Header Image: Chatting with Chef Jamilka via video chat from my kitchen.
When I chatted with acclaimed chef Jamilka Borges, I was expecting to hear about what she’d baked during her quarantine, but it turns out that she had some big news to report. After working at some of the best restaurants in Pittsburgh (and winning many awards and honors along the way), Jamilka is opening Wild Child, her very own restaurant in Etna. I talked with Jamilka about her time in Puerto Rico, the genesis of Wild Child and the future of Pittsburgh’s food scene.
So as the stay-at-home order began, you parted ways with Independent Brewing Company & Hidden Harbor?
I left that Friday before everything shut down. It was a very amicable split. We tried to make something work that wasn’t the right fit for either of us. I’ve always wanted to do my own thing. So I thought I would go to Puerto Rico and clear my head and relax. I got there on a Sunday and it was on complete lockdown. You couldn’t even leave the house.
What did you do in Puerto Rico?
I started cooking at home with my mom. We had a lot of catching up to do. It’s weird – I feel like you don’t really get to talk to your parents as grown-ups. I talk to my mom all the time but I’ve never had the time – or maybe the interest – to talk to my mom about what she was like at my age. There was a lot of cooking happening with local ingredients. Most of the stuff that was open were little stands where farmers sell their produce. I thought I was just going for two weeks but I was there for four weeks. I was telling myself to be calm but by the second week I was getting depressed. It was really difficult being in Puerto Rico and not knowing what was going to happen. I couldn’t exercise or go out for runs, which is part of my routine. I wasn’t talking to anybody except my mom. You know it’s part of the path but I just felt like I was such a failure. I was back living with my mom. It messes with your head. It’s hard to go from 80 hours a week to nothing. But once I started to figure out a project and talked to my network of chefs and friends, you realize that everyone is going through similar situations. You just have to be there for each other and figure out how to get through this.
What was it like coming back to Pittsburgh?
I came back with my mom and everything was closed. Our plane kept getting delayed and we ended up landing in Pittsburgh at 3 a.m.. Everything looked different and I started talking to all the other chefs and some were open for take out. There’s no right or wrong – you just have to do what’s right for your business. It’s a very delicate situation. It’s weird. It’s interesting to talk to chefs outside of Pittsburgh and see how they’re opening and how people are responding. Brian Pekarciki at Spoon was cooking for front-line workers. So we helped him with that. My mom’s a great cook. After the hurricane in Puerto Rico, she cooked meals for different neighborhoods on the island. She has a giant paella pan and she feeds people. She’s amazing.
Is your mom still here?
My mom finally left a few weeks ago. She went to help my sister in Florida. But she helped me get my garden started for the season. She spends a lot of time in Pittsburgh. We hung out with the Bar Marco crew and Spoon folks from afar to see how we could help them.
So what are you working on now?
I’m opening a restaurant. It’s a small space, an all-day cafe. We’ll start with breakfast and lunch and we’ll start doing dinner once things stabilize. It’s crazy and scary. I’ve always wanted my own thing. It’s hard, obviously, but there’s also a sense that there’s never been a better time. During the pandemic, I did a panel with these four other women, these chefs, and one of them looked at me and said, “You’ve got to do your own thing. You’ve got to open your own restaurant.” She said she would fund one in Kentucky for me but she said, “If you want to do it in Pittsburgh, we’ll find investors.” My main partner in the project is someone I’ve been friends with for many, many years, but the right project hasn’t come along. This just felt right. It’s crazy to think that we’re doing this during a pandemic. But the place is small and we’ll do breakfast and lunch with a lot of takeout options so it’s really built to start during a pandemic.
Have you used this time to figure out the menu or do other experimentation in the kitchen?
When I was in Puerto Rico, I was doing a lot of experimenting with local ingredients and cooking things with my mom that I’ve never cooked before. I got into baking bread, like everyone else. Then when I got back to Pittsburgh, we did a lot of things that I could see using for breakfast and lunch at the new restaurant. We were trying out a lot of breads and pastries and sweets and stuff like that. I feel like I’ve always had a menu in the back of my mind of all the things I would have at my restaurant. I love food that comes from the coasts – it doesn’t matter where in the world. There will be a phase of development but the breakfast menu will be simple. We’ll make all our breads and sausages in-house. We’ll develop the dinner menu over the next several months.
It’s crazy how fast this restaurant came together.
It happened so fast. My business partner and I have been friends for many years and he was checking in with me and I mentioned that I feel like I might start looking for spaces and see what I can afford and maybe get some investors. So he asked if he could look at spaces with me. When I went into the space in Etna, it felt like me. It was the right size. I could see myself doing this. It gave me the vibes of the old Legume space in Regent Square. I’ve always loved that restaurant. That was one of my first jobs here. It was like a unicorn and, of course, I’m romanticizing it but I think this space has the potential to be that. My partner was like, “Do you like it? Then let’s do it.” It’s only been three weeks since we signed the lease. It’s very new.
What attracted you to the Etna area?
I’ve always loved neighborhood restaurants. It’s an investment in that area. And it’s interesting because I have a lot of friends opening stuff around there. My friends are opening a brewery in Blawnox and they want to collaborate with us. Dancing Gnome are great friends and they’re just down the street. It’s a little spider web of cool neighbors and people that are doing things that are interesting.
So many local restaurants have been hit so hard by the pandemic. Do you think the Pittsburgh food scene will make a recovery?
I’m going to be more than optimistic here. It’s going to take time but it’s going to come back. But this is a great time for restaurant owners and the industry to see what isn’t working. Our hours are not sustainable. I’ve been on the edge of a breakdown so many times. We’re not taking care of each other. How many people can say they get benefits and are being compensated fairly? How do we change this? Do you charge accordingly so that we can pay our staff properly? I don’t have all the answers but I think that people have to take a moment to look at our models because it’s not really working. I’m hopeful that the people who care about their employees address this. Pittsburgh is very special. Our chef community is really tight and has always stepped up to do good. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve reached out to raise money for 412 Food Rescue or the hurricane in Puerto Rico – you name it and they’re there. That’s inspiring. I hope people do more of that and I want to integrate that into my restaurant. I want to use it as a platform for something good. I hope that people use this time to figure out what the role of a restaurant in a community can be. Don Mahaney from Scratch is feeding a lot of people. He’s switching his model. He’s trying to figure out ways to get farmers to connect with food banks. Justin Steel over at Bar Marco is doing takeout a couple days a week but a lot of their staff members were able to get on unemployment because they were already making a full salary and they were still getting benefits. Their employees believe in that. They’re not going anywhere because they’re taken care of.
What are you most excited to do after this is all over?
I want to see all my friends and all my chef friends. We used to have these potlucks back in the day and we’d go to a restaurant and eat and drink and hang out. All these people that I haven’t seen in months and now we just see each other on Instagram. I also can’t wait to travel and go home again but that’s not going to happen for a while.
When do you think Wild Child will be open?
We want to do a soft opening at the end of July but in reality it might take longer. What used to be three weeks lead time has turned into a lot longer now.