Photo by Mark Maddaloni
Jessica Shillato, executive chef of Spotted Salamander Café and Catering, knows a thing or two about the Southern culinary industry. “I come from a family of cooks,” she says, “They were always experimenting in the kitchen, and that’s really how I got my start in the industry.” Eventually a graduate of Johnson & Wales College of Culinary Arts, Shillato started as a waitress, then “gravitated to the kitchen." After graduating and building experience, she founded Spotted Salamander, now a Columbia local’s staple.
In January of 2019, Shillato was selected as one of South Carolina’s 5 Chef Ambassadors, representing the state with her culinary work. This honor allows selected chefs to share and showcase the diversity and beauty of South Carolina’s food scene at various events across the state. Other chefs nominated include Mark Collins of CIRCA 1886 in Charleston, Tania Harris of Greenville’s The Lazy Goat, Brandon Carter of FARM in Bluffton, and Kelly Vogelheim of Town Hall in Florence.
Gender is a topic often discussed in the male-dominated world of executive chefs. Shillato, however, takes it in stride, saying “I never really let it bother me, but if I’m in a large group with many levels of cooks, newer cooks’ questions will always go to the male, executive chefs, who often ask me for the answer.” She comments that she’s had cooks walk out on their first day, saying they “won’t work for a lady chef.”
Ingredients: the genesis of a chef’s creative process, where the magic begins. “I always start by shopping for ingredients,” she says, “if I find something I’ve never worked with, I always want to figure out a pairing of flavors for it.” Most Columbians will instantly correlate farmers markets with the famous Soda City Market, but Shillato digs a little deeper. She says, “The Forest Acres Market is my favorite place to go. It’s small, organic, and made up of the beds of farmers’ pick-up trucks.” On the subject of ingredients Shillato finds that the cultural phenomena that is avocado toast “is so overrated, I don’t get it at all.” She instead hopes to see a “return to the classics that have been so integral, but forgotten about.”
The idea of the “New South” has especially risen in the world of gastronomy. According to Columbia’s food scene in particular, Shillato says that Southern restaurants were previously and infamously known for “opening a can and heating it up.” However, she says that “it has gotten so much better. Now there’s this focus on freshness and the local farmer, and there are some really brave new restaurants coming up all around the South.” The days of bitter collard greens and bland beans are, Shillato believes, coming to an end.
Everybody knows Spotted Salamander by its deviled eggs du jour, daily cronuts, and the seasonally short-lived soft-shell crab, but what gives the café its very specific feeling and flair? “It’s fresh and ever-changing,” says Shillato, “it’s rare that you will see the same thing twice, and if you do, it’s because it’s a favorite of returning customers," like the classic tomato sandwich, pork belly mac and cheese, and the café’s “Fried Chicken Friday.” “Focusing on our local farms is so important, and working with the seasons adds so much sincerity to the food.”
Anyone who has worked in a kitchen knows the set-up. The whirring of the busy blenders, approaching voices shouting “behind you, coming down the line!”, the smells of ingredients mixing together and wafting apart (is that dill and dark chocolate?), and the familial network of line cooks and chefs. When you work from the crack of dawn to the small hours of the night together, employees can’t help but share their stories and identities; often sharing more with their fellow coworkers than they do with their most intimate friends. While support systems promote a harmonious workplace, the culinary industry can be brutal for those who want to open their own restaurant one day. The hours are long, the breaks rare, and the days off few and far between. While stressful and occasionally grueling, the view from the top is a picturesque landscape.
Shillato knows that her journey is worth the climb when she thinks about the relationships built along the way. “The mentorship is what makes me so happy,” Shillato says, with a smile in her voice, “everyone is always growing. I have employees here who have been working for me since we opened the café; one who started as a dishwasher recently became the main cook.” The narrative of teaching one another is extremely prevalent to her, tying back to the familial roots in the home kitchen. She says, “It’s so awesome to teach people, and so important to let them know that they can always be better, always grow, and always learn.”
"We have just started with the plans for a new restaurant, so it’ll probably be a few months until everything is put together.” Her vision for the upcoming establishment is still in the works, she goes on to say: “I want to do dinner, but it won’t be as ‘nice’ as Terra or Motor Supply Company. I want people to be able to come in every day if they like, and feel happy and not go broke.” Fans of her maiden voyage shouldn’t be worried though, she assures, “I know it’s going to be really good Southern food, and I’ll use some of the same classic flavors, but the details are undecided.” With Shillato’s dedication to fresh flavors, local influences, and classic pairings, it’s sure to be a hit.
Spotted Salamander Café and Catering can be found on 1531 Richland St, open Monday through Friday from 11:00 AM to 2:30 PM. They can be reached for questions or catering requests at (803) 556-2197, or at spottedsalamandercatering.com