Natural Starter: Guillermo "Billy" Salinas
Life can move in a thousand different directions. And sometimes, it's by way of chocolate.
The treat and its craft are one of several ways that Guillermo Salinas, known to many as "Billy," found himself making a home in Jackson after a cross-country life between Mexico, California, and Houston, Texas.
Originally from Zihuatanejo, Mexico, a seaside city known for beautiful coastlines stretching along the Pacific, Billy started baking professionally at the age of fourteen. Motivated by childhood hobbies of Lego-building and sketching, he knew he wanted to continue following any career that would allow equal parts engineering and artistry. Baking, and more specifically, pastry work, fit the bill.
"With pastry, there's just so much you can do with mediums and methods," Billy said. "It's methodical, but it has an artistic side that you need to have a sense of design for, as far as composition. I think it's one of the things that led me to pursue art even further."
After graduating from high school at 17, Billy landed in California to practice under a retired master pastry chef and build upon his professional experience. While there, one of his friends noticed his natural talent with pen-and-ink sketches and encouraged him to consider looking into the arts. With the world at his fingertips, Billy sifted through his options, ultimately deciding that additional culinary school wasn't worth the expense or time involved.
"At that time, my sister had gone to Belhaven for dance and theater," Billy said. "So I was like, 'You know what, they have an art program - I'll submit a couple of different drawings that I've done, and I'll also show some of the chocolate sculptures and cakes I’ve created."
Longtime Belhaven University art professor and former Department Chair Bob Pennebaker asked when he would start attending the university, commenting that he'd never seen a student use pastry work in formal programming. Billy made his way to Mississippi's capital and continued to grow both his arts and baking name within the community, acknowledging the importance of his stint at La Brioche alongside the bakery’s co-founder, Alejandra Mamud.
Billy graduated, met his wife, and married before they moved to Houston for her to finish a Master's in Dance. He quickly found himself as Pastry Sous Chef at The Post Oak Hotel, which recently won the highly-coveted, number-one spot in US News & World Report's “Best Hotels List.” But a soon-to-be baby, and a worldwide pandemic, changed everything in 2020. With the hospitality industry taking one of the biggest hits of any economic sector, the couple leaped to return to Jackson to raise their son, and hopefully, nurture new artistic pursuits in the making.
In 2021, Billy was invited to participate in Season 7 of Food Network's "Halloween Baking Championship," where audience members were treated to creative, and ghoulish, renditions of cakes and cookies. When he returned home after making it to the finale, he launched into expanding Northshore Specialty Coffee with his father-in-law, Doug Eltzroth (who has since sold Northshore).
Not only has their venture given the city a caffeine boost, but it helped catalyze Collage, a non-profit artist, makers, and creatives collective located near downtown Jackson.
His newest commercial venture, Just Vanilla Bakes, has been operating as a cottage industry from his Fondren home and is geared towards supplying even more of the city with ready-to-eat sweets. He's taken those talents to the kitchen of Duling Hall, open Thursday through Saturday mornings for coffee and pastries.
"It's more of a wholesale kitchen," Billy said. "It's somewhere that supplies locally-made, high-quality pastries to those places. Instead of a big-box store, our goal is to have wholesale accounts with some of our different restaurants, chefs, coffee houses, and shops where we serve as their pastry source for the public and do delivery or pickup."
It's Jackson's scale, and potential, that excites Billy and also reminds him of his young life in Zihuatanejo. With two sisters that are now Jackson residents, along with in-laws originally from other states, his family is a perfect example of the city's melting pot abilities, ensnaring people from all walks of life and rooting them into place like the kudzu that grows so profusely in the region.
"There's so much creative talent here," Billy said. "It's interesting, how many people it holds from the outside that not only come, visit, and fall in love with it, but also want to stay and grow it and do better things with it. I like being a part of that. In Houston or a bigger city, although great in their ways, you can feel really small. It's almost paralyzing because you can't get to know a whole lot of people or feel like you have a place. Whereas here, I feel like I can immediately get to work and start making a noticeable impact."
What makes Jackson so fun is that you can participate harder. Salinas
Although on a smaller scale, Billy notes how he still routinely finds new spaces and buildings to sketch or that are commissioned through locals and neighbors, inspiring additional ideas for what he concocts in the pastry kitchen.
“What makes Jackson so fun is that you can participate harder,” Billy said. “In larger places, the threshold is just high enough where it’s harder to have a voice, and you’re competing with a lot of great talent without direction. There are just as many talented people here, but when you talk to one person, they’ll connect you to ten. We want each other to flourish because it’s going to take that. It’s not cutthroat at the heart of it.”
"I think Jackson is at the beginning of a lot of really cool things," Billy said, in closing. "There's not a lot of places left like that, they're hard to find. You can feel something shifting, and it's exciting."
Follow Billy on Just Vanilla Bakes’ social media and his art page to stay up-to-date on his latest shows and events.
Salinas's Top Places To Visit In Jackson
"We love taking our kids there and spending time in the outdoors and the walking trails, right in Jackson's backyard."
Fertile Ground Beer Co.
"Belhaven Town Center has been really supportive of my work, and Fertile Ground is right next door. It's a great spot to take the kids and hang out as a family."
Mississippi Farmer's Market
"A lot of people don't realize that the Mississippi Farmer's Market is year-round, which is rare. The pricing is just as good or better than going to a chain grocery store, and you're also supporting local farmers and artisans."
Belhaven Mountain Bike Trails
"This is one of our newest finds as a family, and we love it. We'll start with the kids at Laurel Park (in the Belhaven Neighborhood), and then spend the afternoon walking and hiking."