You might recognize Gretchen Roehrs’ work from a scroll through your Instagram. A fellow produce-lover (and longtime Good Eggs customer), she’s known for transforming luscious California fruits and vegetables into playful fashion illustrations. After college, Gretchen dreamt of developing fashion apps that were for women, by women. With $200 in her bank account, she left small town life to chase her Silicon Valley dream, and in the last six years she has built a career in UX, launched a highly successful second career as an illustrator, and learned how to master the fine art of cooking an eggplant (but not without a few bumps along the way). I chatted with Gretchen about the successes and second-guesses that have lined her perfectly imperfect path to where she is now.
How did you land in San Francisco?
I’m from a small farming town in Missouri called Marshall. It’s along the Mississippi River, in old Mark Twain territory. I moved out here on a whim right after I graduated from college. I had never visited California and I kept hearing about Silicon Valley and how it was a modern gold rush. So I hitched a ride with a friend who was moving out to Stanford. I pretty much just demanded that I go with them and sleep on their couch. I had all of 200 dollars to my name.
Now I’m like, “Why on earth did I do that? Why did I think that was a good idea?” I would never have the guts to do it again! But I’m so glad I did, because it’s been the most amazing thing I’ve ever done.
When you first came to the Bay Area, what were you thinking you would do?
I had this really bizarre quest to make people in Silicon Valley understand that fashion was this uncharted frontier when it came to startups and apps. I studied fashion design in college, and I found that I loved the technical side of fashion. I had so many ideas for things that I saw lacking in the fashion industry. I wanted to make this traditionally male dominated world respect fashion as one, a hugely profitable and viable business, and two, respect the viewpoint of women and create apps that were designed for women, by women.
I wanted to make this traditionally male dominated world respect fashion as one, a hugely profitable and viable business, and two, respect the viewpoint of women and create apps that were designed for women, by women.
When I first got here I started by printing out my resume on really nice paper and mailing them out to startups in the hope that I would get a bunch of callbacks. If you can imagine all of these beautiful envelopes with beautiful resumes and cover letters getting lost in the sorting departments of Google and Apple, that’s probably what happened. Or they read them and were like “This woman is totally unqualified, we’re not hiring her.” I did get one callback, and I worked with them for about two and a half years and got my foot in the door for the whole world of startups.
So you come out here, you’re breaking into Silicon Valley — how did the food and fashion illustrations come about?
That was all stuff I did as a joke, on the side, to keep my sanity while working in this somewhat uncreative world with a lot of technical people. For me it was a way to communicate with people back home and, during the winter months, kind of tease them with this beautiful produce that I was getting to eat year round in California. Like it’s January, what are you eating? Potatoes? And I have corn and broccoli and kale and all of these beautiful things from the farmers market and it just feels like spring here eternally.
Instead of just sending a picture of what I was eating, I would doodle around it if I was bored at a meeting or at lunch. They just took on a life of their own when I started posting them on my Instagram.
When did that interest in food first come about?
I remember those few brief moments in the summer in Missouri when there are peaches and corn and green beans and all of these things in season. All of your senses wake up because you’re eating stuff that tastes totally different from what you get at a supermarket.
The biggest grocery store we had was a Walmart; that’s where my family got their groceries for the first 15–18 years of my life. And the difference in taste that I experienced between this Walmart tomato that we had in our Hamburger Helper versus this juicy tomato that just came from a vine a couple miles away…it was really formative to me.
I love that with that perspective, you ended up in Northern California: a magical fruit and vegetable wonderland.
I know! It’s made cooking and learning to cook kind of easy, but it’s also kind of like I’m cheating, because the ingredients are truly the stars. You don’t have to do complicated things to make them taste good. When I came out to California, it was really a chance to learn how to care for myself by cooking.
What do you cook for yourself on those “I can’t even think about cooking” nights?
Definitely roasted kale and creamy polenta on top. If given the option, that’s what I’m going to make every single night, because it’s so comforting and salty and creamy and crunchy and delicious. Sometimes, I’ll put an egg on it if I’m feeling really fancy. Sometimes, I’ll mix in other random veggies that I have sitting around. It’s totally quick and comforting, and kind of cathartic to go through the process of cutting the kale and roasting it and stirring the polenta.
Any memorable kitchen disasters?
I have so many of them, first of all, but there are two that stick out in my mind. The first one was trying to make a lemony pasta. We were just going to make a simple lemon pasta sauce that included the zest of two lemons. But we didn’t have any lemon on hand, so we used grapefruit rinds instead thinking “Oh this is probably going to be close enough” and it was the most acrid thing I’ve ever tasted in my entire life. The thought of it now makes my tastebuds freak out.
The other–you know those Japanese mandoline slicers that are so cool and so cheap and so sharp? I ordered one and was so excited to get into it. I tore open the box with a few friends standing around and grabbed the first thing that I could, a little radish, and three slices into using this beautiful mandolin I cut off the tip of my thumb. I think I have a picture of it on my old Instagram: blood on the mandoline slicer, with slices of a beautifully-cut radish next to it. So I’m not allowed to use that anymore.
Lesson one: no more mandolins. What are some other lessons you’ve learned from your career as an illustrator?
I think one of the things that has really surprised me is the power of just setting aside time every day to do something creative, even if it’s five minutes. If creativity is important to you, making it a part of your routine is huge and transformative and pushes you to do stuff that you wouldn’t normally take the time to do. It allows you to act on the dreams that you have in your head that you’ve been holding onto saying “Oh I can do that one day” or “Maybe next year when I have more time.” If creativity is important to you, it’s so important to build that into your routine as much as you brush your teeth or cook for yourself.