Eva Barrios, CEC, began her first Executive Chef position two days before Houston shutdown in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the lessons she learned in her first few days on the job will forever shape her team for the better.
After months of interviews, I finally accepted the position as Executive Chef of Royal Oaks Country Club in Houston, Texas. It was March of 2020 and up to that point, I was the Executive Sous Chef of Austin Country Club. I couldn’t wait for the opportunity to manage my own kitchen.
With my bags packed, I said my goodbyes to Austin and headed to Houston, ready for a new and exciting change. Little did I know what I was about to step into. Two days after starting my new position the city shutdown due to the Coronavirus Pandemic. I knew then that my transition into this new role was going to be very different from how I had imagined it to be.
When I first accepted the position, I reached out to some fellow chefs to see what advice they had for me. They told me to take my time observing and learning the ways of the kitchen. Once I became familiar with how the club did things, I could slowly incorporate my vision into the kitchen operations. As you can imagine, that became impossible with the sudden and unprecedented changes we were about to experience.
As soon as the department heads were informed that the club was closing we immediately began brainstorming how we could still provide service to the membership during this situation. We were determined to take care of our members, even if we could not host them at the club.
In two days, I had created family pack to-go meals and a limited a la carte menu for members to pick up or have delivered. With a reduced staff, I began working stations I had no prior experience on. Within a few days I was working the a la carte line stations. We also ensured that our staff was well-fed. We created a different staff menu and made sure to individually wrap them for their safety. We put as much effort into the employee’s food as the members’ food.
Initially, we had three different themes for the family pack to-go meals, which served 4 to 6 people. They became so popular that in less than a month we felt the need to change the menu in order to give our members some variety. We also began running weekly specials. We couldn’t just stop there though. We began hosting bingo nights through Zoom and offering Easter and Mother’s Day to-go packages. The front of house staff and I continue to discover new ways to keep the members engaged and to let them know we are here for them.
Although the club was closed, the kitchen hit the ground running and hasn’t stopped since. With a strong commitment to safety for our staff and members, we have been lucky enough to keep working through this pandemic. We are standing strong, practicing safety, sanitation, and social distancing.
Today, we continue our dedication to our members with yet another round of new menu items. I have constantly been working on menus and am committed to ensuring we always have new specials in order to keep it interesting. The pool kitchen is open and allowing socially-distanced reservations, we are debuting a brand new breakfast menu, and have expanded our a la carte menu. With the club beginning to open back up, our members are happy to be back and we are happy to have them back.
While I could not have imagined that this is how I would begin my Executive Chef career, there have been many positives that have come from it. I was forced to learn the kitchen and culinary staff at lightning speed in order to keep up with the changes going on around me. I got to know everyone and everything on much deeper level than if we had been open and running normally. Within a month I felt I knew the team well enough to recognize their strengths and weakness. We started as strangers but had to weather the storm together. We have come out on the other side as a much stronger and united team.
I know this is a difficult time for us all, but we have done well and everything will turn out okay. It’s hard to know what normal will look like after this, but maybe that doesn’t even matter. We have all learned something new during this process and we have been able to hone our skills new and exciting ways. We are resilient. We can adapt to anything. We much stay strong. We’ve got this.