On a sweltering afternoon during Labor Day weekend, Gut Check stopped by Jilly's Cupcake Bar (8509 Delmar Boulevard, Ladue; 314-993-5455) to talk with Casey Shiller, the café and bake shop's executive chef. Perhaps you've seen him on Cupcake Wars, where Shiller led his team to victory -- and a $10,000 grand prize. Or maybe you've just sampled one of his many cupcake creations, complete with decadent buttercream frosting. Either way, if you've met Shiller, you'd remember: His big personality and even bigger ambition has gained Jilly's a near cult following.
Gut Check was supposed to meet with Shiller after the lunchtime rush, but apparently, the lunchtime rush at Jilly's lasts until dinner. Despite the long lines and hubbub, Shiller greeted us warmly and escorted us to a more peaceful area for the interview, a place where "not many people have gone before," he jokes: the restaurant's newest (and as of that weekend, unfinished) wing.
As we sit with Shiller in the new wing, he excitedly describes the café's expansion. Currently, Jilly's cupcakes are constructed and baked in a separate room below the restaurant, accessible only by descending a flight of stairs. But as of Wednesday, all cupcakes will be iced and decorated in a room above ground, right next to the café and cupcake display. This will allow guests to watch the entire cupcake-making process firsthand, from the baking to the intricate decoration.
Even in a bare room with torn up carpeting and walls, Shiller seems comfortable and at home. You would think that he has worked at Jilly's forever, but his path toward the bakery is a bit more complicated and anything but direct.
Shiller was born in Athens, Georgia, to a college professor and an early-childhood education teacher. Shiller's father taught speech communication at the University of Georgia, but when he accepted a job at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, the family followed. Growing up, Shiller's family enjoyed cooking together and as a child he was a self-described "little foodie."
"On my seventh birthday, I requested that we go to Tony's. For another birthday, I requested Cornish hen. Both of my parents are in education, but we all love food, and I grew up loving food," Shiller says.
Despite his obvious culinary interests, Shiller originally thought that he was destined for a career in the theater. As a high school student in the Fort Zumwalt district, Shiller was very active in the drama department. No one was more surprised than him when a speech given by one of his father's students changed the course of his future.
"I thought drama would be my path. Then one of my Dad's students did a speech on Johnson & Wales University, a premier culinary school. I looked at their course descriptions and spent the next summer in Rhode Island taking three-day courses. I graduated high school a year early and went back."
Shiller spent the next four years at Johnson &Wales earning a bachelor's degree in baking and pastry arts. He devoted himself to his craft, relinquishing typical teenage rites of passage to gain valuable experience in the industry.
"I didn't learn to drive until I was 23. Every weekend when I was at school, I would take the bus or the train to Atlantic City to work with Tom Vaccarro at the Donald Trump Plaza. We would work for months on perfecting a piece for the annual New York Food Show," Shiller says.
Shiller's hard work and determination paid off, as he gained industry contacts and a friend and mentor in Thomas Vaccarro, the executive pastry chef at Trump Plaza. According to Shiller, Vaccarro was the one who originally "got him involved in competition," and helped him win his first gold medals for chocolate sculptures and plate displays.
"Tom helped me develop my skills and he's still a great friend. Now he's a dean of pastry arts at the Culinary Institute of America, which ironically is Johnson & Wales' competitor."
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