Playing with Knives
Jill Mathias likes to hug it out. That is to say that when a challenge arises she powers through and doesn’t complain.
“I’m a huge proponent of throwing your arms around a situation,” she says.
As the Executive Chef of Carolina’s, Jill knows that adapting to the moment is crucial to being successful in food & bev. If you can’t take the heat get out of the kitchen, right?
In 2010, the kitchen rose a few degrees. Her mentor and boss, Jeremiah Bacon, left his post as exec chef at Carolina’s resulting in a “shockingly fast transition” for his redheaded female understudy.
At first, there were constant comparisons between Jill and her predecessor. “I was sort of in the shadows,” she explains. “You need that. It’s a motivator.” Little by little, she morphed Bacon’s lauded menu into a celebrated collection of her own dishes. While today Chef Mathias is a smiling, fresh-faced example of what can happen when you trust your instincts, she still counts this transition as the most difficult challenge of her career.
“I’ve always done things without knowing I was doing them when it comes to big decisions,” says Jill. Translation: she follows her gut. While earning her bachelor’s degree in art history at the University of Minnesota, Jill used to throw dinner parties for friends. Art history became old news when she realized how happy cooking for crowds made her and decided to become a chef. Now, she couldn’t “imagine being out of the kitchen.”
Don’t confuse Jill’s enthusiasm for naiveté; she works long hours, knows what it’s like to work the brunch shift hung over (note: this chef’s hangover cure is a bitters and soda and an egg), and isn’t afraid to dispel the rumor that being a chef is glamorous. Her finger nails aren’t painted, she doesn’t have a bunch of tattoos (just a few), she isn’t a big partier, and with her title come duties not normally associated with chef whites: managing oven repairs, being the janitor and acting as an in-house maintenance person.
Other rumors she’s happy to lay to rest? That as a female chef you can expect to be discriminated against. “I choose my environment, my environment doesn’t choose me,” says Jill.
Another untruth about being a careerist? That you can’t be a woman, have successful romantic relationships and have a career, let alone be a chef. “There’s this image [in our culture] of a woman standing at home next to a stove, but doing it professionally is taboo.”
Jill’s answer? “It’s about balance. When it comes to romantic relationships, it’s about trust and respect for the other person and understanding, ‘this is what I do, this is what you do,’ and keeping work at work.”
And work, for Jill, is pretty awesome. “It makes a huge difference when you love your job. It’s so, so, so, so important,” she says adamantly. “Happiness is so much more important than just money.”
10 Exchange Street Charleston, SC 29401
Story by: Annabel Jones
Photos by: Drew Somerville