Juanita Barrientos

By Megan Willome

Chef for all

This month Harvest on 25th was voted Best Healthy Eating in the Wacoan’s Best of Waco poll. The restaurant’s Cordon Bleu-trained chef, Juanita Barrientos, developed her love of cooking from her mother.

“My mom always cooked home-cooked meals. We ate really well. It was important in our household. That has always been instilled in my mind, taking care of yourself and being healthy,” she said.

Barrientos, who is from Riesel, has carried that passion for healthy, delicious meals into her two ventures — Harvest on 25th and Happy Harvest, which offers to-go meals and an assortment of baked goods.

Barrientos lost her mother when she was in high school, and when she went to Texas A&M University, studying nutrition seemed a natural choice.

“When it came time to choose a major, I thought, ‘I’m happy about this,’” she said.

Although the program was rigorous, Barrientos kept at it, her competitive nature pushing her through graduation. Ten days later she started culinary school, where she finished first in her class and second in the Stephan Pyles Culinary Scholarship competition. She could have cooked in an urban high-end restaurant, but she chose to come home and share her talents with Waco.

Wacoan writer Megan Willome spoke with Barrientos by phone about her love for seasonally based meals, how Waco’s food tastes have changed, and of course, about her mom, whose photo travels with Barrientos in her car every day.

Barrientos: It’s been a busy day.

WACOAN: But you’re closed today, right?

Barrientos: It is our heavy prep day and when we bake all of the bread and pizza crust for the week.

WACOAN: Harvest on 25th opened in December?

Barrientos: Yes.

WACOAN: But you’ve had different names in different places. Can you give me the history?

Barrientos: Before we were a restaurant, way back in our history, when we were just starting, we were called Crav. I was working under Gourmet Gallery, which is no longer open. I was under their wing for about a year and a half.

That’s when I met my business partner now, Toby Tull.

WACOAN: How did you meet?

Barrientos: I met Toby through the [Waco Downtown] Farmers Market. I wanted Crav to be present at the farmers market to get more exposure, so I needed local produce to do that. I found out about The Home Grown Farm, which he and his family used to own. I met him getting produce from him. He has his business degree, so he was like, ‘Hey, Juanita, where do you see this going? What are your goals for Crav?’ Of course, I’ve always wanted a restaurant, since I was a sophomore in college.

I told him my vision, and at the time we could not go straight into a restaurant. It would have been the silliest thing we could have done because we didn’t have enough of a following. Crav had grown and become an attraction, and there was a lot of potential to [eventually] take it much bigger and independent.

We changed Crav and found a kitchen and called it Happy Harvest. We wanted to create to-go meals that were healthful and based on local ingredients and what was growing. We worked with his farm to get most of our things, as well as the farmers market, and then make meals to go. Amongst all of that we still had the vision of a restaurant.

WACOAN: And why December, for making that leap to a restaurant?

Barrientos: It was just the right time and the right space. We were approached about the space on 25th Street, where we are now. Through much thought and prayer and taking a chance, we thought we were ready to open the doors.

It’s been a long, slow road. We’ve taken it slow on purpose because we wanted to provide quality food and didn’t want to rush ourselves and be a flash in the pan and in two years have it close down because we can’t keep up with demand or our quality isn’t there or any other reason. It was a very intentional process.

WACOAN: So Happy Harvest is currently open?

Barrientos: We stopped for the summer. It slowed down tremendously when Baylor left. With the opening of a new restaurant, it took more energy and manpower than what we expected. So we put all of our work into the restaurant and put a pause on Happy Harvest meals. We will start to carry our meals to-go on a consistent basis in a couple of weeks [by October].

WACOAN: You’re not exactly near Baylor. How do students find you?

Barrientos: Honestly, it’s been through word of mouth and social media, mostly Instagram. It’s been wildly successful in that we have not done any sort of marketing. People are finding out about us from friends, very organically.

WACOAN: What niche is Harvest on 25th filling in Waco?

Barrientos: We have created a space that is welcoming to everyone. As far as the type of food we serve, it is wholesome, it is healthier, but we never wanted to be pretentious in any sort of way. Like with our menu, we want it to be approachable but well thought-out.

I have a degree in nutrition from A&M, and I went to culinary school, so it’s a passion of mine to serve wholesome good food with integrity. That is very much lacking in Waco. It is a farm-to-table restaurant, but with nutrition in mind. We wanted to create a menu that was approachable.

For example, we offer pancakes, but they are vegan and gluten free with quality ingredients, and they taste just as delicious as any other pancake, if not better. We have French toast on the menu, where we make it with our own sourdough bread. We don’t use any white sugar or refined white flour. It’s just a careful, intentional approach to food without sacrificing flavor.

WACOAN: Looking at your menu, it seems like there are lots of options: vegan, gluten-free, add-on meat.

Barrientos: It’s neat that we have customers come in who, they love a great burger. They’re meat and potatoes. And they eat one of our dishes, and it’s the best thing they ever ate. That’s one of the best compliments we get. I’ve done my job if someone who’d normally not ever eat a rosemary-apple hash can say that was a really great meal. Also kids really love our food, and it is so rewarding to see kids eat food that’s really good for them.

WACOAN: Let’s back up. When did you graduate from A&M?

Barrientos: I’m from Riesel, graduated in 2003, so I graduated from A&M in 2007.

WACOAN: Why did you decide to pursue a degree in nutrition?

Barrientos: I decided to pursue nutrition for personal reasons. I’ll give you the story.

I was 15 when my mom died. She passed away in a car accident, very unexpected. She was my age when she passed. Losing a parent is such a tragic thing, the hardest thing I’ve ever been through.

In tragedy there’s beauty. And even though it’s such a sad story, the beauty in it is the people that me and my sister and my brother have become. The growth — I’m a better person for it, honestly, as twisted as that sounds. I wouldn’t be the person I am if I hadn’t gone through such tragedy. In many ways I am thankful.

I was angry and had a lot of questions immediately after that. I stopped believing in everything, including my faith. Through people that loved me, I came out of that. I can’t tell you the reason why that had to happen, but I’m trusting of it. I’m trusting of that hurt and of that pain, and I’ve accepted it. It’s still difficult. It’s my story, and even though it’s tragic, it’s a beautiful one, and I trust it now.

It doesn’t sadden me to speak about her. I love to speak about her. It brings me joy. It’s a positive thing.

WACOAN: What would she think about her daughter, the chef?

Barrientos: She would be right there working next to me. She would be very proud and put an apron on and help me. I have thought about that. She’d be helping me cook on the line. I feel close to her in the kitchen. Whenever I have doubts, I think of her. She always brings me back down and calms me down a little bit.

Shortly after I lost my mom, I just lost interest in school completely. I had no motivation. I sort of had a mentor that pushed me back into the light, for a better way of saying it. He was a former Aggie, so he encouraged me to go to A&M. The school I went to didn’t matter to me at the time. That’s how I ended up at A&M, through my agriculture teacher in high school.

I chose nutrition because I used to be an overweight kid. I was on the verge of obesity. By the time I was in high school I had lost weight, just through sports and things like that.

[Nutrition] was a lot more science than what I expected. I thought it was going to be more food-based. Nutrition at A&M was basically for pre-med students. Now the program is split into dietetics and it’s not as intense, but then it was all one program. It was a lot of chemistry, and my brain doesn’t work that way.

In the middle of my sophomore year I was going to quit college. I almost changed majors to be food science, but I stuck through it. I got through it because I needed to go to a culinary school. That was the motivation for me to finish. I finished school, and it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done.

WACOAN: You went to Le Cordon Bleu in Austin, but it looks like it’s closed now?

Barrientos: They changed their name [to Texas Culinary Academy].

WACOAN: When did you start there?

Barrientos: Literally 10 days after I graduated from A&M, I moved to Austin and started school. It’s a year-long program with a three-month internship. Other culinary schools can be about three years, but this is more condensed, so it’s a lot at one time. I didn’t have to do any basics classes because I’d done that in college.

It’s very kitchen-focused. It was a wonderful experience, everything I imagined it to be. I had great instructors. I did a lot of competitions. A lot of people don’t know that I’m a very competitive person by nature.

WACOAN: Describe culinary school.

Barrientos: I like to describe it as military school for cooks. It’s not like you just show up to class with your knife, ready to cook. Your uniform has to be pressed and clean. You have to wear every piece of it, be on time, and every activity you do is under a time pressure. [The competitions are] on a 20-point scale. It’s just very intense.

In my class we started with about 50 students, and by the time I graduated there were half that amount. A lot of people get weeded out, and it takes a lot of work and dedication. If you’re not passionate about it, then there’s no way you can survive.

There was one competition, the Stephan Pyles [Culinary] Scholarship competition. He’s a well-known chef in Dallas. He puts on this competition for culinary students. The top 10 in Texas get chosen. You submit a three-course dinner out of ingredients he has chosen for you. From those 10 there are three that compete. That year I was chosen as one of the top three. You compete in an Iron Chef-style competition. You’re limited by ingredients, and you have to use every single one. Then there’s time pressure — we had to be prepared to execute those meals under that time limit.

I was competing with a guy in the same school I was in, a little ahead of me, then one other person from another culinary school. Our culinary program was very supportive. They bought our groceries to practice. They trained us as if it was competition day. We had incredible support. I got second place. It was so fun!

I did graduate first in my class in culinary school, in 2008.

WACOAN: Wow! And what did you do after culinary school? Did you stay in Austin or come back here?

Barrientos: Home is Riesel. I came back home.

My family and I are really close, and I felt called to come back here. I’ve been such a mother figure to my family, since my mom passed. My little brother was 5 when that happened.

It was a personal struggle in choosing whether to stay in a bigger city or come back to Waco. I did not want to come back to Waco, but I felt like I needed to. My stepdad has always been so supportive: ‘You follow your dreams, and that’s where you need to be.’ I felt it was my duty to come back home. I had a couple job offers in Houston after the scholarship competition that I turned down. They were from fairly well-known restaurants in the city.

For me, those jobs were attractive to me, but I didn’t need a grand restaurant to work in. I just wanted to learn. I wanted to get my own food out there and express myself creatively in that way. I knew if if I came back to a smaller city, the likelihood of me making an impact is much greater than working for an amazing restaurant but working under someone else. I thought I could make an impact in a smaller town and one that needed it.

WACOAN: When you say, ‘get my food out there,’ how would you describe your food?

Barrientos: Hm, my own style of food. Usually a chef gets asked the question, ‘What’s your signature dish?’ That’s the worst question for me. My style is I’m a seasonal chef. I thrive under having the restriction of just working with seasonal locally grown ingredients. There are, of course, Hispanic influences because I am Mexican.

Like an artist who paints, my work is the dishes that I create. That’s my art, to educate people that good food doesn’t have to be necessarily a fried dish or another burger or another pizza. It can be healthful and taste delicious.

WACOAN: How does your heritage work its way into your cooking?

Barrientos: It’s my roots. It’s what I grew up with, and it’s how my mother cooked. My passion for food begins with my mother. Needless to say, she was an amazing cook.

For me, those Mexican roots come out in sauces. For example, there are so many sauces people just don’t know about. Mexican food can be very heavy with lard and other animal fats, but I don’t cook that way. The nutrition side of me says, ‘Let’s do this with avocado oil.’

On the menu right now — it’s about to change to our fall menu — there’s a guajillo sauce with our migas. Migas is a very traditional Mexican dish. Typically, the tortillas are fried and scrambled with eggs, but we lightly toast them in the oven, with olive oil. The flavors come from the guajillo sauce. Stewed beans mimic good refried beans but with no saturated fats and full of flavor. Then instead of crema or sour cream we do a cashew sour cream that is vegan and dairy free.

There is a lamb-chorizo hash that is very popular. Typically, chorizo is made with pork and a lot of fat. I went the route of lamb, which is leaner, more flavorful, and I include a lot of vegetables in it — peppers and onion and kale. It’s served with a sauce, smoked harissa sauce. Harissa is Middle Eastern, and you’d never see it with smoked tomatoes. But I like to play around with different cuisines, so not only Mexican flavors but also Middle Eastern or Mediterranean.

WACOAN: Something like harissa, I’d be happy to order it from you because you know what you’re doing, but I’m not ready to cook it myself. Are other customers getting more adventurous about international flavors?

Barrientos: When I first started, with Crav, it must have been 2011, the food scene in Waco was much different than it is now. It’s been incredible to see changes in a short amount of time. More people are turning to gluten-free and vegan [food].

Most important, people are caring about where their food comes from and what they’re eating and what is in the food. It’s been incredible to witness that. Our demand has gone up.

WACOAN: I know a lot of people have turned to those alternative ways of eating, even in my own family.

Barrientos: Back then [when Crav opened], that type of food wasn’t that popular. People would turn their nose up because vegan had the connotation of cardboard food. It’s been amazing to educate the community. Honestly, it was education through people tasting it and allowing the food to speak for itself.

WACOAN: Did that tasting of your food happen at the farmers market?

Barrientos: It was through our takeout meals. When people bought a meal and loved it they’d branch out and try another, and maybe it was vegetarian.

The farmers market gave us a jump when we started our breakfast tacos. We made a vegan taco, and people were just blown away that a vegan taco would taste so good.

We will start back at the farmers market in October.

WACOAN: When you started, what were your dreams?

Barrientos: This will sound like a very small answer. My goal was to just have a restaurant that would include everyone in their food journey. Just because I’m familiar with healthful food on a different level, that doesn’t mean everyone is. I wanted a space for everyone, whatever type of food they ate or liked. I wanted Waco to have somewhere they could come and know what they’re eating is good in every respect, not just flavor. People could bring families and friends and kids and trust that all the food is coming from a good source.

That is our mission, to source the best ingredients. We spend a lot of time and energy on that, so you can sit comfortably at our table and know what you’re paying for is worth it. We wanted to provide quality to Waco that hasn’t been seen.

WACOAN: How do you get your ingredients from local farms?

Barrientos: We order from a company called Farm to Table [in Austin] and get it delivered. They gather a lot of local farmers, and they work directly with the farms. They’re the middle man, and there’s a website you order from.

The farms are in Austin or around the Waco area. It might go a little down to Fredericksburg. They also work with JBG in Austin, Johnson’s Backyard Garden. We get a lot of produce from them. We order from them directly, wholesale, and pick up at the farmers market on Saturdays.

What’s neat is because we are getting more exposed to the community, local growers are finding out that we love to use local products. For example, a woman who runs a farm called Bonnet Farms [in Georgetown]. I needed corn for one of the dinners, and Bethel [Erickson-Bruce] from the farmers market gave me [Bonnet Farms’] contact info, saying, ‘She might have the corn you need.’ I ended up getting the corn for the dinner from her. We’ve built a relationship. Now she’ll say, ‘Juanita, I’m also growing onion and zucchini and basil, do you need any?’ Yes! Now we get food from her every week.

It’s this building of relationships through the work that we’re doing. It’s, ‘This is what I have, can you use it?’ And my answer most of the time is yes. We want to support local farmers. It’s hard work, what they do, and buying from them gives back.

WACOAN: You’ve said you like to cook seasonally.

Barrientos: For me as a chef, if I’m told, ‘Juanita, create a dish. You can use any ingredient you can think of,’ I would probably panic. There’s too much. But whenever it’s, ‘We have winter squash and kale in season — create a menu,’ that’s where I thrive, within those boundaries. I can be a lot more creative under those restrictions.

What’s beautiful about eating seasonally is our bodies are meant to go with the flow of nature, and when we’re eating with the seasons, we don’t have as much sickness. Our allergies go down because we’re eating how nature intended us to eat. It goes beyond supporting local farms. It’s for your body, for your own health, naturally, without medicine, through the medicine of food.

WACOAN: How did the farm-to-table dinners start?

Barrientos: We started those when we started Happy Harvest. It was our gateway to getting to a restaurant, letting people taste the kind of food we wanted to serve through these dinners. We used to host them at [Home Grown Farm], when it was open. We’ve done five- and four-course meals. They range from 50 to close to 70 people. When we started, we were using Toby’s mom’s kitchen to make all of the food. They were a lot of work but so rewarding.

We also started art-to-table dinners. We worked with Cultivate 7Twelve. We had this vision of collaborating with the artists displaying their art and to create a dinner around this art. What I did was choose four pieces of art for a four-course dinner and get inspiration from that piece of art and transfer that into a dish. So maybe that would be with texture or colors or if it made me feel a certain way. That was the most challenging project I’ve ever done but also very fun for me. Through that we were trying to open the restaurant, so we kinda put those on hold.

Now that we have our own space, creatively I’ve grown and matured, so this past summer we did a summer series of dinners where we honed in on one ingredient that was growing. I feel like that’s where I really got to challenge myself as an artist was taking one ingredient and cooking it in so many different ways. We did three: corn, tomatoes, peppers. It was even a surprise for me (even though I was the one creating the dishes). It was educational for myself but also for my team. The summer series were some of my favorites I’ve ever done. People enjoyed sitting there and experiencing how one ingredient could taste so many different ways.

WACOAN: Are you bringing back the farm-to-table dinners?

Barrientos: We will start our dinners back up in the fall, probably mid-October. We’ll choose one ingredient and highlight that. It will be four courses, BYOB, in the evening, at 6:30, usually last about two hours.

It’s a lot of experimentation. I’m not one to make things simple. I like the challenges: How far can I push myself? I know that I’ve created a lot of work for myself. I go in like, ‘I know it, but I can do it.’ Then the night before, I have a moment where I think, ‘I can’t do this.’ It’s finding that inner voice and reminding myself about the big picture and why we’re doing what we’re doing, and that pushes me to finish every time.

WACOAN: You talk a lot about creativity and art in relation to your cooking.

Barrientos: With creativity for me, and for most artists, comes a lot of insecurity. It’s part of the process. You’re your own worst critic, but that’s what makes a difference and what makes us better as individuals, constantly wanting to offer more and give more and grow in the process.

I am competitive. I do want to be the best at what I do. That doesn’t come from wanting recognition in a pretentious way but being the best because I believe everyone is given a gift. Doing everything you can to honor the gift you’ve been given and to give back to people, that’s where that comes from. Wanting to serve the best food in Waco, if I can do it. That’s how I honor my craft and have gratitude for the gifts God has given me.

WACOAN: You did an interview with The Baylor Lariat and called owning a restaurant a ‘labor of love.’ What do people not know about the restaurant business?

Barrientos: Simply put, the labor. It’s a lot of physical hours of work. If you’ve never worked in a restaurant, it’s easy to see past the hours that have gone into cutting a potato or an onion or keeping up with demand and quantities for each item on the menu, having enough of each ingredient.

It’s being a small-business owner. You are also your own accountant and your own HR and all the things maybe someone wouldn’t think of. It’s the behind the scenes of owning a business, keeping up with staff and their needs or when things go wrong or you have to let someone go.

Our success is not solely from me. It takes an entire team.

I have to give so much credit to my business partner, Toby. He’s been an incredible friend. I give so much credit to our staff. They work very hard. Opening a restaurant is not easy. We’ve been through a lot of struggle in just these few months we’ve been open. They’ve stood by us and believed in our vision, and it’s awesome to have a staff that cares just as much as Toby and I do.

WACOAN: I saw that Harvest on 25th is expanding.

Barrientos: Next door to us will be a bar that’s opening. We’re taking some of that square footage because they don’t need all of it. We’re going to add 30-plus seats, almost double what we can hold right now. All of that is happening now as we speak. They were doing some work this morning. We will hopefully be ready to go mid-October. And we’ll roll out the new fall menu in October.

We do one menu per season — that’s our goal, and then run specials about once a month.

WACOAN: So many of your dreams have already become reality. Do you have any future plans?

Barrientos: I’d like to open another restaurant — dinner only. Slightly more upscale and more refined. I want the menu to be hyper-local and more focused on my Hispanic roots with a modern take on it, and nutrition in mind, of course.

FIVE THINGS JUANITA CAN’T LIVE WITHOUT

1. Cookbook. It doesn’t matter where I go, I have to have a cookbook with me. Even if I don’t have the time to read the thing, it’s security for me. It gives me comfort. At the moment it’s ‘Nopalito: A Mexican Kitchen’ [by Gonzalo Guzmán with Stacy Adimando].
2. Notebook. I have a notebook that I carry around. It’s where I write my recipes but also where I journal. It’s Juanita’s Notebook. It can be food or personal thoughts, and writing it down helps me to release it. Or I can get an inspiration from being somewhere — I see a fruit in the grocery store and it inspires me for a dish.
3. Photo of my mom. It stays in my car because I’m always driving. It’s a small photo of my mom. She hated taking photos, so it’s random. She’s standing next to her sister, my aunt. She was very young, maybe 30.
4. Sunshades. I love sunglasses. My weakness is a pair of sunglasses. I often joke that one day when I’m rich I’ll have every pair of sunshades that I want. I have one good pair, of Ray-Bans. But I have several other that I’ve gotten at Target. I can’t help it.
5. Playlist. Music is very important to me, having a good playlist in my phone, always. My stepdad is a musician. I grew up around music. I appreciate all genres, and music is therapy for me.

Join the Conversation