Lillie O’Brien

Long before she became the founder of London Borough of Jam, a love and respect for quality ingredients has been a running theme in Lillie O’Brien’s life. As a youth born and raised in Australia, she recalls how her mother made everything from scratch back when doing so wasn’t even trendy. This instilled in Lillie a certain value for authenticity–for doing things right–without taking shortcuts.

In high school, her first job was working in a specialty food and catering shop, though she hadn’t really considered herself someone who would make a living through her affinity towards food. “When I finished high school I actually went on to do textiles.” It didn’t take so long for her realize, however, that following a conventional path wasn’t right for her. “When I went to uni, I was only there for like three months. After you’ve been in school for so long, [I realized] I actually don’t have to be here anymore.” Instead of continuing on with school, Lillie started working full time at the same specialty food shop where she spent her weekends as a teen. From there, a family friend suggested she take on an apprenticeship as a chef. “I hadn’t [thought about it], but I just loved cooking, so I ended up doing a three-year apprenticeship.”

After a stint of work in Japan and travel throughout Europe, Lillie was ultimately drawn all the way back to London where she landed a job as a pastry chef at a restaurant called St. John, which specializes in serving the best possible seasonal ingredients. “At St. John, it was a celebration if we got strawberries that were really amazing in summer. So we’d would end up serving just a bowl of strawberries as a pudding [dessert], which is really quite ballsy.” In turn, this helped her to embrace the flipside challenges that often come with eating seasonally by making jams to preserve the summer produce she had grown to cherish.

“In winter, we literally just had apples and lemons… but if we had jam then we could use that to make things. I guess we got into that sort of rhythm of preserving and I really loved it, it was a bit addictive.”

After years of working at St. John, perfecting her jam making skills and enjoying the process more and more, Lillie realized that she didn’t want to be wrapped up in the hospitality lifestyle forever. Since she neither wanted to become a head chef nor own a restaurant, “I kind of wanted to plan ahead.” In doing so, she gradually moved towards a more refined point of vision.

Over the course of the next year, Lillie started to make her jams at home and began selling them. “I would do it one Sunday a month, and just make jam here for like three weeks—and still do my job. I got really good feedback, and it gave me confidence. I left [St. John] and started doing two markets full time, Saturday and Sunday.” Then, serendipitously, “a little shop became available just on the next street over from my house.” Since the monthly rent was about the same as the fees to participate in the markets, the logical choice was to move her operation into a more permanent circumstance.

“I sell things in my shop that I really believe in and love and think are amazing. I wouldn’t sell a product that I thought isn’t that great. There’s no lies, really.”

The same personal authenticity in her life choices is also reflected in the jams themselves. “Whatever flavor I put in there, I try to leave a trace of it so people can see it. You know how sometimes people sell things, and they advertise a certain flavor, but when you eat it you can’t really taste it? It’s like you’ve been lied to. You can see the bay leaves in my [blackberry bay leaf] jam, because you have to see it to believe it, and the flavor gets more intense when it’s in there as well.”

“I do eat very seasonally, and I like really good ingredients. You know, some people like to spend their money on a really good TV or something, and I like to spend my money on really good food! …Oh, and I drink like so much wine, I hardly exercise, but food makes me really happy.”

Lillie’s desire to capture the flavors of fruits at the height of their seasons has since expanded to new mediums altogether. Her latest endeavor is writing a book organized around the seasons as an ode to an approach to eating that has resonated so deeply with her. “I’ve basically got a narrative at the start of each season to sort of set the tone of that time. I’ve chosen to celebrate one special theme at the start [of each] so there’s this a little miniature story. I want to keep it as real as possible.”

Even when Lillie’s choices have taken her on a longer more winding path, it has been a scenic one. “I’ve been doing this for seven years now–six years full time–and I’m only just now seeing the light,” she laughs. “I think it’s been such a long journey, and nothing is instant. I haven’t been given any money or financial backing. I think because it’s been so slow, it’s definitely for the better. I’ve gotten to a new level where I could potentially make this into a good business, but I don’t think that would have happened if I hadn’t been on this journey.”

@londonboroughofjam