Barbara Renfro, the 54-year-old executive chef at Arlington’s Jamaica Gates restaurant, was born and raised in a suburban section of the Jamaican parish of Portland, located on the island’s northern coast. Renfro was the oldest of eight children in a small crowded home where women were the indisputable leaders. With dad absent after a separation, her grandmother ruled the roost along with Renfro’s mother, who worked as a hotel cook, lodging five days a week in the nearby tourist city of Port Antonio. Early on, Grandma made Barbara into a full partner in running the household, as though the girl were another adult.
“She told me I was her right hand,” said Renfro of her grandmother. “She taught me to cook when I was 12 years old. We weren’t poor in the sense that we were starving, but we had to be very economical with what we had. She had a certain way of making traditional dishes.”
Renfro fantasized for most of her adult life about having her own restaurant. One of her two sons, Errol Byles, made that dream come true last May when he and his wife, co-owner Michelle Byles, opened Jamaica Gates, just south of the campus of the University of Texas at Arlington, and made Renfro executive chef. Renfro’s other son, Teno Tapper, is the restaurant’s operation manager. Byles had been recruited from Jamaica to UTA on a track scholarship two decades ago, and Tapper later joined his older brother as a student there.
Renfro has lived in the United States since 1998, first in Florida and later New York City. She came to Arlington in 2002 with the goal of operating her own home daycare facility for preschoolers. That was a success, but babysitting was not the most beloved of her childhood responsibilities. That first-place ribbon went to the hours she spent in that tiny Jamaican kitchen with her grandmother.
“My sons and I said, ‘We’ll open a restaurant one day,’ and I made a note of it in my diary in May 1999,” she said. “It finally happened nine years to the month after I made that note.”
Jamaica Gates is a self-consciously-styled student hangout, with Caribbean flags, photos of Bob Marley and the Jamaican coastline, and neon Red Stripe signs. A small stage area hosts live bands on Friday and Saturday nights. But the menu is a love letter to every Jamaican culinary purist: oxtail meat simmered on the bone, hearty brown-stew fish made with a succulent tilapia filet, spicy pan-fried escoveitch fish in an onion and pimiento-berry sauce, goat marinated in curry spices, and famous jerk versions of chicken, pork, and shrimp dishes.
Renfro’s personal favorites are the Boston jerk pork and the brown-stew fish and, indeed, the lady’s got taste. The jerk pork, marinated overnight with a mob of spices, including garlic, habañero, thyme, scallions, sugar, and pimiento, offers silken chunks of tender meat that will keep the mouth fires burning. The brown-stew fish is cut-with-a-fork tender tilapia covered with a mildly spicy, mouthwatering brown sauce created in the dish’s slow simmering process. Beware: Most of the fish is bone-in, so chew and swallow with care. That’s not the only cultural difference Renfro has noticed while cooking in her Arlington outpost.
“We had to lower the flame, the spiciness, after we first opened,” she said, noting that patrons can still adjust the Spice-O-Meter up or down. “Also, we let people sample the goat before they order it. Some like it, some don’t.” And the biggest request? Renfro laughed: “They don’t like that the head is still on the baked snapper,” she said. “They send it back to the kitchen and say, ‘Please cut off the head.’ “
Early last month, Food Network star Guy Fieri chose Jamaica Gates as one of six North Texas eateries to profile in his TV show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Renfro and Fieri prepared jerk pork, curried goat, and brown-stew fish before the cameras. Surprisingly, she experienced no performance anxiety whatsoever during her first TV gig.
“It was so much fun,” she said. “People asked me, ‘Were you nervous?’ and I said, ‘No, I was comfortable.’ He’s a very funny man. It took a day for things to sink in, though, and then I realized, ‘Whoa, I’m going to be on national television.’ “
Jamaican cuisine was relatively new territory for platinum-haired host Fieri. “He told me he had done Jamaican once before, in a restaurant in Florida that was part Caribbean and part Chinese.” She paused to adopt a quizzical tone. “I’ve never heard of that before.” Network officials told her that the segment would probably air sometime in the summer.
But Food Network celebrity can wait. For now Renfro happily toils behind the kitchen doors every day that the restaurant is open, which means, with the help of two assistants, she’s on her feet grilling, baking, frying, and seasoning four days a week, from nine in the morning until 11 or later at night. That suits her just fine.
“The kitchen is my domain,” she said. “I keep moving all day long. It’s only when I stop that I realize how tired I am.” The laugh that follows suggests it’s a joyful kind of exhaustion.