2016 Rust Belt Rising Star Chef Jamilka Borges of Spoon

2016 Rust Belt Rising Star Chef Jamilka Borges of Spoon
November 2016

Growing up in Puerto Rico, Jamilka Borges had dreams of flying. She wanted to be pilot. A flight of childhood fancy, that aspiration eventually turned more artistic. Borges decided she would be a painter and studied art history in college. By the time she graduated, though, she had some restaurant experience under her belt and a simmering interest in food.

In 2007, at age 20, an opportunity arose and Borges made way to the States, enrolling in the culinary program at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. At the time, the city’s fledgling restaurant scene was just beginning to get its footing. Borges joined the team at Trevett Hooper’s Legume, learning honest, sustainable cooking with the freedom to not worry about trends. She also discovered that being “local” means more than throwing a name on the menu, and that it requires forging friendships with farmers and purveyors.

It was at Bar Marco that Borges made a name for herself in Pittsburgh and nationally, cooking inventive Ameri-kinda-Mediterranean-ish food. In 2015, she was a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s “Rising Star Chef” Award, and in early 2016, Borges joined S+P Restaurant Group, teaming up with Rising Stars alum and Sommelier John Wabeck. While helming Spoon, Borges is also transforming an adjoining restaurant into another concept, perhaps playing with her Puerto Rican heritage and love of the sea.


Interview with Rust Belt Rising Star Chef Jamilka Borges of Spoon

Sean Kenniff: Where are you from, and when did you arrive in Pittsburgh?
Jamilka Borges:
I’m from San Juan, Puerto Rico. I first came to Pittsburgh in January 2007 because of a boyfriend, now ex-boyfriend. I went to college in Puerto Rico for art history and I was always interested in food and worked at a restaurant there. Then my dad passed away, I graduated, and I went through a lot of big personal changes, and then I went to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh for culinary arts.

SK: Have you had a mentor in your career so far? 
Trevett Hooper, the chef-owner of Legume in Pittsburgh. He was my first “real” chef, a great thinker and a great cook. He’s very honest, very into sustainability. He made me not worry about trends, and taught me not use to use farms because you’re trying to be local, but because you want to go to the farm and develop a relationship with the farmer. You shouldn’t just throw the name of a farm on your menu. 

SK: Has Pittsburgh changed over the years that you’ve been cooking here? 
It will be 10 years that I’ve been cooking in Pittsburgh this January (2017). It has changed so much since I moved here when I was 20. When I first moved in, there was an older crew of old school guys and I didn’t have that many friends. Then Trevett, Keith Fuller, and Sonja Finn from Dinette all started opening their own restaurants, and that started chef-driven restaurants in Pittsburgh. It was great timing for me to see the whole change in this town. 

SK: How is the chef community here?
About five or six years ago people starting doing potlucks in restaurants, and after service we’d sit down, open wine and eat and talk. I started doing collaboration events, like Slow Food Pittsburgh, raising money for scholarships, etc. I love organizing events! I invited all the sous chefs from around town for an event two years ago, and this year I’m doing a female version of that, raising money for charity and awareness for food waste reduction. 

SK: What's your biggest challenge? 
It has changed a lot since I moved to Spoon. When I was at Bar Marco, it was the three different concepts in one building, and day to day dealing with logistics and trying to make a 30-seat restaurant successful. Now, it’s asking how I establish myself, while in charge of Spoon and this location of BRGR, with 30 cooks in the kitchen including two sous.

SK: What’s your five-year plan?
JB: I want to have my own place, not fine dining what so ever, I want to do ethnic. Not Puerto Rican but play more with my heritage, that’s what we want to do with the place next door because BRGR is moving. I’m not opposed to anything; I love the city and my friends and the restaurant scene but and we’re taking on big project here, changing it and making it mine. But 5 years from now, I don’t know. I love the sea. A 40-seat restaurant by a beach or close to the ocean. Anywhere by the sea.