By Amelia Levin
Chef Eva Barrios, CEC, is the embodiment of an ACF success story. She came to the U.S. at age 18 from Venezuela, not knowing the language and on track to become an engineer. Now, at just 37 years old, she has garnered numerous competition medals, completed an apprenticeship, and risen through the culinary ranks to become executive chef of the Royal Oaks Country Club, a country club and subdivision in Houston.
Then, last March — just two days into her shiny new job — she faced an unexpected challenge: the pandemic. Perhaps because residents can’t or don’t want to venture into the world as the pandemic lingers, they’ve been relying on Royal Oak’s foodservice amenities more than in the past.
“From what I was told, it was busy before the pandemic, but now, we’ve been very busy every day, and we’re busier in different ways than in the past,” she says.
A year ago, when the pandemic caused a complete shutdown of indoor dining in Houston from March through September, Chef Barrios didn’t have the luxury to ease into her new role and “observe how things are done,” as she says her mentors had encouraged. Rather, she had to spring into immediate action, redeveloping her menus into takeout family meals and expanding the selection of a la carte items that would travel well.
Chef Barrios was “lucky” in that she didn’t have to let any staff members go, but that didn’t mean she got a break; determined to serve her membership and keep things interesting for them, she jumped in to do a lot of the cooking in addition to managing her team and coming up with new menu items each week. Even the staff meals had to be handled differently; because of safety precautions, Chef Barrios ensured the meals were wrapped individually and tasted great to keep bellies fed and morale high.
Working under such pressure and urgency with limited resources, Chef Barrios and her team had to come together — fast. Chef Barrios worked hard to send a message of togetherness and create a positive work environment, but she has also made it her mission to keep the lines of communication open.
“Everyone knows they can call or text me or email me if they need anything; I always make myself available,” she says. “I encourage everyone to not hesitate to ask questions in the kitchen or let me know if they need help. We are all working really hard, but I have a great team of sous chefs and everyone seems happy, and our membership seems happy. Overall, we’re running a very good operation. We have a good family, and I’m very proud of that.”
Becoming a Chef
Growing up, Chef Barrios says she enjoyed watching her mom cook homemade desserts and savory Venezuelan meals (and then, of course, eating them). She was on track to become an engineer, having taken a semester of classes in Venezuela before moving to the U.S. with plans to continue on that track. To learn English, she took a job at the Sea Island Resort in Sea Island, Georgia — but was not initially planning on going the culinary route. “I never even thought about cooking on a more professional level, but my chef at the time — Sous Chef Linda Mortensen from Denmark — was the one who made me really appreciate cooking as a craft, and the creativity and artistic expression the career [offered],” she says. “I started to take the idea of becoming a chef very seriously.”
Around that time, when she began planning to move to Houston to go to culinary school, Executive Chef Todd Rogers at Sea Island Resort suggested reaching out to Chef Fritz Gitschner, CMC, for a job at the Houston Country Club. “[Chef Gitschner] offered me the chance to participate in the ACF apprenticeship program at Houston Country Club” instead of having to attend culinary school, she says.
“I am very grateful for the apprenticeship program because you are not only learning constantly and gaining new skills each day; you are also working,” Chef Barrios says. “By the time you have completed the program, you are a well-rounded chef with years of experience. It’s also an honor to learn from some of the best chefs in the industry.”
Not only did the four-year apprenticeship program offer Chef Barrios a deep dive into culinary fundamentals; it also gave her the chance to participate in both regional and national cooking competitions. Coached by Chef Gitschner as well as Chef Alex Darvishi, current executive chef at Houston Country Club, she competed in ACF-sanctioned competitions nearly every year from 2004 to 2014 while working at the club, first as an apprentice and later as sous chef. Her first ACF competition was at the student level in 2006 with her team from the Houston Country Club; she won first place in both categories K1 and F2.
That year, she also took home a silver medal in the A2 category during an ACF cold-food competition at the Ben E. Keith Food Show in Conroe, Texas. In 2007, still at the student level, Chef Barrios again won first place in the K1 and F2 categories. As captain of the 2008 ACF Student Team under the tutelage of Chefs Gitschner and Darvishi, she led the team to several gold medals as well as the Student Team Championship title at the 2008 ACF National Convention in Las Vegas.
At the Ben E. Keith Food Show in 2012, she competed on a professional level and earned a Category D gold medal. In 2014, she competed in an ACF competition during the Texas Chefs Association Convention in Waco, Texas, winning first place in Category W: one-pot cooking.
After the Competitions
In 2014, she landed a job as executive sous chef at Austin Country Club under Chef Robert Burns, CEC, AAC. “The next six years were my best in terms of my culinary growth; Chef Burns shaped me into the chef that I am now,” Chef Barrios says. “He taught me how to care for people — not only in the kitchen, but outside it as well — and to manage by [finding] what motivates your team. He also taught me how to talk to club members, and that I need to be in the dining room communicating with members. He’s also a great cook; he’s very passionate about what he does, and he always cooked with us in the kitchen.”
Chef Barrios says she has carried his guidance into her new role, turning to it during the challenges of last year. She communicated with and kept members engaged by hosting bingo nights on Zoom and offering special holiday packages on Mother’s Day, Easter and Thanksgiving. She also regularly changed the menus. To dream up new menu items and put a modern spin on classic dishes, Chef Barrios looks at her past notes and dishes, brainstorms with her staff, and does research using books and the web. One of the more popular menu items has been the African adobo salmon, cooked with soy sauce, white vinegar, and fresh basil and mint, served over avocado-fried rice. And now that the Royal Oaks Club has reopened for indoor dining, Chef Barrios can again connect with members in person as well as online.
Outside the kitchen, Chef Barrios has remained committed to the growth of apprenticeship programs, serving as certification and apprenticeship chair for the ACF Professional Chefs Association of Houston from 2011 to 2013. From 2013 to 2014, Chef Barrios served as vice president for the ACF Professional Chefs Association of Houston, and as director of the Texas Chefs Association, Austin Chapter, from 2015 to 2018. In 2015, she served as a Le Cordon Bleu culinary advisor committee member, and from 2017 to 2019, she was certification chair of the Texas Chefs Association at the state level. An active ACF member, she is also an ACF Certified Evaluator, an ACF Site Evaluator, and an ACF National Apprenticeship committee member.
When Chef Barrios isn’t at work, she enjoys spending time with her partner, Matt Qualls; her 14-year-old son, Ethan; and her two fur babies, Bonnie and Clyde. But she also plans to continue her certification work and involvement with ACF, she says: “My goal is to continue to grow professionally and personally. I would also like to inspire others and have the opportunity to coach and motivate young chefs. I hope young culinarians find the time to network with other chefs and create a strong relationship from the early stages of their careers. Being connected is very important.”