At Balthazar Restaurant in New York, they close the entire street when the Beckhams come for brunch. It’s a restaurant, but it’s also a stage of sorts, and it’s where Jessica Mentis, Auckland’s first jelly architect, worked part-time while living in the city. She then spent the remainder of her week designing and building sets off Broadway. It was in the mad glamour and warped reality of Balthazar that Jess had the beginnings of an idea that resulted in The Jellyologist.
After completing her Masters of Architecture with a thesis focused on the theatre of the everyday and the way in which we build ‘sets’ for our lives, Jess decided a life of ‘detailing door handles and toilet seats’ was not for her. She left New Zealand and, after a year in New York, moved to London, where she worked as a graphic designer. It was there that she stumbled upon the work of celebrated jelly-makers and food curators Bompas and Parr, and her kernel of an idea took root.
Jess applied for a job at Bompas and Parr, but even though she wasn’t successful she was not to be deterred. When her visa ran out at the end of 2014 she decided to move back to Auckland and branch out on her own. The Jellyologist didn’t take shape until Jess committed to a Michael Bierut-inspired challenge to create a new jelly each day for 100 days. She documented her efforts on Instagram and rapidly built a following. Now her jellies feature in the Christmas issue of Dish magazine, and she’s been commissioned by the likes of Sony to create bespoke jellies for product launches.
It was opportune that Jess picked up a part-time job teaching spatial design theory at AUT, as it gave her access to the university’s significant resources, which she used to build her custom jelly moulds. It’s a time-consuming process – each mould is built digitally, using architecture software, before being 3D-printed, vacuum-formed, cast in plaster and vacuum-formed once more.
According to Jess, the potential for jelly is virtually limitless – anything that can be transformed into a liquid can become a jelly. She loves to play with form and flavour, to experiment with height and amount of wobble, with marbling and gold leaf. Once, at Seafarers in Britomart, she turned 1200 multi-coloured jelly shots into a Roy Lichtenstein mosaic.
It’s in this artistic, experimental, experiential direction that she wants to move, not only because it’s more creative and interesting, but also because bespoke jelly is a logistical challenge to make, package and transport, which in turn makes it difficult to commercialise.
Jess is thinking about a cookbook, she’s thinking about creating a jelly-mould product range, she’s thinking about a pop-up jelly bar in the New Year. In the meantime, she’s something of a mad scientist, creating summer-cocktail jellies in her mint green kitchen in Grey Lynn.
‘It’s cool to be back,’ she says. It’s easy to get swept up in the excitement of a city finding its feet. The size of the creative community in Auckland offers more opportunities to steer your endeavours in whatever direction you like, in a way that wouldn’t seem possible in New York or London, which Jess finds ‘really exciting’. We’re just excited to see what she’ll create next.
This profile originally appeared in The Seasonal #02 SUMMER 2015.