Houston’s most exciting new barbecue restaurant is currently in a state of turmoil. Pitmaster Willow Villarreal and his fiancee, chef Jasmine Barela, have both left their roles at J-Bar-M Barbecue.
While those departures would be significant on their own, they’re just part of the changes in personnel going on at the EaDo barbecue joint. Owner John Toomey dismissed general manager Edgar Gomez two weeks ago. Earlier this week, consultants J.C. “Chris” Reid and Jess Timmons both ended their time with the restaurant. Lindsi Toomey, wife of John Toomey’s grandson Charles, posted to Facebook that the couple are no longer involved with the restaurant.
In response to CultureMap's request for comment, a representative for J-Bar-M states that Chris Paul (Cafe Rabelais) will be the restaurant's new general manager. Pitmaster Chuy Ortiz has assumed Villarreal's role in the smokehouse.
Leaving a restaurant the couple had helped build from the ground up wasn't something that Barela and Villarreal planned to do, but they felt they had to.
“Walking away from J-Bar-M was definitely not an easy decision,” Barela tells CultureMap. “It was crushing for us. But it was something that had to be done. It wasn’t something we could stay a part of any longer.”
Barela says that Gomez’s sudden firing undermined the morale at the EaDo restaurant that opened in November. She says that both Gomez and Charles Toomey had been an advocate for the chefs and the culture of respect they wanted to build at the restaurant. Instead she accuses J-Bar-M owner John Toomey and an unnamed third party of undermining their leadership by changing decisions that had been made collectively in weekly management meetings.
“We gave it every ounce of our being, everything we had worked so hard to build,” she says. “We went into this counting on the word of this family to uphold theirs that we would build a culture of family and unity. It wasn’t turning out to be that way at all, not on their end.”
A representative for J-Bar-M provided CultureMap with the following statement about Barela's comments:
The original plan was to offer a combination concept that would feature a barbecue, steakhouse, and icehouse experience, which was presented to all involved from the start of those relationships. This plan was conceptualized and developed from the beginning by ownership and the original consultant. Even though J-Bar-M Barbecue and the former team members have a difference of opinions, we do wish them the best on their future endeavors.
Although it only opened in November, J-Bar-M looked poised to achieve significant success. It earned a glowing review from Texas Monthly barbecue editor Daniel Vaughn for Villarreal's smoked meats and Barela's creative sides and desserts, as well as CultureMap Tastemaker Awards nominations for Rising Star Chef of the Year and Best New Restaurant. In addition, it hosted a widely viewed episode of Top Chef that featured a who’s who of Houston barbecue talent.
According to Barela, none of the accolades seemed to matter to the owner. “Every accomplishment that we made, we were never allowed to celebrate any of it,” she says.
Barela isn’t sure what the future holds for her and Villarreal. She says they plan to take a little time off. The shock of what’s transpired the last couple of weeks still hasn’t fully hit her.
“It’s heartbreaking. I’m heartbroken,” she says. “We thought we were going to be there for years to come. It just unraveled. It became very toxic.”
The Houston Chronicle was first to report on Barela and Villarreal's departure.