-the-table feasts at home. Especially when they were put together by her grandma.
“She was probably ahead of her time,” Jess remembers. “When we were younger she’d make all sorts of things. Pizzas and pasties...the kind of foods that weren’t of her day. She had a massive selection of cookery books and we were always a family that sat around the table to eat. That was central to our lives. My parents worked on farms, and had livestock and grew veg when we were kids. It was my world but, at the time, I didn’t really think anything of it.”
Out of college, Jess jetted off to work for an American company as a dancer on its cruise ships, giggling that it really was like being on hit TV show Below Deck, and calling working on a floating hotel “a little bit mad”.
“We were like celebrities. It's so funny. We’d get notes from the children saying how much they loved us. That was sweet.”
When Jess didn’t have a dancing gig, she’d pick up extra cash in the events and promotions industry, which saw her work in venues from the glitziest hotels, to professional football awards and...train stations.
“Some of those you just loved doing. They were amazing fun. Like going to Wimbledon and seeing the tennis players. And I got to work for a company doing air shows, travelling around the world. It's that glamorous side of things, but it didn’t always look like that. In events you have to do what needs to be done. If that means cleaning the toilet...so be it.”
Gradually, over time, Jess found herself creeping back to Suffolk, eventually settling in the county while commuting to London. And it was during this time in her life she became entangled with Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival, after meeting Jenny Lloyd, who was in charge in the noughties.
Jess agreed to help Jenny as a freelance events organiser, taking press tours and doing odd jobs, until she finally, in 2011, found herself working at the festival. “It was just looking after a little stage, selling advertising, things like that. That’s where it all started.
After two years helping out, the mantel of taking on the event in its entirety fell to Jess in 2013, and she likes to think, during this time, it’s evolved. She's put her stamp on it.
“Our standards have kind of grown. So we did local masterclasses to begin with, and those might have been with local cookery schools. Then along the way we wondered if we could ask specialist chefs to come along. What could we bring to Suffolk that’s unique? Wouldn’t it be amazing to create that opportunity here?
“We’ve also upped the game in terms of our conferences. They’re normally every two years and there was supposed to be one in 2020 but it didn’t happen. This year, instead, we made some films. They’re short, about five or six minutes each, based around the future of food.”
Incoming festival organiser Bella worked with William Kendall and producer James Cameron to create the videos, which will be played on a loop at the festival this weekend.
Jess admits some may find them controversial: “One I’ve seen is about farming the land and the idea of pesticides. We can only stop using them by changing the way we farm completely. It’s about talking about that process and how it’s working for others. We always try to be at the forefront of what’s happening, but we’re not going to jump on any bandwagons. We won’t suddenly be a totally organic or vegan festival, but we do want to debate and share knowledge in the community.”
Over the years, Jess says she’s also pleased with how the family area has grown.
“I have always said I want to make the festival as accessible as possible. We have to have family-friendly things over the weekend. So we have more street food so people can come for the whole day. And the ticket price has been kept low. It’s the same for businesses. We might have more support from Adnams and Aspall, and that boosts the income we’d get from other producers, but we only do that because we want to have a platform so all those little cottage businesses can come too."
Something that’s often talked about as a new era is ushered in for any event, is legacy. And the legacy Jess hopes to leave behind, is for the festival to continue to be a launchpad for start-ups. It's something she’s so passionate about, Jess penned an online book for East Suffolk Council (available on the council website) to help new food and drink producers get the best start possible.
The ‘newcomers’ area, fostered by Jess and her team, has nurtured some of Suffolk’s best loved brands from Truly Traceable, to Fen Farm Dairy.
“When we first started the newcomers area we took a look back and said ‘why do we do the festival and what is it all about?’. And what came up was the idea that we were a platform or a springboard for new businesses. We weren’t necessarily highlighting that, so we worked on creating an area with a subbed price, so new producers could just turn up with a box of things and wouldn't have to think about their stand. We offered a day, or a weekend. It was just about giving them this opportunity. Now I feel people make a beeline for that area because they want to see what’s new and what they haven’t seen before. I think that’s amazing.”
Supporting businesses is something Jess is truly passionate about – and in the past 10 years she’s been involved in multiple projects to put them on a national platform. This included helping the ‘Young Producers’ collective with a pop-up in London, and regularly liaising with and hosting national press to ensure Suffolk remains a part of the UK’s food story.
It hasn’t been all roses around the door though. Along the way there have been some ‘disasters’ too.
“Oh we’ve had all sorts of things. From answering the door to naked chefs, to pulling gazebos out of the river and worrying about children getting lost in the reed beds. Sometimes we’ve had to rush to the shops at the last minute because a chef’s forgotten to tell us about a mad ingredient they need. But that’s part of the job. It’s the idea of trying to be a positive character and that’s so important.
“Actually the funniest thing that’s happened to me in events is we had guests visiting from Asia. One of them had just had a baby. She was expressing her milk and freezing it at the hotel. The night before she was due to fly home she told me she wanted to take the milk with her and asked if I had an insulated box – one of the ones used for transporting transplants. This was Sunday in Suffolk. I was like ‘where on earth do I start?’.
“They were staying on Ipswich waterfront and suddenly I saw this guy with exactly what I needed. I asked where he got it from and he said it was team supplies. It turned out he was an ITFC player staying at the Salthouse and it was a bit of his kit. He asked why I wanted it, I explained, then he came back and gave it to me, saying it’s for a worthy cause. I walked in and showed the lady and she said ‘how did you even do that?’
“It became a bit of a ‘Jess can do anything’ thing. I don’t feel like that, but I do feel with the right approach you can always find a solution. When you’re managing an event or project you want to be able to fix everything.”
Beyond her success in events here, and the opportunity to grow what’s become one of the most important occasions on the regional calendar, Jess says it’s the wide open spaces, and access to coast and countryside that have kept her in Suffolk with her young family.
“I think you don’t always appreciate Suffolk when you grow up here. All you can think about is getting away – being somewhere where there’s something to do on the doorstep, where you don’t have to drive, and things are open later.”
Jess admits she always wanted to escape, and it wasn’t until she was older, had seen more of the world, and craved family, that she came to the realisation of how great life could be here.
“Do you know what? Sitting and watching the sea is one of my favourite things to do now,” she chuckles. “Having had my daughter, I just love being outside. I respect it more I think. The spaces and the diversity. The fact every town and village has its own identity. I’m spending lots of time at places I wouldn’t have dreamt of going when I was a teenager.
“What I really like is the fact you can pack yourself a bag of goodies and wander off for the day. There’s so much enjoyment in the simplicity of that.
“We lived in Southwold for a while and it was kind of like heaven. We were there until my daughter was three. We could literally leave the front door and go to the beach and play in the sand. If it rained we could go home.”
Jess says she’s excited to see the county develop, especially destinations such as Lowestoft, which was put on the world arena by Banksy this summer.
“I like the idea of imagining what it’s going to be like in a few years. You see little shimmers of light. Businesses starting to open up there. It’s got its own charm. It’s never going to be Aldeburgh or Southwold, but there is just so much potential and I think they’re getting some investment. I really love the industrial side of it there as well. I look forward to seeing what happens there in the next five to 10 years.”
Jess adds that she doesn’t know if she’ll stay in Suffolk but it will always be a part of her. Maybe, she hints, she’ll take what she’s learnt through the festival to another county.
“I’m so excited to see where life takes me. But Suffolk will always be my home. I’ll always come back.”
Reading: It’s not very exciting. A guide to schools. Freya’s going to be starting soon and I don’t have a clue.
Listening: I quite like Fearne Cotton’s Happy Place podcast, but I’m also listening to a lot of 60s music. Just a compilation with things like the Beatles.
Watching: I do like a good crime drama. I’ve just been watching Baptiste. I’m a sucker for anything like that.