Sometimes a career path begins in the teen years. That’s what happened for Denise Baron Herrera who worked in a restaurant when she was young and now is the vice president of operations for Burtons Grill & Bar. She began as the executive chef for Burtons first location in Hingham, Massachusetts. There are now 12 Burtons Grill & Bar locations (in Virginia, Alexandria, and Sterling) and two Red Heat Taverns. Herrera oversees all operations of Burtons Grill LLC.
Herrera received an AOS in Culinary Arts in 1996 and a BS in Foodservice Management in 1998 from Johnson & Wales University. While attending, Herrera spent three years as a teaching assistant and graduated Magna Cum Laude. Herrera started her restaurant management career with Houston’s Restaurants in 1998.
Currently on the Board of Directors for the Massachusetts Restaurant Association, she is an active member of the Boston Chapter of the Les Dames d’Escoffier. Herrera was one of 16 people selected to participate in the inaugural Culinary Enrichment and Innovation Program, a culinary leadership program from the Culinary Institute of America and Hormel Foods. In 2011 she helped launch a pilot program, Esperanza Cooks, the recipe for life. This eleven week program teaches young women not only how to cook but also how to shop for quality ingredients, plan and prepare nutritious meals and the fundamentals of teamwork.
In 2012, she participated in the Emerging Leaders Program at UMASS Boston which stresses the collaborative leadership model, in which leaders share resources, networks, intelligence, perspectives, and assets to achieve common goals. Herrera, who has been featured on television and in print, also appeared on the Food Network’s Chopped, a chef competition where she finished as a runner-up.
Can you point to one event that triggered your interest in your career?
A really fun restaurant experience job when I was 15/16 years old. It was fast paced a little edgy and something I craved more of!
What about this career choice did you find most appealing?
The ever changing landscape of daily my daily routine. No two days were the same.
What steps did you take to begin your education or training?
I went to culinary school to learn how to become a chef along with earning a food service management degree.
Burtons Grill & Bar in Sterling, Virginia, opened on August 22, 2016 (Photo Credit Stacy Zarin)
Along the way, were people encouraging or discouraging?
A little bit of both. Being a woman in a kitchen was challenging as you had to adapt to the existing culture. I was a head chef at a young age and I would remember sales people coming in and asking me to speak to my boss. I was like, “I am the boss! What can I help you with?
Did you ever doubt your decision and attempt a career change?
No. I have been loving what I do for over 25 years.
When did your career reach a tipping point?
When I took the chef whites off and assumed an executive leadership role. This was a new skill set that I needed to learn and adapt to.
Can you describe a challenge you had to overcome?
I have risen quickly in my company and my career path took me from executive chef to F&B manager to VP of Operations. I never was a single unit general manager. I oversee people whose role I never had to perform. I don’t doubt that I could but lack the real life experience they have encountered. It has made me more diligent in my own professional development so I can relate to real time situations.
What single skill has proven to be most useful?
Positive reinforcement and communication.
What accomplishment are you most proud of?
Being a mother of two along with having a successful career. I never thought that I would see this brand be 15 restaurants strong with continued growth.
Any advice for others entering your profession?
Believe in yourself. You can do anything you choose to.