Jessica Shillato rises to the top in a male-dominated profession
By Carolyn Culbertson
Photographs by Beth McNamara
At the age when most kids learn to mind their Ps and Qs, Jessica Shillato learned to cook country-fried steak with rice and gravy. That was the first of many dinners she would cook for her family, who taught her the value of trying new things. “My family was always into new, fun cooking… I was kind of always experimenting at home,” she said. Shillato now runs a kitchen of her own as executive chef and owner of the Spotted Salamander, the welcoming corner cafe in Columbia’s historic district. Her habit of pushing the boundaries carries on.
Shillato opened the Spotted Salamander café in 2014 sort of by happy accident, she says. The time had come for her catering company to get a new kitchen, but the space that is now the cafe beckoned to her. Shillato decided to open it to the public for lunch in addition to her catering business. “I was kind of winging it,” she said. “We started out with eight tables. I didn’t think anybody was going to come, but they did — thank goodness.” Putting a twist on Southern classics makes Shillato’s menu shine. Tomato pie mac n’ cheese, the spotted salad with cornbread croutons, and a different deviled egg recipe every day are among a patchwork of reimagined Southern dishes.
Breaking the barrier
Being an executive chef is not easy. But being a female executive chef is in a league of its own. While traditional gender roles place women in the domestic kitchen, the back of house in a restaurant has always been considered a man’s realm. Even now, women comprise only seven percent of the total population of head chefs in the U.S. “There are very few women in this industry,” she says. More than a few times, Shillato has been the only woman in a group of men at food festivals and competitions. She’s had male colleagues tell her to go bake some desserts or go wash the dishes. Once, while in her first executive chef position, a salesperson refused to sell kitchen equipment to her because she’s a woman. Over the years Shillato has learned to face these arbitrary lines with indifference.
“Whatever,” she shrugs. “I can do this, too.”
Shillato has a lot to show for ignoring the rules that would otherwise leave her out. Two years ago the café got so busy that she doubled her seating capacity. She did this by purchasing the adjoining building, complete with a porch wrapped by yellow jasmine in the springtime. And at the beginning of 2019, less than five years after opening her restaurant, she was chosen to represent and enrich the state’s culinary landscape as one of South Carolina’s five chef ambassadors. In October she and other ambassadors will cook a meal at the prestigious James Beard house in New York City. Although it’s a long way from her grandmother’s kitchen, Shillato’s habit of creating dishes grows stronger every day. “I have to always be making something,” she says. “It’s creative expression. It’s fine art.”