Once Upon a Chef

Jenn Segal, Founder

Washington, DC
Jenn in the kitchen. One of Jenn's original recipes.
A culinary journey begins

Like many chefs, Jenn Segal’s love of food started with a trip to France. During a semester abroad during college, Jenn lived with a French family, which immersed her in a culture that celebrated home cooking: from daily trips to local markets and bakeries to leisurely meals that seemed to stretch for hours. This experience deepened her appreciation for the culinary arts and made her determined to pursue a career in food.

After college, Jenn briefly put those dreams on the back burner and took a desk job — but eventually she couldn’t ignore the draw of the kitchen. She enrolled in culinary school, which she describes as “the most fun she’s ever had.” For Jenn, this was what learning should feel like: diving headfirst into what you're truly passionate about.

But when she transitioned to the restaurant world after culinary school, it was missing that sense of novelty and experimentation. She was making the same dishes every night. Plus, Jenn wanted to start a family, which she knew would be hard to balance with the long hours of restaurant life. So she decided to change direction somewhat — instead of working in restaurants, she’d write a cookbook.

“I went through all the steps of writing a book proposal, then reached out to agents and publishers,” says Jenn. “But I was told in no uncertain terms that there was zero chance of getting published because no one had any idea who I was. Unless you're a celebrity or very established in the culinary world, it would be almost impossible to get a book deal.”

One day, as she was venting to family about this disappointing setback, her sister responded with a simple idea: What if you started a food blog? It would get her name out there, earning her the name recognition she needed to land that book deal.

After researching the online publishing space and realizing there were zero barriers to entry, Jenn bought her domain — and with that, Once Upon a Chef was born.

Some homemade ice cream from Jenn's kitchen.
Turning passion into a business

In the early days, Jenn wasn’t monetizing her blog. It was a part-time gig that she was juggling alongside motherhood — and the goal was still getting enough of an audience for a cookbook, not necessarily making an income.

“Coming into the food blogging scene, I felt I could offer a unique perspective,” says Jenn. “While many bloggers were passionate home cooks, I wanted to lean on my background as a classically trained chef with real restaurant experience — while still creating accessible recipes that worked for busy moms like me.”

As Jenn’s kids grew up, she started putting more time into the site and generating more traffic. After five years of pouring countless hours and resources into the blog without any monetization strategy, her husband jokingly started to ask her: Was she running the blog as a public service, or is there a potential business here?

Finally, in 2015, Jenn took the leap and introduced ads on her site, turning to a Google Certified Publishing Partner to help her easily monetize the site without compromising the user experience. From there the site kept growing, becoming a full-time job for Jenn — and now it was actually generating tangible income.

Blueberry cobbler from Jenn's kitchen.
Culinary dreams realized

Now ads are a huge part of Jenn’s business. “Ads are my primary source of income,” she says. "In my first year, I actually earned more from the blog than I ever did working in restaurants. Mind you, back in those line cook days, I was pretty much making minimum wage! But after a few years, as the site traffic continued to grow, I was making a full-time salary.” Notably, in March 2020, during the onset of the pandemic when everyone was discovering their inner chef and cooking three meals a day, her site's traffic soared, doubling its usual numbers.

As income from ads grew rapidly, Jenn had the chance to invest money back in the site and make it even better. She did a full site redesign, then hired some contractors to handle photography and video production, bringing her site to a truly professional level — and giving her more time to focus on recipe creation, her true passion.

Jenn also loves the lifestyle that comes with being a full-time food blogger. “Experimenting with recipes day in and day out in the kitchen reminds me of those days in culinary school when I got to try new techniques and tackle new dishes,” says Jenn. “Plus I get to do it all from the comfort of my own home, which allowed me to be there for my two kids as they grew up. I started the blog when they were in preschool and kindergarten, and now they’re both in college. I am so grateful for this.”

She’s tried other methods of monetizing, but she always comes back to ads. “I've played around with affiliate links, but I don't really like recommending products in that way. And it wasn’t terribly lucrative because readers aren’t coming to my site to buy something — they’re coming because they’re ready to cook and need a great recipe.”

Meanwhile, Jenn never gave up her dream of publishing a cookbook. Finally, in 2016, her site caught the eye of a book agent, who reached out and asked her if she wanted to write a book. Her first book landed on shelves in 2018, then the next one hit stores in 2021.

“Ads are my primary source of income. After a few years, as the site traffic continued to grow, I was making a full-time salary.”
One chef’s happy ending

After all this growth, Jenn wants to keep making her site an all-in-one resource for home cooks. “I want to focus 100% of my time on the site and add a lot more recipes to make it a more comprehensive library,” she explains. “No matter what you're looking to make, I want to be sure that I have a version of it.”

The success from ads has caused Jenn to revise her ambitions somewhat. It’s a bit ironic — while she got into blogging to eventually land a cookbook deal, the ad revenue and lifestyle that blogging affords have made online publishing her #1 priority.

“My revenue comes almost entirely from ads,” says Jenn. “I have my cookbooks, but to be honest the earnings from books pale in comparison to the revenue I earn online. I'm glad I did the books and am very proud of them, but these days I’m just way more excited by the possibilities from the blog.”

While Jenn loves creating recipes, her favorite part is the feedback and questions she receives from readers. “I think the beauty of having recipes online is that it’s interactive. Readers can ask me questions and get a quick response,” she says. Jenn and her Editorial and Community Director, Betsy Goldstein, personally read and respond to hundreds of questions each week from people making her recipes. “It might sound corny, but whenever a reader tells me that my cake recipe has become a tradition for their daughter's birthday, or that my roast is now a must-have during their holiday gatherings, it warms my heart," she shares. “Knowing my recipes are helping people create delicious memories around the table gives me a sense of purpose and is why I do what I do.”

About the Publisher

Jennifer Segal is a professionally trained chef and the founder and operator of a digital cooking destination called Once Upon a Chef. Her mission is to inspire and educate her audience with high-quality food and recipe content. The site reaches more than 6 million people each month. She has also authored two bestselling cookbooks, Once Upon a Chef: The Cookbook and Once Upon a Chef: Weeknight/Weekend.
Jenn with her dogs.