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."
Learning from the big names in the pastry business helped Shiller land his first job working as a pastry chef at one of Donald Trump's casinos in Atlantic City. Shiller is hesitant to name-drop, but when prompted he admits to meeting "the boss" himself.
Shiller later accepted various pastry chef jobs in venues ranging from the Ritz-Carlton in Florida, to a fine-dining restaurant in Chicago. Perhaps Shiller's first signs of homesickness emerged when he would ask his parents for a coveted food item on their visits from St. Louis.
"I'd have my parents drive me an unbaked Imo's pizza, and then I'd bake it in Chicago. I'm a St. Louis boy at heart," Shiller says with a smile.
A St. Louis-based corporation brought Shiller back to his hometown after a grinding schedule as a pastry chef at New York's Westchester Country Club. Burned out and exhausted after 60- to 70-hour work weeks, Shiller accepted a job at Boeing as an executive chef in its corporate-leadership program, and was also offered a position as a professor at St. Louis Community College at Forest Park. Soon, he was promoted to coordinator of the college's baking and pastry arts program.
After a few years back in St. Louis, Shiller met Jill Segal, the owner of Jilly's Cupcakes. Segal brought Shiller on board to "standardize" the cupcakes and assist with the development of flavors. Shiller's unique innovative perspective and imagination boosted the café's product, as well as its reputation. His team's victory on Cupcake Wars was only the beginning of the next chapter in the café's future.
"I have a talented team of cupcake designers that are making sure we create the best quality product. The pastry industry is one of the best industries to be in, because it's so diverse. And when you deal with cupcakes all day, it's fun," Shiller said.
All the cupcakes have taken a toll, though, and Shiller reveals to Gut Check that he is working on cutting down his consumption of his frosted treats. "I'm on target to lose 100 pounds by December, and I've already lost 30. I know the difference between tasting and eating, but there's a fine line. I used to eat a cupcake every day, but now I just taste them for texture, taste and consistency," Shiller said.
Shiller has plenty of distractions from cupcakes, and describes his outside interests as mostly "fine arts" in nature. True to his theater roots, Shiller avidly attends local productions with his wife. And like any born-and-raised St. Louisan, Shiller "bleeds blue."
"I'm a huge hockey freak," he laughs. "My license plate on my car says 'Pastry,' but I love going to games. Those are my two worlds."
But in the end, Shiller is his parents' son. After travelling the country, meeting some of the culinary industry's most celebrated names and gaining Jilly's a national reputation, Shiller's true passion lies in teaching.
"I've been fortunate enough to work with great people all over the country. I was very proud to represent St. Louis on a national stage, and get the cupcake scene in St. Louis noticed. But most of all I love influencing a future generation of pastry chefs. I've found my calling," Shiller says.