After working in a cramped co-op kitchen in Los Gatos for four years and making cakes for friends and family from home, Jen Kwapinski decided it was time to have a proper location for her business, Jen’s Cakes, in Willow Glen.

Kwapinski specializes in custom cakes with her signature minimalist and classy style and appeared on TLC’s show, Next Great Baker earlier this year, where she was one of the top three finalists. We interviewed her about her shop, how she spends her time when she’s not working and her experience on the Next Great Baker.

Name: Jen Kwapinski
Occupation: Cake decorator, owner of Jen’s Cakes

How long have you lived and worked in San Jose?
I lived in San Jose for 11 years, but I just moved to Gilroy. For work, I was in Los Gatos for four years and then I went to Willow Glen for almost five years.

Why did you decide to locate your shop in Willow Glen?
I was in a co-op kitchen in Los Gatos and it was getting really cramped. There were four companies in there and we were all growing at the same time. This place [the Willow Glen shop] was owned by a caterer and they wanted to get out. Willow Glen is an awesome place. Rent is great.

When did you first get involved with baking?
I made my sister a birthday cake when I was a senior in high school. My mom and I took a cake decorating class in 1998 and then I went to the California Culinary Academy in 1999 and did basics in culinary art.

When I was taking culinary classes, I worked at Applebee’s, too. But I really liked the art and creativity of baking and cake decorating, so that’s what led me to this.

What is your inspiration for your cake designs?
Mostly it’s what I like or my style. Different designs come from paper invitations or something pretty, like a fence. It could be anything, like crown molding on a wall. As far as the finish of our cakes, we like things really clean and classy. Most of our cakes, you can tell it’s a Jen’s Cake because there’s a certain style to it, even though there’s different themes. My style is clean—not over the top. I’m a minimalist.

What is the most unusual cake design request you have received?
We get people who call for naughty cakes and I’m like, “No, we don’t do that.” But there have been weird color combinations and random things. They’ll put three colors on their wedding cake—the border is one color, the vine is another and the leaves are another color. It just looks like a birthday cake. We’ve done an upside-down Mad Hatter cake where it’s slanted and the smaller tier is on the bottom and the bigger tier is on the top.

What do you like most about San Jose and Willow Glen?
What I love about Willow Glen is the community feel. Everyone in this area is really supportive. When they find out we’re here, they want to support us and it’s just really cool. And San Jose is like a big city but with a small-town feel. It doesn’t feel all crazy. Downtown San Jose is just nice with a good clientele.

If you could change one thing about San Jose and Willow Glen, what would it be?
Well, I’m always here (at the shop), so I don’t get out much. It’s hard to comment on entertainment, but it feels like they’re really trying to build up San Jose and perfect areas that are kind of sketchy.

The one thing I would change about Willow Glen is the location of the recycling center, which is three blocks away. It’s a little too close. Police services are the one thing I would change because I heard they were cutting back on police in Willow Glen.

What did you learn from your experience with the Next Great Baker?
That people have potty mouths in the kitchen. I was told by one of the bakers, “This is how it is in a real kitchen, Jen,” and I said, “It’s not like that in my kitchen.”

Being on Next Great Baker, I realize there are so many possibilities—so many things you can do with baking and decorating. Watching Buddy (Valastro)’s example of where he’s taken his business is just, wow—there’s so much you can do with it. Especially now with all this reality TV stuff going on, all of a sudden there’s all these doors that can open up to you if you take advantage of it. I learned that people in the East Coast have a totally different style than we do out here. Buddy is old school Italian and we’re more modern—new school. We don’t do a lot of the old school stuff. It was very interesting.

Would you do another reality TV show?
Maybe. When I first got done with it, I said no. I was gone for seven weeks. It was really fun, but I have two little kids and I was ready to go [home]. I had a really good time. It was good exposure for the business and a totally new way of marketing. It was really positive for me, so I think I would probably do another show.

Where do you like to hang out when you’re not working?
If I had the opportunity, I love dancing, but I haven’t gone anywhere. And I just go to the movies. I like hanging out with my family. I have a sister who lives in San Jose and when I visit, our kids play and we get to talk.

What’s the last great meal you had out at a Silicon Valley restaurant?
I went to Crepevine for lunch last week and that was really good. We went to Opa! for lunch one day and that was also really good. A sit-down meal where it was planned would have to be Morton’s Steakhouse. If you want a really good, yummy meal, go there.

What do you like most about your job?
I like the artistic side of it the best. I don’t really bake anymore—I have a lead baker, Ayme, who’s super fast. It’s all recipes that I’ve developed but she does all the baking. I do all the artistic stuff that you see—any sculpting and piping. That’s the rewarding, gratifying part. Currently, it’s just Ayme and I in the kitchen but we’re looking for cake decorators and bakers right now.

Who is the most interesting person you know in San Jose?
Nathan Louie from Cinequest. He dresses up in a crazy suit every time at Cinequest. He wore a gorgeous Chinese robe and had a huge crown on at opening night. He’ll wear these crazy suits and top hats—he’s a riot.

Someone I respect the most is Crystal Lequang. She has a company called Amazáe Special Events and she’s an event planner. She’s like a coach to me and she knows a lot about business. She has a great business herself doing event planning. She’s just awesome. She’s my age, super brilliant and just really smart. She’s probably the most fascinating person to me because I look up to her so much and yet she’s my age.

Have a suggestion for our next SJ Q&A? Leave a comment on this article’s comments section.