chefs on the move

Talented Houston BBQ and culinary couple joins Ronnie Killen's empire

Talented Houston BBQ and culinary couple joins Ronnie Killen's empire

Willow Villarreal Killen's Barbecue
Willow Villarreal has started working at Killen's Barbecue. Courtesy of Killen's Barbecue
Willow Villarreal and Jasmine Barela J-Bar-M Barbecue
Willow Villarreal and Jasmine Barela earned raves at J-Bar-M Barbecue. Photo by Eric Sandler
Willow Villarreal Killen's Barbecue
Willow Villarreal and Jasmine Barela J-Bar-M Barbecue

One of Houston’s most well-regarded pitmasters has a new home. Willow Villarreal has joined the team at Killen’s Barbecue, and his partner Jasmine Barela has begun working at Killen’s Steakhouse in Pearland.

Barbecue fans know the duo for the smoked meats and eclectic sides they served at Willow’s Texas Barbecue. They earned raves for their work opening J-Bar-M Barbecue in EaDo last year before departing in April.

Villarreal tells CultureMap that he reached out to Killen’s when he saw the restaurant was hiring for employees who could support its service at Minute Maid Park. After speaking to chef-owner Ronnie Killen and manager Ryan Penn, he realized the couple could learn a lot from the restaurant group about how to operate a successful business. After all, Killen’s Restaurants now includes three steakhouses (two Killen’s Steakhouse and Killen’s STQ), two barbecue restaurants, Killen's Burgers, comfort food restaurant Killen’s, Tex-Mex concept Killen’s TMX, and operations at both Minute Maid Park and NRG Stadium. Simply put, the group serves a lot of barbecue to Houstonians.

“We’re both self-taught. Getting in there and gaining knowledge is key,” Villareal says. “That’s one of the things I’m looking forward to learning: high volume, the way they run the business.”

Killen thinks that he might be able to learn a thing or two from Villarreal, too. Open since 2013, the original Killen’s Barbecue in Pearland pioneered craft barbecue in the Houston area and maintains a spot in Texas Monthly’s list of the state’s 50 best barbecue joints. Still, the chef recognizes there’s always room for improvement.

“I told him we’re not looking for your recipes,” Killen says. “If there’s anything you can do to better us, we’re all for it.”

For now, Villarreal says that he’s at the Pearland location learning the restaurant’s procedures from veteran pitmaster Manny Torres. Ultimately, he’ll divide his time between that restaurant, a location in The Woodlands last year, and the baseball stadium.

“I’m excited for the opportunity,” he adds. “Killen’s is one of the O.G. craft barbecue joints in Houston. I’m looking forward to learning from such a successful business owner.”

Of course, having developed the barbecue menu and sides at J-Bar-M, he and Barela still aspire to open their own restaurant. It’s a goal that Killen says he understands and supports.

“‘If you want to open a restaurant, I can show you what you need to do and how to do it,’” Killen says he told Villarreal. Later, he adds, “I’m pretty proud of our team and our guys. To go through the pandemic and open two restaurants that did well and not shut anything down, it shows our staff’s willingness to survive what was going on.”

Villarreal acknowledges that he misses cooking his recipes his way, but he recognizes the value of the opportunity in front of him.

“It feels good to be working again,” he says.