At 17 years old, Eliana Gutierrez is the youngest female pitmaster in the Texas barbecue game, but she already has the passion and wisdom of a pro. Since she first experienced Valentina’s Tex Mex BBQ, Eliana has been dedicated to the craft—and the joint. Valentina’s is home to a combination of the two most Texan cuisines, so it’s no surprise that it landed a top spot in Eliana’s heart, as well as on our most recent Top 50 list.
Tell me about the first person who taught you about barbecue.
The first person who taught me about barbecue was [Valentina’s owner] Miguel Vidal. He may not have been the first person to introduce me to barbecue—I credit that to my father—but the first person who really educated me about barbecue was Miguel. I was raised like many Texans, eating barbecue at family events and here and there at some admirable side-of-the-road spots, but to now be able to execute skills such as trimming, smoking, and truly appreciate the gifts of this craft, that came from Miguel.
Do you remember a backyard or a barbecue joint that started your barbecue obsession?
We were a Rudy’s family, I’m not gonna lie. It wasn’t bad … but it wasn’t good. It wasn’t real. You could pop in, have that slice of brisket or a piece of sausage on that red and white checkered tablecloth, and go on about your day. Don’t get me wrong, as a kid if someone tells you, “Let’s go get barbecue,” I’m just like everyone else, out the door while still finishing putting my shoes on. It wasn’t until I made it to Valentina’s that I felt a sense of purpose. At this family business you could pop in, have that slice of brisket or a piece of sausage in this amazingly welcoming environment, and never want to leave. Miguel and Modesty created familiarity to who we are as Texans, Latinos, and BBQ Freaks, and served it in a tortilla. I’d say my barbecue obsession began with getting a job in Miguel’s backyard, because now I’ve realized that my ten-minute meal was actually twelve hours of passion, creativity, and dedication.
What message are you trying to share to your customers through your food?
I think that when you’re passionate about something, that will come out in the food you serve to your guests. The main goal is to be able to make that connection in the very first bite. Now that I’m in this restaurant and with this family that I care about, it kind of comes naturally to make everything with love. To quote our motto, everything is “Hecho con Amor.”
As a professional pitmaster, are you a BBQ Freak just like the rest of us?
As a professional pitmaster, I’d say I am definitely a BBQ Freak. There’s nothing like it. We will have days where the cook goes perfect and I take a moment to stand in front of the fires with smoke swirling up high and I think, “I am so lucky to do this for a living.” After all, BBQ takes dedication to make it right, and I promise I’m dedicated to BBQ, Texas, and Valentina’s.
When is the last time you ate someone else’s barbecue besides your own?
Not too long ago Miguel and Modesty took a couple of us to have lunch at La Barbecue. Not only was everything we ordered great, but I personally loved getting to enjoy food made by LeAnn and Ali. I don’t have as many female pitmasters to look up to because this industry is largely made up of male pitmasters, so that moment was pretty important to me. But seriously, the beef rib was amazing. If you haven’t been by, you’re definitely missing out.
What’s the most surprising BBQ dish you’ve eaten?
This may only be surprising to me, but even though it’s popular in Mexican culture, I had never had lengua until I smoked it with Miguel. It tasted good. I was a little uneasy at first if I’m honest. The lengua was one of the first meats to help me branch out of my usual routine to grow and learn more to become a better pitmaster.
What’s the best beverage to wash down BBQ?
Big Red. Or maybe sweet tea. I’ll never turn down sweet tea.
What’s a tool you use in cooking that might not seem like an obvious barbecue tool?
My hands. At Valentina’s, Miguel doesn’t teach us to do things strictly by temp; we need to feel the brisket until each one is just right. That’s something I think will make anyone a great chef or pitmaster, not being afraid to get your hands dirty. I was never one for manicures anyway.
What recommendations do you have for someone new to Texas ’cue?
Texas barbecue needs to go low and slow. Be true to the traditions, ace them, and share them. Have fun with it, but don’t skip the basics.