Balkan Treat Box Introduces Dinner Series Featuring "Secret Weapon" Jen Garcia Barrs

Oct 19, 2021 at 8:58 am

Jennifer Garcia Barrs will kickoff Balkan Treat Box's dinner series with a Filipino-inspired event. - COURTESY JENNIFER GARCIA BARRS
Jennifer Garcia Barrs will kickoff Balkan Treat Box's dinner series with a Filipino-inspired event.

For two years, Jennifer Garcia Barrs has been working alongside Loryn and Edo Nalic at Balkan Treat Box (8103 Big Bend Boulevard, Webster Groves; 314-733-5700), making herself indispensable as their right-hand woman on everything from daily cooking to research and development. Now, she is stepping into the forefront with a Filipino-inspired pop-up event that will kickoff the restaurant's dinner series next month.

The "Good Magic" dinner event, which will be held on Sunday, November 14, is a chance for Garcia Barrs to explore her Filipino culinary traditions at a much deeper level than she has to date. Growing up the daughter of Filipino immigrants in Los Angeles, she was exposed to the country's foods through her father's side of the family, but they were not a part of her everyday experience. Instead, she describes the culinary part of her upbringing as international, which gave her an appreciation for cuisines from a variety of different cultures.

"My mom cooked a lot, but she did not cook a lot of Filipino food," Garcia Barrs says. "I was exposed to all sorts of different foods since childhood, and I am thankful for that exposure. She cooked a lot of international foods, and we ate out internationally. My main exposure was from my dad's mom and family friends and aunts and uncles, but it wasn't an everyday thing — except we ate rice with everything. I don't think a Filipino can live without rice."

Garcia Barrs credits that early exposure with sparking her passion for food, which led her to culinary school in LA and a subsequent career as a chef in both the Bay Area and Toronto. In 2016, Garcia Barrs moved to St. Louis to be near her husband's family; at that point in her life, she'd been out of the industry for a while to raise her kids, but she felt an itch to get back into hospitality. That chance would come to her thanks to a chance meeting while she was having a solo birthday lunch at Union Loafers in Botanical Heights.

"It was August of 2019, and in walked Edo," Garcia Barrs recalls. "I didn't know him, but I recognized him from write-ups about Balkan, and I'd seen a few weeks prior that they had posted something about looking to hire people. I just mustered up the courage to talk to him, and he told me to reach out to Loryn."

Garcia Barrs and Loryn Nalic instantly clicked, and before she knew it, she was working the line at the acclaimed restaurant, soaking up every bit of knowledge that she could about Balkan cuisine. Though the pandemic put a pause on her job at Balkan — the Nalics had to make the difficult decision to furlough staff at the beginning of it — she made her way back to the restaurant to help with curbside, and eventually the full reopening. She's thrilled to be back, and now that the Nalics feel comfortable launching their popular dinner series after a pandemic-induced pause, Garcia Barrs knows the timing is right for her to show what she can do in a different light.

"I approached Loryn back in spring and told her I would love to do a pop-up collaboration with Filipino and Balkan food," Garcia Barrs says. "She said, 'ok, let's do it.' I originally wanted to do it in July, but life happens, so I'm so glad it's finally happening. For the past few months, I have been bringing in different ideas, and the feedback has been positive."

As Garcia Barrs explains, the flavors found in both Balkan and Filipino cuisine are surprisingly complementary. She believes this is the case because Filipino food is a mash-up of various traditions, ranging from indigenous to Spanish to Chinese, and she also notices several crossover ingredients like peppers and paprika. Though she wants the dishes at her dinner to have an element of surprise, Garcia Barrs says to expect many wood-fired foods and a lot of umami, soy, citrus and vinegar.

"It's going to be Filipino foods with a Balkan take on them and Balkan foods with a Filipino take," Garcia Barrs says.

As for Garcia Barrs' role as the person to kick off the series, Loryn Nalic cannot be more excited to shine a light on the person she describes as her right-hand woman and a huge reason for Balkan's continued success. It's validation that Garcia Barrs feels deeply.

"It's really special, and I feel honored and so much emotion being a part of this," Garcia Barrs says "Most of all, though, I just feel really excited."

We are always hungry for tips and feedback. Email the author at [email protected].

  • Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get the latest on the news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.
  • Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.