Chef of the Year: Jamilka Borges
Jamilka Borges, executive chef of Independent Brewing Company and Hidden Harbor, raises the bar with her dedication to volunteerism as well as her culinary prowess.
On a chilly night in November, Jamilka Borges orchestrated a deluxe Sunday supper with nine of her colleagues, all James Beard-nominated chefs, for a sold-out house of Pittsburghers dressed to impress. Those chefs traveled to Pittsburgh from around the country — Arkansas, Maine and even Hawaii — to help her prepare the sumptuous, multi-course meal. Borges served parsnip flan with smoked bluefish, escarole, sausage and green tomato chutney.
The dinner was the climax of hours spent organizing, testing and cooking to ensure that everything was well executed. This was on top of working 60-plus hours a week at her day job, which, at the time, was executive chef of Spoon in East Liberty.
The meal wasn’t just for kicks, for show or for bragging rights. Nobody involved in cooking it made even a dime for their effort. Borges organized the event to raise money and awareness for 412 Food Rescue, an organization that has saved more than 3 million pounds of food that otherwise might have gone to waste and helped thousands of food insecure people put healthy nourishment on their home tables.
“This job can be vain. There is a very small percentage of people who can actually eat [at restaurants] on a regular basis. Volunteering doesn’t take that much time from your life.
And it makes so much of a difference for other people,” Borges says.
It was the second time the 32-year-old chef helmed a fundraiser for the groundbreaking nonprofit — in 2016, she called 10 of Pittsburgh’s top women chefs to action. “I thought it was important to get a group of women to do the first one. As a female chef, it’s hard to get the same attention and recognition as male chefs do,” Borges says.
Over the course of those two dinners, the chef raised approximately $25,000 for 412 Food Rescue.
“It’s one of our best awareness raisers, especially for people who are interested in food and want to support the chefs but don’t know about the full mission of 412 Food Rescue and about food waste in general,” says 412 Food Rescue CEO/Co-Founder Leah Lizarondo.
Borges and Lizarondo met several years ago and decided to collaborate on a project. As 412 Food Rescue picked up steam, Borges realized she could spend the cultural capital she’s earned over the years as one of Pittsburgh’s most notable chefs to put a face on an organization working for social good.
“We don’t like to think of ourselves as personalities, but people know you. Your community knows you because you feed them. Your peers know you. There are all these layers, and you can use your name as a tool to do so many things,” Borges says.
Borges regularly volunteers her effort and expertise to help people who need a lift. While she was transitioning from Spoon to her current position as executive chef of Hidden Harbor and Independent Brewing Company in Squirrel Hill, plus cooking dinners at the James Beard House in New York City and various other big-ticket events in Pittsburgh and around the country, Borges worked with her mother, Jenny Muniz, to raise thousands of dollars for Muniz’s charity El Buen Samaritano. The nonprofit is dedicated to providing food and services for communities affected by Hurricane Maria in Borges’ native Puerto Rico.
It was in Puerto Rico, following the suicide of her father, David, when Borges was 17, that she first thought about a culinary career. “I started cooking for friends as a way to cope,” she says. “Whole fish. Pasta. I’d try all these recipes from a Martha Stewart cookbook.”
Cooking eased her pain so much she wanted to take a gap year after high school to cook in a restaurant. Muniz wouldn’t let her. Instead, she enrolled in college in Puerto Rico, studying art history but not paying attention in class. The following year Borges moved to Pittsburgh, where her boyfriend at the time was living. She signed up for the professional culinary curriculum at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh.
It was a response to a Craigslist ad in 2007 that led her to an introductory position as a prep cook at the just-opened restaurant Legume, which then was located in Regent Square. She showed up for her first professional interview dressed in business attire, carrying an artist’s portfolio full of dishes she made in culinary school; Executive Chef/Co-Owner Trevett Hooper wore a T-shirt and shorts. While the sartorial expectations were low, the gastronomic goals were aspirational — Hooper’s restaurant was one of the first in Pittsburgh’s resurgent dining era to reconnect with the region’s farmers and ranchers. “I was seeing all this new produce. The first time I saw kohlrabi and rutabaga, I was like, ‘What is this?’ There was all this knowledge being thrown at me,” she says.
Borges rose through the ranks and was named sous chef in 2009. “We spent every single day together. We didn’t just talk about food — we talked politics, art, everything. You were so devoted to this group effort and to making things better,” she says.
When Hooper moved Legume to a significantly larger location in Oakland in 2011, he promoted Borges to chef de cuisine. “She came in early. She’d stay late. She would do whatever she needed to do to absorb information. There was no expectation things would fall in her lap. She worked for it and made herself valuable. That’s every chef’s dream,” he says.
In 2013, Borges moved to Bar Marco, which then was run by the enigmatic, nomadic chef Brandon Baltzley. He left shortly after Borges’ arrival, and she took over as the restaurant’s executive chef. She thought she was ready to run the culinary program at one of Pittsburgh’s most celebrated restaurants. In retrospect, she feels that she wasn’t. Menu items often weren’t cohesive, and she says that she failed as a leader in the restaurant’s kitchen, yelling and sometimes even belittling employees.
“I made so many mistakes. But that’s what you do when you’re finding your voice,” she says.
She found it in The Wine Room, a multi-course tasting experience served in Bar Marco’s cellar — and Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2015 Best New Dining Experience. It was in The Wine Room that Borges began to lay the framework for her distinctive culinary perspective, blending the seasonal, local and French influences of Legume with her Puerto Rican heritage and a sense of artistry in the form of edible flowers. “It was a very feminine experience. You felt like you were being taken care of. And it was beautiful,” she says.
During that time she became a role model for young chefs, particularly women, in Pittsburgh. She now sets the tone in her kitchen by leading by example, noting that she’s the one responsible for not letting bad behavior slide, even if it’s not directed at her. And, she says, women who are chefs shouldn’t let anybody’s idea of how a woman should be a chef dictate the way they choose to run their restaurants. “If you want to be loud and funny in your kitchen, be that. If you want to be quiet, or you want to be regimented, that’s ok. Be that. Be strong. It’s your kitchen,” she says.
In 2016, Borges left Bar Marco to become executive chef of Spoon. There, Borges had the creative freedom to do what she wanted yet also the mentorship of S + P Restaurant Group Co-Owner/Culinary Director Brian Pekarcik to bounce ideas off of.
“Jamilka was the voice and face of the creative force at Spoon. Her being a decade younger than I am, I could relate to what she was trying to do and then help her put the brakes on things and ask herself what she was trying to accomplish with a specific dish or idea,” Pekarcik says.
Borges now is stepping into the next leg of her career — overseeing multiple restaurant spaces. In February, she decided she was ready for a change and joined the team at Independent Brewing Company and Hidden Harbor in Squirrel Hill, where she now is executive chef of both establishments. On top of that, she’ll open two new restaurants in East Liberty for the IBC/Hidden Harbor group later this year.
Running two restaurants while opening another duo is a heavy lift, one that reasonably would be a good excuse for someone to relax in any fleeting moments of free time. Instead, Borges’ volunteerism powers forward. Last month, she took time to gather another group of Pittsburgh’s top chefs, this time to help Casa San José, a resource center and community outreach program for Pittsburgh’s Latinx immigrants.
She is planning an even more extravagant fundraising dinner for 412 Food Rescue this year, as well as working with the organization to develop a program to process food into shelf-stable products. And she’s taking the show on the road. In the next few months, Borges will travel to Lexington and Portland, Maine, to help chefs who came to Pittsburgh for the November dinner further their causes. “It’s great to get to know people from different places. It forms a network of people who actually care, both inside and outside of the kitchen, and are very vocal about things that they believe in,” she says.
For those efforts, as well as her stellar culinary career in Pittsburgh kitchens, Jamilka Borges is Pittsburgh Magazine’s 2018 Chef of the Year.