Jillian Encarnacion: Modern Vintage

Jillian Encarnacion.

How much fun is it to have a whole month of Pride events and fun things to do? I don’t know if it’s just me, but coming out of the pandemic, it seems like there’s more going on than ever. There are panels and marches, serious events and silly celebrations. I’ll give credit to FYI Philly and their show last week for introducing me to a number of businesses and people supporting the community and/or showing their pride. One of those showcased was Jillian Encarnacion, General Manager of Vintage, a wine bar right in the heart of the Gayborhood. Vintage is serving up a flight of wine for Pride with a portion of the proceeds going to William Way. We caught up with Encarnacion at the bar and took some time to find out about the woman behind the wine.  

I read that you’re a Philly native.

I am; I was born in Montgomery County and lived there a couple of years, but soon after my family moved to San Francisco. We lived there for 5 or 6 years and then moved back east to Bucks County when I was in the third grade. I moved to Philly my freshman year, got my first apartment and graduated from Temple. 

Tell me about the family.

I have two sisters, I’m the middle child. My older sister and I are 4 years apart and my younger sister and I are 13 years apart. Everyone thinks that my older sister and I are my younger sister’s parents! 

What’s a fun family memory?

My family is super close. Because we were bicoastal between San Francisco and Pennsylvania, every summer we would travel either there or back and we’d camp along the way. It was a lot of fun and gave us amazing family bonding time. The whole family was close, both on my dad’s and on my mom’s side. 

Were you always interested in food?

Yes and no; my dad is a chef and my mom and grandparents are all really great cooks as well, so it was ingrained in me. My family is from the Philippines. My parents knew each other but didn’t really become friends until they met here. My father was responsible for opening up the restaurants in different Marriott hotels, which is why we were traveling so much. My father opened up his own restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia back in 1994, so as a kid I was always there and started working at a very young age. 

How would your mom describe you as a kid?

A tomboy, for sure. I was definitely my father’s son! Always playing sports, always getting hurt, always out there doing active things. But I was also a Mama’s girl at the same time. 

What sports did you play?

A lot of different ones, but basketball, softball, and track were the main sports. 

What was your worst injury?

Worst injury… luckily, though we’d get banged up, I’ve never broken a bone in my entire life. And considering how much I played I was pretty fortunate. [Laughing] My worst injury wasn’t even playing any kind of organized sports, I was at a party and playing tennis, which I don’t play, and I… this is embarrassing, really, the ball went over the fence and I went to get it. I grabbed the ball, stood up and turned and ran straight into a pole! I had a huge black and blue welt on my forehead! 

What did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a dentist. I don’t know why. My aunt was a dentist and I was fascinated by it, but for whatever reason, I never got into it. I was also into architecture, and I thought maybe I wanted to do that, but I realized that I really enjoyed being around people and in front of people. So I went into the broadcasting and communications and media at Temple, expecting to be on television and then I was in a course where they put me on camera, and I froze!

So I switched gears and went into the production side of things, and all of this was while I was still working in the restaurant industry. I went out to LA, tried to do Production Assistant work, and found it wasn’t for me. I realized that my heart was in the restaurant industry, and that’s where I thrive. I love being around people and talking about food and drink. It was what felt right and what I enjoyed, so I decided to embrace it.

So you started out working with the family. What was the first big industry job you did on your own?

I took a bartending position at a dear friend’s restaurant. She had a place called Ly Michael’s in Chinatown (it’s called BarLy now) and she was like, “I need a bartender, do you want to learn?” It was the craziest thing, she just put me behind the bar and sat on the other side of the bar and told me what to do. And that’s how I got started. I knew some stuff from working in the family business, but this was fast paced, in the city, bartending and just jumping in with a little guidance from someone who had confidence in me. 

I bartended for a while at Hepburn’s which at the time was the lesbian bar and at my first shift on my own, a customer sat down and started telling me that she was a straight woman who had a boyfriend but that recently, whenever she was having sex with him, she was fantasizing that she was making love to a woman and wanted to know if that meant she was gay. My first customer! I thought I was being punked. 

Wow, that’s funny. 

Right? The bartender as therapist myth is real. So when did you come out? 

I always knew, growing up, especially around middle school that I was… I guess interested in women in a way that I didn’t understand. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be like them, or if I just liked them. I was attracted to strong confident women, whether they be teachers or other figures in my life. It was confusing; at the time I was thought of as that pretty girl who was super sporty and athletic and got a lot of attention from boys, and so I dated a lot of guys until college when I met this girl on a social basketball team and became infatuated with her. I’d been dating a guy for 4 years but found myself rushing off the phone so I could talk to her. I broke up with him and I said, “I don’t know what is happening, and I haven’t done anything, but I need to understand why I’m feeling this way.” And then she kind of aggressively pursued me. We dated for a while, I fell in love, and then she broke my heart when I found out that she was cheating on me. 

So it wasn’t the best first lesbian relationship, but during that time I came out. To my friends first and thankfully, I’d met a lot of really amazing people, a lot of them gay too, and then I told my mom and my sisters. It was tough, they cried, but my younger sister was like, “This is great, I’m happy for you!” The generational thing is crazy, the younger folks just aren’t fazed by it at all. Then I met someone and we did the whole marriage thing, we also worked together and opened up a business together, things didn’t work out, but we’re still friends. And that’s my story of coming out! 

Cool. I hosted karaoke at Sister’s for 17 years and would still have people questioning if I was gay because I didn’t “look” gay. I’m guessing you get the same thing. 

I do! Even after being married to a woman, a lot of people still don’t believe me when I say that I’m gay. Even though my personal life has been very public for the past 12 years, people still act floored by it. It’s crazy. 

As a bartender, you get kind of trapped and people feel they have access to you. What’s the craziest thing someone has done trying to hit on you? 

Oh my God, yeah, I remember when I was working at BarLy there was a woman and a man sitting at my bar and she kept telling me how beautiful I was and then started telling me I should go home with him culminating in him offering me a couple of thousand dollars if I would do it. I was like, “What are you talking about!?! No!” It was the first time I’d ever been approached in that manner, it was ridiculous. 

It definitely can be interesting in this business. 

Yeah, and the opposite too, I had one straight woman who came in regularly, often by herself and I was, as always, my usual friendly self with her. One day her jacket kept falling off of her chair, so as I was walking around as manager, I kept putting it back up for her, after the 5th time I joked, “Okay, now are you doing this on purpose?” and she laughed back. That was it, but later she found out I was gay and she never spoke to me again. Again, I was like, “What is happening? Really?” 

I know, and those are usually the folks where you’re like, “Uh, no. I may be gay, but that does not mean I’m interested in you.” But enough about that, what do you like to do in your spare time?

I really don’t have a lot of free time, but when I can, I love being outside. One of my favorite things in the world is to be in the sun. Whether it’s the beach or the park, I just love being outside. One of my favorite things in the city is going to the Mann Center to see the Philadelphia Orchestra play, to get lawn seats, bring a bottle of wine and cheese and just relax. I don’t know, I’m an introverted extrovert, I’m definitely a people person, but I’m also good just being at home. I love my alone time. But I also love to go dancing, I love to go out to eat and drink. That’s probably the Gemini in me. 

Speaking of wine, so you’re here at Vintage. Tell me a little about your skills.

I have no certification as a sommelier or anything like that. But I’ve managed restaurants for 15-17 years, so I’ve been involved in tasting wines and purchasing wines, and I’ve accrued a lot of knowledge over the years understanding tastes, people, what they like, and how to speak to guests in a way that makes them feel comfortable. Wine bars can be a little stuffy, and it can be intimidating for some people. I try to find what will suit you. If you’re a beer drinker or a whiskey drinker, if you like Bud Light, I’m going to find you a wine that you’re going to like. I have a genuine interest in understanding why things taste the way they do, how it comes about, and using that information to help someone find the right fit for them. 

Can you really find the “notes of old wheelbarrow from the South of France” when you’re drinking wine?

It is a bit bonkers; there are some things that you can taste, say tart cherry, or chocolate, even though none of those things are in the wine! But it’s all so subjective, you might taste cherries and I taste raspberries in the same wine. That’s why for me it’s more important to find out what the guest likes and then find something that works for them. A lot of it comes from the memories that you pull out of the wine.

My father mock threatened to disown me on several occasions because of my bad taste in wines. 

Ha! One of my passions is enjoying really cheap trashy things along with amazing beautiful things and appreciating both. A favorite memory is drinking this very expensive VSOP Green Chartreuse, which is this herbaceous liqueur made by monks and it’s very rare. I had a bottle of it and mixed it with Zima, that malt beverage from the ‘80s and my friend thought it was the most obnoxious thing ever, but sorry, it was so good! 

Oh snap, I’d forgotten all about Zima! Love it! 

During the pandemic there was a re-release of it and I bought a case. 

I approve. Okay, rapid fire questions. A food that you do not care for?

There’s not a lot of food that I don’t like, but I’m not a big fan of large raw clams. I can do raw oysters and things, but big clams weird me out, something about the texture. 

A scent that you love and one you hate? 

I think scents are the best memory triggers. My grandfather used to have a Jasmine plant in the Philippines, it’s called a Sampaguita, and one time I was walking down 13th Street and the smell of it just hit me. It was the most beautiful thing ever. On the opposite side are those trees in Philly that stink. [Laughing] I call them the ‘Budussy’ trees. 

Ha. I call them the Stinko Gingkos. What superpower would you want?

Time travel, or the ability to be in a different place with the snap of a finger. 

Favorite game or toy as a kid?

I was a big nerd. I liked math board games like Othello. I was never into video games, I preferred to go out and explore or play sports. 

What Gemini traits do you have?

All of them! I definitely have two personalities, I’m super outgoing, I talk a lot, I can argue all day. But I also need my alone time. I don’t know a lot about it, but I think with my rising sign, I’m Gemini, Aquarius, Gemini. So I have a lot of it. 

How do you relate to your heritage?

Mostly through food. My father taught me to cook, and I used to own a Filipino food stall called Lalo’s in the Bourse Building. I was also doing pop-ups talking about how I learned to make the dishes and why they’re important to me. Unfortunately I don’t have that outlet as much since we closed. My parents are divorced and my dad is there and my mom is here so I don’t get to eat as much Filipino food as I’d like anymore. It’s hard as a first generation Filipino American to stay connected, but I try. I try to go back as often as I can; the last time was right before the pandemic. 

What’s something most people don’t know about the Philippines?

Everything. People don’t realize that it’s a Southeast Asian country and that because of colonization and where it’s situated, it has influences from all over. So our food is hard to describe: it has Spanish influences, Indian, Malaysian, Thai, and a lot of Chinese influence. 

Let’s wrap up with a favorite motto. 

I have a lot of tattoos, I have the date that my grandfather passed away and I have one that goes down the right side on my ribcage that says, “I myself am made up entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.” And it reminds me that I’ll always be learning. I might fuck up, and I might not always make the right choices, but I try to learn from the past and to always at least have good intentions with everything I do. It’s how I manage, it’s how I interact with people. I try to embody that philosophy. Finding the good in people.