Southern roots run deep for Chef Jessica Shillato, a Kentucky native who carries on her family’s culinary traditions at the Spotted Salamander. While the Columbia café pays homage to Southern food craft, Shillato’s creativity is in full force, resulting in classic dishes dressed with fresh accouterments that surprise and delight.
Shillato honed her cooking chops at the former Charleston location of Johnson & Wales. Along with husband, Jake Wendling, she established Spotted Salamander in 2008 as a catering enterprise. The success of what she describes as a “boutique” catering service led to the opening of the café arm of Spotted Salamander—and the dining public has heartily approved.
Shillato’s use of seasonal local ingredients and imaginative twists on old Southern favorites like deviled eggs (topped with taste bud thrillers like country ham jam, Adluh cornbread crumbs, chicken chicharrones with hot sauce and more), have earned her legions of fans and a spot on the 2019 roster of South Carolina Chef Ambassadors. As part of the initiative begun by former Gov. Nikki Haley, each year chefs from across the state are selected to promote South Carolina's culinary heritage and local food culture through cooking demonstrations, guest appearances and educational programs.
In this Q & A, Chef Shillato shares her journey from budding cook to distinguished Southern chef:
What first sparked your interest in a culinary career?
“My family. Someone was always cooking delicious dishes or we were going out to amazing restaurants. The flavors of the food were very important. We rarely ate just to eat. It was a celebration.”
What makes being a chef in South Carolina so appealing?
“We have everything to make the perfect meal. South Carolina’s supply of produce, seafood, game and meat is vast and impeccable. The food is always changing with the seasons, keeping it exciting to constantly create new dishes. I love to share the deliciousness of South Carolina with everyone.”
Which South Carolina products are "musts" in your kitchen?
“Grits. South Carolina has the best producers of grits. They are always in season. They pair with so many other components. You can serve them any time of day. They are the perfect southern comfort food.”
What dish best represents your creativity and culinary style?
“This is ever changing—I don’t think it’s ever just one thing. I am always trying to make a particular dish even better and always thinking of new dishes to create. But if I had to pick, it would be the simple deviled egg. Deviled eggs are a delicious Southern staple that we creatively change every day in our restaurant.”
As a Chef Ambassador for South Carolina, what ideals do you hope to share with the dining public and why?
“I am so excited to share the culinary diversity South Carolina has to offer and share new and old recipes to cook.”