Opening up with Lillie O’Brien from London Borough of Jam.
From Raspberry & Hibiscus Flower to Seville Orange & Chamomile, her jams never fail to surprise and delight customers worldwide. Here’s a closer look at her backstory and laissez-faire approach to developing her brand, London Borough of Jam.
&Open: Let’s start at the beginning. Before London Borough of Jam, you were a pastry chef. How did that career path and work environment steer you toward starting your own jam company?
Lillie: Before I was a pastry chef, I was just a chef. But when I moved from Australia to the UK, doing pastry full time at a restaurant called St. John Bread & Wine. I worked in a completely separate kitchen and didn't have anything to do with the savory part of the restaurant. The singularity of it all was surprisingly really nice. And not because I don't love cooking, but because it's a bit slower in pastry. You can breathe, take your time.
I was there for nearly six years. My jam is really inspired by my time at St. John because their dishes and desserts are mostly based on what’s available ingredient-wise. Everything in the UK/Europe felt very seasonal to me; you only used an herb or fruit if it was in season. Whereas, in a place like Australia, you've got access to all kinds of climates, each one of them growing various produce all year round.
The summertime was when you’d have access to a lot. So we’d order loads of things, use what we could, and then make jams and preserves to use during winter — when all that stuff wasn’t available. From doing that year after year, it got me into that way of thinking and rhythm. Plus, my mom always made her own marmalade growing up.
However, at St. John, I wouldn't be allowed to add rose water to raspberry jam, or make a panna cotta with strawberries. It was all very traditional, and you didn't add any abnormal flavors to the mix. So I started making my own jam as a hobby because I wanted a space where I could experiment a bit more. I eventually started selling it at my local market every other weekend.
I did that for a year whilst I still worked as a pastry chef. Then I was like, do you know what? I’m 30 now. And I don't want to be 40 and still working in a kitchen. Maybe this could be my way out. Plus, I got really good feedback from selling at the market. So I decided I'd try and see if I can make this work as a full-time gig. And it turned out to be really fun. Hard, but fun.
&Open: Okay, so you obviously have these really interesting flavor profiles. Was there ever a question about if they would land with customers?
Lillie: I felt confident with my ideas from being a chef and knowing what flavors went with what. And around that time the team I worked with at St. John was really tight. We inspired one another and always relayed the hottest trends from restaurants in places like Scandinavia and Copenhagen.
There was also an element of pushing the creativity envelope while still sticking with the traditional way of making jams and spreads. It all felt self-explanatory to me.
Lillie O’Brien of London Borough of Jam
&Open: That makes sense! I just didn’t know if there was an educational piece there, or if you ever had to explain why blackberries and bay leaves go together.
Lillie: Right. I used to be a lot more experimental. But as I've grown and gone a bit more commercial, I do have to be careful with what I do. For example, one of my proudest jams is Greengage Plum & Fennel Pollen, but I'm sadly having to discontinue it because it's my slowest seller. And there is definitely an educational piece with that flavor, but I might not be there to explain it and I think a lot of people may not wanna ask what those things are. They look at that and they might go, “Ooh, fennel pollen. What's that?” And then choose something else or walk away altogether. Which is sad. ‘Cause I'd ask.
Without being too harsh, I think the run-of-the-mill person is a bit boring nowadays. So I’ve learned that some of my secretly delicious concoctions just aren’t practical for most.
&Open: Where do you feel like you pull the most inspiration from when you're thinking of new flavors?
Lillie: I'm quite cultural. I love music and going to galleries. I like art. I like nature. I like reading and traveling. So whether I know it or not, I'm constantly surrounding myself with things that are inspiring. I don't really go out searching for inspiration though, because I think it finds you all on its own. For example, I've just been on holidays for two weeks and by simply walking around and enjoying the trip, I ended up taking loads of inspiration back home with me. It wasn’t on purpose, it just happened naturally. As it should, you know?
When I was there, I had a tomato jam for the first time. Now I wouldn't make a tomato jam here because 1) it probably wouldn't sell, and 2) they don't grow very well here. But in Greece they do. They've just got loads of tomatoes everywhere, so of course they turned it into a jam. It makes sense for them and their climate! And it's so delicious. So that's inspiring, experiencing the traditions and tastes of different cultures.
Lillie O’Brien of London Borough of Jam
&Open: You used to hold small jam-making classes, and have even published a cookbook… How has making your recipes more accessible helped your business?
Lillie: I will say that before the pandemic, I had way more “go” in me. Doing the classes was great! I only had six people in at a time, and no one knew each other. They were just lovely because we’d spend an entire day together. Then I would make pudding at the end and we’d all drink wine.
So to answer your original question, I would never dream of holding back any information. When I did my cookbook, I didn't lie about anything. I wanted people to be able to recreate my jams properly. Some people come into my shop and they're like, “I wanna start making my own jam” or, “I'm selling things at the market right now” and I really do my best in offering my advice. I’ve never been one to withhold anything.
Another thing I think people have learned from the book and the classes is the art of slowing down. You gotta have a lot of time to make jam. If you’re in a hurry or rush the process whatsoever, it’ll all go horribly wrong. Take it from someone who’s cleaned their fair share of burnt pans.
&Open: Are there certain characteristics you possess that came in handy when starting a successful business solo?
Lillie: I know this is the opposite of what you asked me, but I sometimes get really frustrated with myself that I'm not as rushed because I feel I could be accelerating or growing more, but I'm not.
However, maybe that's a good thing… I don't know. When I was first starting out, someone asked me if they could invest money in LBJ. I said no. And I always wonder where I would be if I did take them up on that offer. I've done everything on my own, never taken any sort of investment. And while I’ll always wonder if receiving help would’ve gotten me further ahead than where I’m at right now, I’m also able to look back and think: While I might’ve been like a snail building the business, I did it all myself. And as a creative, with zero knowledge of how to use a spreadsheet or crunch numbers, it feels good to know that I’ve done alright.
My goal isn’t to make the most money, but to be able to run a business and live off it. It’s taken a long time, but I’m there now.
&Open: What’s the most rewarding part of your job?
Lillie: I think working for myself.
I came back from a two-week holiday last Thursday. Then headed to a festival Friday morning. Then that Sunday night I had eight of my friends over. Everyone was like, “Ugh, gotta go back to work tomorrow…” But I never really have that feeling. And on my first day back, I can start at 10 or 11am.
Even when I have loads to do, I can come and go on my own, choose when I'm going to get things done, stay later if I need to, things like that. So working for myself feels luxurious sometimes, and I’m just very lucky to be able to do what I do and make a living out of it.
Don’t get me wrong — it's hard, and I don’t make enough to pay for a PR agency or do lots of swanky events. I have to make do with what I have. But I think I do alright.
&Open: What's your favorite jam flavor at the moment?
Lillie: Generally speaking, I like the Damson & Black Pepper Jam. Damsons are tiny little plums that are deliciously tart, so the combination has a lovely sharpness to it.
But I like the more tart jams; when the fruit isn’t too sweet when mixed with the sugar, the balance is just perfect. So those will always be my first picks. I'm not a massive fan of strawberry jam, but I have to carry it because people want and love strawberry jam. As we all know, strawberries are quite sweet. So when you mix them with the sugar, the flavor gets even sweeter. For me, I'd have that in a bit of yogurt or something to balance it out.
Another one I love, and one that just so happens to be my bestseller, is the Rhubarb & Cardamom Jam. People go nuts for it! Rhubarb's not very sweet at all (as it's a vegetable) so I think the balance with the sugar is just beautiful.
Lillie O’Brien of London Borough of Jam
&Open: What makes London Borough of Jam a really great gift?
Lillie: I think because it’s different. My jams have a little bit of a twist with the flavors that I add in there alongside the fruit. I call them “friends of jam” and they're just the complementary ingredients. I always tell people that when they eat the jam they'll first taste the fruit, then the sweetness from the sugar, and then that last little hint of unexpected delight. Whatever it is, it’s in there to enhance the flavor of the fruit — not to be the focus. The “friends of jam” are simply there to give it a helping hand.
&Open: Who is London Borough of Jam for?
Lillie: People who really enjoy delicious food and good, quality ingredients. Like, when you start eating really good quality vegetables from the market, and then you go back and have a carrot from a big supermarket, it just doesn't taste the same. I like things that are good quality, and I don't mind spending a bit more money on food that I know will taste 10x better. So LBJ is for those types of people.
&Open: Okay. What's your favorite reason to give someone a gift? Whether it's jam or something else?
Lillie: I used to live in Japan, and I remember being blown away by their cultural gifting traditions and how you just gift for anything and everything. I found it all just so lovely, and it made me think that we should be doing it more, honestly. It doesn't matter what it is. It's simply about thinking of someone else, isn't it? Taking the time to be a little more thoughtful during our days, weeks and years. My favorite time or reason to gift might be after coming back from a trip. Like, I recently went to Greece and brought back two massive bags of garlic.
Lillie O’Brien of London Borough of Jam
Which, by the way, I felt a bit strange coming back with on the plane. But it was delicious, local garlic and I knew my friends would love it, so I just had to bring some home with me. My husband was a bit like, “Why'd you just spend 30 euros on garlic?” Well, I just bought gifts for three people. So that’s why.
&Open: What's the best gift you've ever given?
Lillie: I have to think really hard for my husband, ‘cause he's so difficult to gift and anything he wants he just buys himself. But last year I got him a really nice barbecue, and he loves it.
Another good gift was a canister for hot/cold drinks for my dad from a Japanese outerwear brand called Snow Peak. They lean on the more expensive side, but their stuff’s incredible. My parents live in the countryside and I knew my dad would use it for his tea and such.
I think the common thread through some of the best gifts I’ve ever given is quality. So my best piece of gifting advice? Give people stuff that lasts.