Self-Sufficient Star: San Antonio chef Jennifer Hwa Dobbertin isn't done blazing culinary trails

Dobbertin has been behind some of San Antonio's most popular and innovative Asian fusion concepts in recent years.

click to enlarge San Antonio chef Jennifer Hwa Dobbertin owns and operates Pearl’s Best Quality Daughter. - Jaime Monzon
Jaime Monzon
San Antonio chef Jennifer Hwa Dobbertin owns and operates Pearl’s Best Quality Daughter.

In a sense, San Antonio chef and restauranteur Jennifer Hwa Dobbertin owes her rise to culinary fame to an early morning fight with her mother.

When she was 22 and a recent college grad, she stumbled through the front door of the family home at 4 a.m. following a night on the St. Mary's Strip.

During the scolding that followed, Dobbertin decided it wasn't just time to leave home, but leave the country. The second-generation Chinese American saw Asia as a possible escape.

"Our relationship had always been tumultuous, and I'm pretty sure I was still half drunk, but I dragged myself over to my computer and literally typed, 'Teaching job, Thailand' in the search bar," said Dobbertin, now 40. "Seven days later, I was on a plane to Bangkok."

That move set the stage for the San Antonio native's culinary journey, which includes not only the popular and well-reviewed Best Quality Daughter at the Pearl, but her recent addition to Taco Bell's chef-centric collaboration program, TBX. The latter has catapulted her onto a national stage.

Dobbertin's innovative takes on Asian cuisine and her dedication to lifting up female chefs of all ethnicities have become her trademarks. What's more, the chef was named a 2023 and 2024 semifinalist in the James Beard Awards, essentially the Oscars of the food industry.

While Bangkok provided an escape for Dobbertin from her overbearing parents, it also provided the roots for her culinary career. The city offered vibrant street life, rich cultural heritage and majestic temples, but it also left the young traveler longing for foods from back home — Tex-Mex, specifically. She began hosting dinner parties with newfound friends, offering her take on American culinary staples.

What began as an effort to cure homesickness unleashed a true passion. She discovered that she thrived on creating in the kitchen.

After six years abroad, she returned to the States and began a career as a social worker. This time, though, the script had flipped. She found herself pining for the Asian flavors she'd grown accustomed to in Thailand.

From pop-ups to the Pearl

In 2012, Dobbertin quit her job in social work to pursue cooking full time.

Her first professional kitchen stint was at now-shuttered Southtown dining spot The Monterey. Pop-ups for the concept that would become Asian fusion hotspot Hot Joy followed.

In 2013, Dobbertin helped open a brick-and-mortar location of Hot Joy in the historic King William district, and by 2014, Bon Appétit had named the irreverent eatery one of nation's 10 best new restaurants.

Dobbertin left Hot Joy and opened Tenko Ramen at Pearl's Bottling Department Food Hall with former business partner Quealy Watson in 2018. It was the city's first fast-casual ramen concept and eventually became the longest-running original tenant in the cafeteria-style space. Tenko closed in 2022.

Meanwhile, Dobbertin and fellow San Antonio chef Anne Ng teamed up to create a series of pop-up dinners to address the lack of Asian American women chefs in South Texas. Working with visual artist Jennifer Ling Datchuk, Dobbertin and Ng used the pop-ups to showcase their interpretations of authentic Asian cuisine inspired by the shared family meals of their upbringing.

While Dobbertin and Ng provided eats, Datchuk curated collections of art from Asian American women to display during the events. The pop-ups evolved into plans for Best Quality Daughter, which she opened inside the Pearl's historic Mueller House in 2020. 

"Jenn's personality really shines through when it comes to her food, and that's been an interesting evolution to watch," Best Quality Daughter General Manager Daniel Perez said. "Her attention to detail and the flair she puts into everything shows how much she cares about providing a stellar, all-around experience. It's gratifying to see that work get recognized in such a big way."

Perez has worked with Dobbertin in some form at every one of her restaurants, including Hot Joy. Their collaboration has now spanned more than a decade.

The name for the restaurant was inspired by The Joy Luck Club, a 1993 film based on a book of the same name. In an emotional scene in the movie, a Chinese American daughter cries, "No matter what you hope for, I'll never be more than I am." To reassure her daughter, the movie mom reassures her that she has the "best quality heart."

In movie magic fashion, the mother in The Joy Luck Club comes through for her daughter, but Dobbertin's upbringing was considerably more complicated.

"I had a pretty traumatic childhood and teenage life, and that manifested in my 20s as impulsive decisions and running away. I just wanted to get out of here and as far away from San Antonio as possible, but really I was trying to get as far away from myself as possible," Dobbertin said. "But guess what? Guess who showed up there? That old saying is so true, 'Wherever you go, there you are.'"

Openness and generosity

Chefs' journeys often trace back to memories of cooking with their parents or other family members.

Though Dobbertin's folks operated a Chinese restaurant in San Antonio throughout most of her childhood, her memories aren't so idyllic. She recalls being put to work at the business around the age of 4, peeling shrimp. Her father would pay her a penny a shrimp — around $5 to peel a whole case.

"I don't have these wholesome memories of being with my grandmother and she was teaching me how to roll dumplings," Dobbertin said. "It was more a little bit of an exploitive child-labor situation."

The self-taught chef speaks openly about her years of therapy, something not particularly common in the hospitality industry.

Though she describes her father as a "gentle, nice guy," Dobbertin laments that the relationship with her mother remains "tough."

Mental illness affects one in five U.S. adults, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, but industry experts say hospitality workers can be especially susceptible. Factors such as late hours, low wages and a lack of benefits often make it hard for bar and restaurant staff to get the help they need.

By speaking of her own struggles, Dobbertin hopes to help the next generation of hospitality workers feel less of a stigma about asking for and accepting help.

"Food excites me, food consoles me. Sometimes it makes me sad or makes me question everything. It really can be every emotion," said Mary Lou Davis, an alum of the Hell's Kitchen cooking competition show who started her culinary career in San Antonio. "What's really great about Jenn is she considers food and gathering gateways to conversation and building others up, especially women."

Davis, who now resides in California, is known for her cotton candy-hued coiffure and anime- and cosplay-inspired foodie Instagram account, Geeks & Grubs.

Davis returned to San Antonio for an April 23 Asian fusion pop-up at Best Quality Daughter, where she and Dobbertin teamed up in the restaurant's tiny kitchen to offer a small menu of Davis' fare.

"I was worried about taking over the BQD kitchen, but [Dobbertin] never seemed to have a second of doubt about it," Davis said. "I know the stress of handing your kitchen over to someone new, and she's opening all kinds of doors with that generosity."

'Super Americana'

A door recently opened for Dobbertin herself in February. That's when fast-food chain Taco Bell sought her out for its TBX program, which spotlights emerging chefs willing to put new twists on the iconic brand's menu items.

Taco Bell tapped Dobbertin to reimagine the Crunchwrap Supreme, one of its most-popular bites. She was one of just three chefs — not to mention the only woman and Texan — selected for the program. Philadelphia's Reuben Asaram and Phoenix's Lawrence Smith completed the inaugural cohort. 

The chain selected Dobbertin for the way she blends classic American flavors with those from her Taiwanese roots, Taco Bell Global Chief Food Innovation Officer Liz Matthews said when unveiling the project earlier this year.

It probably didn't hurt that Dobbertin describes herself as a "longtime lover of all things Taco Bell."

"It has its place, and I have a nostalgia for it," she said. "I actually ate the most Taco Bell when I lived abroad. There was one in Singapore, and I would get that when I was craving Mexican food. I think Taco Bell is like super Americana. It's American culture, and anybody — any business owner — that isn't connecting with that is really losing out."

More TBX projects are on the horizon for 2024, and Dobbertin also is looking forward to continuing the Best Quality Daughter legacy. Those plans include hosting pop-ups that showcase other local talent as well as fundraising dinners for reproductive rights organizations.

At the same time, Dobbertin said she wants to foster her own emotional and mental growth in an industry that can be a source of continued challenges.

"Most chefs know that if you don't almost obsessively have your finger on the pulse of everything, the wheels fall off," Dobbertin said. "People in other industries might see that as unhealthy, or extreme, but my therapist would say that I have turned some pretty traumatic experiences into a superpower. That extreme self-sufficiency has manifested in a way that's turned into a pretty beautiful existence."

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Nina Rangel

Nina Rangel uses nearly 20 years of experience in the foodservice industry to tell the stories of movers and shakers in the food scene in San Antonio. As the Food + Nightlife Editor for the San Antonio Current, she showcases her passion for the Alamo City’s culinary community by promoting local flavors, uncovering...

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