In the last few weeks, chef Paco Aceves has auditioned for a new job, landed that job, packed up his wife and children and all their earthly possessions, moved everything across the country, only to take the helm in his new kitchen and cook dinner for hundreds of hungry guests on Valentine’s Day weekend.
And he did it all with a bad back.
Aceves — known as “Chef Paco” to his fans — is the new executive chef at the Berry Hills Country Club, but he’s not new to the Charleston dining scene. He first came to West Virginia back in 2007. Although he was fresh out of culinary school, he quickly gained a following at the Bridge Road Bistro, where chef Robert Wong took Aceves under his wing.
He later went to work at the Stonewall Resort in Roanoke, W.Va., before moving his family to Albuquerque, N.M., where he and wife Brandi opened a gourmet barbecue restaurant, “Paco’s Smoked International Cuisine,” in 2012. The couple closed that restaurant after almost two years when their business partner backed out, and began to consider relocating to West Virginia to be closer to Brandi’s
Aceves wanted to get back to cooking, too, but realized he was tired of working in restaurants or hotel. He had previously worked as a sous chef at the Houston Country Club in Houston, Texas, and wanted to find another job in a private club.
He called up his friend Paul Smith, executive chef at Charleston’s Buzz Food Service, to talk about his plans. As serendipity would have it, Berry Hills general manager J. Eric Stacy had called Smith earlier that day and mentioned the club was looking for a new executive chef.
Smith connected Stacy with Aceves, who set up an audition for the chef with some of Berry Hills’ members.
“The response was `get him up here.’ There was only one contingency. He has to let us buy him a smoker,” Stacy said.
The building that housed Paco’s Smoked International Cuisine had once been a barbecue joint, and came with a giant wood-fired smoker. Aceves put the smoker to good use, cooking both meats and vegetables for a variety of Mediterranean-inspired entrees and side dishes. Although his operation at Berry Hills will likely be significantly smaller, he plans to bring many of the dishes from his
He’s not reinventing the wheel, however. Some member favorites at Berry Hills, like the club’s 14-ounce rib-eye, crab cakes and certain salads and sandwiches, will remain on the menu.
“Everybody has their favorites. You can’t change everything,” he said. “They’re already telling me what they want and I’m a good listener.”
Aceves said private clubs allow chefs a stronger bond with their patrons. And since the restaurant isn’t the club’s primary source of income, he also is able to spend a little more money on ingredients without having to pass the cost along to customers.
He’s currently looking at ways to bring grass-fed beef and locally-raised produce on the menus. Aceves said he’s worked in restaurants that attempted a “farm to table” approach to its ingredients, but the endeavor always proved too costly to make good business sense.
At Berry Hills, he has a little more freedom.
“I can have better quality ingredients and a fresh approach,” he said. “I’m allowed to not make as much money.”
Word is spreading that Chef Paco is back in town. He said some former Berry Hills members are coming back, and fans from his Bridge Road Bistro days are considering joining the club.
He made his debut in Berry Hills’ kitchen over Valentine’s Day weekend and said he was impressed with how well the staff worked together. Aceves couldn’t do a lot of the heavy lifting, having wrenched his back while moving his family from New Mexico to West Virginia.
“Basically I just came in and orchestrated things. It was a lot of fun,” he said.