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Sound Bites: Two St. Louis chefs-to-watch, two different styles, delicious food all around

Carmen Troesser, Sauce Magazine
Jessie Gilroy

Sometimes when you enter Pastaria in Clayton during prep hours you can hear singer Executive Chef Ashley Shelton, 28, belting out a tune or two. You may also receive a Kool-Aid refresher or piece of candy to “keep the flow going” and put a smile on the other cooks’ faces.

“I’m not a good singer,” said Shelton. “Pastaria can get really, really busy. It gets daunting. I do whatever I can to lighten the mood when I tell my team is getting down. Singing is something I like to do, I’m not good at it, but I just kind of go with it and give dishes their own songs. I switch out the words of famous songs with the names of our dishes.”

Chef Jessie Gilroy, 29, who recently started at Peacemaker Lobster and Crab in Benton Park, could not be any more different. She’s known to look “like she’s going to war,” said Meera Nagarajan, the art director of Sauce Magazine.

"I have a focus face. What do they call it? Permanent you-know-what face."

“I have a focus face,” said Gilroy. “What do they call it? Permanent you-know-what face. Yeah, I have that. On the inside I’m usually smiling, on the outside it apparently doesn’t come off like that.”

“Nobody could produce food that tastes this good, which Jesse makes, who could be angry and mean on the inside,” Nagarajan interjected. “She has a good heart; you can taste it.”

While the personalities of these two chefs are different, they’ve both found their way onto Sauce Magazine’s “Ones to Watch” list – Gilroy in 2015 and Shelton in 2016. The list is compiled after a year’s worth of “background checking” into the people behind the best, most enticing dishes, drinks, service and foodstuffs around the St. Louis area. The feature started in 2009 and has continued to look for rising stars in the St. Louis culinary industry.

Credit Carmen Troesser, Sauce Magazine
Ashley Shelton

Do you see them running a business one day? Do you see them running a kitchen one day? These are some of the questions asked of bosses and colleagues about the talents of the individuals being vetted for the list.

“If everyone has a consensus that this person is really doing something special, they’ve got it, whatever will take them to the next level, they have it,” said Nagarajan. “It could be a line cook, someone who is helping tend bar, it could be someone who is a manager. Anybody that is involved in service. We’ve had farmers on the list as well.”

Shelton and Gilroy, as women chefs, represent a phenomenon in the culinary world.

“When you look at your traditional home, generally it is the woman at home who is the home cook,” said Nagarajan. “Generally when you go to a restaurant, it is a lot of men back there. It is kind of confusing why that is. I think the hours are punishing hours. They work 24/7, they’re in hospitality so they are working weekend, holidays, birthdays — forget it.”

The two women, however, aren’t caught up in the gender difference.

“Being a woman in a kitchen, especially being an executive chef, I don’t think there’s this male-woman who can do it better thing going on here in St. Louis or in the culinary world really,” Shelton said.

“I grew up in a kitchen, Annie Gunn’s, that is dominated by women. Lou Rook is the executive chef, but the executive sous chef and the sous chef I worked under, Jessie and Bonnie, they’re women. My experience early on was to follow women, and be inspired by women, and learn how they lead. I never really had to face that male-dominated type world. I think being a woman in a kitchen is awesome. I think we have something different to offer.”

Gilroy says that most kitchens are male-dominated and “that makes things interesting.”

“You learn to go with it,” she continued. “You become one of the boys. I don’t think anybody really focuses on who is man and who is woman. It is about the food and what kind of food you’re putting out.”

"The few [line] cooks that are there for the food and not for the paycheck are being spread very thinly."

Both agree that one of the biggest challenges that the culinary scene in St. Louis faces today is the acquisition and retention of talent in the kitchen.

“The few [line] cooks that are there for the food and not for the paycheck are being spread very thinly,” Gilroy said.

What’s next for these two rising stars?

Shelton says she plays decisions like that close to the belt, but she’s looking forward to the opening of Pastaria owner Gerard Craft’s Porrano and Pastaria in Nashville.

Related: ‘I want to compete with McDonald’s,’ says St. Louis’ first James Beard award winner

Gilroy is looking even further up — after learning all she can at Peacemaker, she hopes to move to owner Kevin Nashan’s flagship restaurant Sidney Street Café, also in Benton Park.

To learn more about the other five “Ones to Watch” for 2016 and those for 2015, click here and here.

“Cityscape” is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer, and Kelly Moffitt. The show is sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.   

Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.