Jessie Gilroy is the kind of person — and chef — that is objective in the way she does things. It’s how she presents herself in the food she makes, and it’s in the interactions that she has with her fellow staff and diners. She’s in the kitchen on a mission: to get the job done, and to get it done in the best possible way. And working under the direction of Kevin Nashan — now a James Beard Award-winning chef — there is little opportunity to drop the ball. Gilroy’s, well, let’s just call it a “serious” face, says it all: she’s there to prepare perfect food with no distraction, no question, and certainly no room for error. This September, she’s stepping out on her own with the highly anticipated Pangea in New Town at St. Charles — a brand new restaurant that will feature a cohesive mix of a variety of cuisines, including Indian, French, Italian and Spanish.
What first drew you into wanting to be a chef?
I’ve always loved to cook. I loved to read my mom’s old cookbooks that she had in the living room, and then I’d play around with the recipes. My parents definitely wanted me to go to a four year school and do the business thing; they’re very business-oriented. But I eventually just changed paths and decided that this is what I wanted to do my whole life.
Any particular chef or icon that helped peak your interest?
I used to watch the old “Iron Chef,” the one that you couldn’t understand because it was from Japan. I also loved watching Julia Child on PBS.
How did you get your start in St. Louis?
When I was in culinary school, I did my externship at Charlie Gitto’s on The Hill. They ended up keeping me on, and I stayed there for almost three years. Then, I went and ate at Tavern [Kitchen] one night with my husband for our first anniversary, and I loved it so much that I asked for a job while I was eating there.
Describe your transition to Kevin Nashan’s restaurants.
The end goal was getting to Sidney Street. I’ve always loved it there; I’m always blown away by their food. I just wanted to learn as much as possible, and I try to stay at restaurants for a pretty long time. I think cooking is all about knowledge, and you can never learn enough, and you’ll never know everything. Working at Peacemaker, I got really good at making sausages. That was one of my main duties: making andouille and hot dogs. I’ve learned so much at Sidney Street, and I really love all the butchering I’ve learned. That’s definitely something I want to continue.
What is your favorite type of cuisine, and how does that translate into putting together the menu at Pangea?
I can’t pick a favorite cuisine; I love everything. I think that’s why I’m doing this Pangea concept. I can’t pick a favorite dish or a favorite type of food. I love all food. I like McDonald’s!
So what can you tell us about Pangea?
Well, it’s not literally going to be everything. But I do feel like food is cohesive. You don’t have to do just Asian food or just French food; they all go together. So many things overlap in different countries and different continents, and it doesn’t need to be just one type of thing. I think a lot of restaurants are doing that these days, and I’m definitely going to make that my main focus. Doing Indian, French, Italian and Spanish cuisine, and kind of just mixing it all together to make a cohesive menu. That’s my goal: to introduce people to things they might not be familiar with by incorporating something that they are familiar with so they might be more willing to try it. Does that make sense?
Do you anticipate any differences in cooking in Benton Park, St. Louis vs. New Town at St. Charles?
I think people out there want to eat good food as much as people living in St. Louis city do. I’m not saying that there are not good restaurants out there, because there are. I just think [Pangea] will be a good spot so people don’t have to drive to the city to get food like this. The St. Charles food scene is really starting to boom up. There are a few restaurants out there, and they’re a little more on the pricey end. I definitely have a couple more high-priced items but, for the most part, I want to keep it on the approachable side for everybody. I don’t want it to be a once a month or a special occasion type of place; I want people to be able to come in once a week if they want to. Being in New Town, you’re in a built-in community; I think it’s great. I’ll be able to learn peoples’ names and see familiar faces. Something you don’t always get in St. Louis is being able to get to know your customers that well.
You said in the past you were not ready to be a chef owner, so what changed?
Honestly, I don’t know if I’m ready. But I don’t think anyone is ever ready for this. And if you say you are, I think you’re probably lying to yourself. This is a huge jump, and I know that there’s a chance that this could fail, and I’m very aware of that. My plan is to surround myself with really good people; I have a couple close friends — people that I trust — that will be joining me in this venture. I hope that I can serve good food, treat the community right, and we will succeed.
You’re known as a chef that has no time for games. Is that true?
I get very focused; I’m definitely very serious when it comes down to it. I get a “focused” face on sometimes, and people can take that the wrong way. I’ve been working on that lately. The main reason is that I’m very passionate about what I do, and I want that to show through the food. It’s not that I’m trying to be a hard ass; I just care a lot.
What do you want people to know about you that they otherwise wouldn’t?
I’m a workaholic. I don’t have much of a life. When I’m outside of work, I’m pretty lazy. I just like to eat and sleep. I like to lay around with my husband and my puppies. I live in an animal house; we have three dogs and two cats.
In your downtime, what are some of your favorite places to eat?
We love going to Reeds [American Table]; I’ve never had a bad meal there.
What’s your long-term goal?
I want to stay open for a really long time. And I want to just be as successful as I can be and make people happy with my food.
For more information on what Jessie is cooking up in St. Charles, visit the Pangea Facebook page here. V