Chef Csilla (pronounced Chill-a) Thackray wants you to take a seat at her table. The 26-year-old chef has been cooking professionally for four years, having made a big impression in the Pittsburgh dining scene at the helm of The Vandal. She’s been the chef there since Joey Hilty opened the Lawrenceville restaurant four years ago.
However, Thackray is interested in making more than just pretty plates. Now she’ll use her culinary skills to raise money for Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania with a new 2018 dinner series called At Her Table.
Before starting in the restaurant industry, Pittsburgher Thackray was a social worker in children’s behavioral services. “I left because I always felt like I had this creative side,” she says. “I grew up playing piano, and I always wanted to help my mom cook. But she was a single mom, and I think her primary concern was that I was going to have financial independence.”
Thackray planned to go to law school, but met chef Jamilka Borges through a former boyfriend. (“That’s pretty much all he was good for,” she deadpans.) Soon after, Borges took her under her wing at Bar Marco, in the Strip District. “I just showed up at Jamilka’s doorstep and said, ‘Let me come in and do work, unpaid prep stuff.’ And then later she let somebody go and hired me.”
At Her Table is a series of four dinners spread out over the seasons. Thackray will collaborate with a different chef for every dinner. Each dinner will take place at a location in the city that holds importance to the guest chef; the food will also align with that chef’s personal style as well, such as whether they like to cook family-style or compose smaller plates. Guests will be capped at 50 seats, and 50 percent of the profits will be donated to Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania; the rest will go to food cost. Labor from chefs and other staffers will be donated.
Thackray had previously tried to raise money for the organization after the 2016 election. “I lightly dabbled in working with Planned Parenthood. You could get this small menu on Wednesdays [at The Vandal], and that would get donated. It just didn’t take off in the way I wanted it to. I thought, ‘Let’s pull some names in here and make a to-do about it.’” The series will begin locally, but Thackray hopes to push it nationally later. As of press time, the date for the first Pittsburgh event has not been set.
As the series is At Her Table, all the participating chefs will be women. The lineup hasn’t been finalized, but Thackray says Jessica George and Mary Weber, of Legume; Jamilka Borges, now the executive chef at Spoon; Kate Romane, of Black Radish Kitchen; and Beth Zozula, of Whitfield, have expressed interest.
Every aspect of the series involves collaboration among women, even down to the logo. Atiya Jones, an artist living in Lawrenceville, designed the art that announces the dinner series.
“I was attracted to the [AHT] series because of the passionate and important work both PP and Csilla provide/produce for people,” Jones writes, in an email to City Paper. “Collaboration is how society achieves all measures, so I seize those opportunities when they come.” Her design, done in accumulative line work, was inspired by Victorian-era seating mores. “During this period, the only time women and men were found in the same room (primarily) was during dining hours. Even sharing a meal is a privilege women have had to fight for,” writes Jones.
Thackray’s support for Planned Parenthood is impassioned. “It’s just so obvious to me,” she says. “I might be being narrow-minded, but women’s health is just such a given to me, and hearing it get brought up in the way that it did during the election, I thought, ‘this is just asinine.’ I’m getting worked up thinking about it. Women’s health and safety keeps this world moving forward. If you give women with lower SES [socioeconomic status] access to health and wellness, then a whole generation gets brought into this world that’s already off on the right foot.”
She also acknowledges that such stands can be personal and politically charged for her staff, so participation is voluntary. “I’m happy to hear all opinions,” she adds. “If they want to get involved, they do get involved; if they don’t, they don’t have to.”
Planned Parenthood is grateful for any help in this current political climate. The organization staffed a table at the small launch for At Her Table held at The Vandal in December. “It’s been even more challenging [to provide services this year] because of the defunding attacks, and all the political stuff that’s going on that really is taking away our resources to provide services to people in the community. We feel very fortunate to be getting such great community support,” says Kim Evert, CEO of Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania.
Over the past four years, Thackray has challenged herself, including taking on the chef position at the new Vandal, which she calls “a massive, scary risk.” She has also continued her learning through stages, or unpaid culinary internships in the kitchens of other chefs, including one in San Francisco last spring and another at Fat Radish, in New York City. “In no way, shape or form am I done learning. I’m still very much a cook in my own head,” she says.
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