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Under the Toque: Baron’s backpacking trail leads to Burtons Grill

Under the Toque: Baron’s backpacking trail leads to Burtons Grill

After backpacking through Central and South America for a year, Denise Baron interrupted her trip to visit the United States for her older sister’s wedding in 2004.

Afterward, Baron was introduced to Kevin Harron, a friend of her sister’s who was planning to open Burtons Grill in the Boston suburbs with partners Kevin Rowell and Pat Gordon.

Knowing that Baron had been chef at Gulfstream Seafood, a new concept in Southern California owned by Houston’s Restaurants, Harron offered her the executive chef position at Burtons. She accepted the position and settled back into life in the United States, but her global adventure still influences her work at Burtons.

The upscale-casual diner serves contemporary American cuisine and has since expanded to four locations: Boston, North Andover and Hingham, Mass., and South Windsor, Conn. Baron oversees the menu and kitchen operations at each one.

At what age did you decide to become a chef?

About 16 years old. I had a job as a dishwasher and a bus person. The chef brought me under his wing. When I was on the cook’s line, the adrenaline was amazing. It was so much fun for a 16-year-old girl. I looked around and decided this is what I want to do.

What is your culinary philosophy?

It’s really letting the ingredients speak for themselves. I try to seek out the freshest, best ingredients. I don’t like masking flavors. I want that flavor to be there, and I like full flavors.

What attracted you to Burtons?

The quality of the ingredients, the quality of the people, being in business for ourselves, doing the right thing for the guests—all those things interested me. It was what I knew and what I believed in. It was an easy fit for me.

How do you decide what items should be added to the menu?

Every month we do new specials. I put them out in front of my CEO and the vice presidents and we sit down and do a little bit of a food show. They’re items that I feel are home runs. I ask the waitstaff and the other managers for opinions. I like feedback. I want others to enjoy my food.

Was the backpacking trip you took in 2004 to Central and South America business or pleasure?

I told my parents it was business and pleasure. They didn’t understand why I left my job to do this. The main goal was to be fluent in speaking Spanish, and I had never experienced other food cultures. It was educational for me and also was decompressing. When I got out of college it was go, go, go, go. I worked nonstop for four years. I thought [the trip] was only going to be three months long, but I got into Guatemala, and I decided to take a language course. I spent two weeks with a family immersing myself in the Spanish language. I continued to study, and I did a lot of fun things like scuba diving and climbing active volcanoes. And I was experiencing the cultures of other travelers.


Title: culinary director, Burtons Grill, based in Wakefield, Mass.Birth date: Nov. 1, 1976Hometown: West Chester, Pa.Education: associate of science degree in culinary arts and bachelor of science degree in foodservice management from Johnson & Wales University, Providence, R.I.Career highlights: entering the culinary field right out of college; helping to develop Gulfstream Seafood for Houston’s Restaurants and becoming chef there

Anything unusual happen?

We just finished a five-day salt-flat trip and we were craving some good food, and we were starting to cross into Argentina. We went to this Argentinean steakhouse, and we were waiting and waiting. It was probably 45 minutes. Our server came by and I asked what was happening. He said, “One of our cooks cut his finger.” I said, “Well, I’m a cook in my country and I’ll be more than happy to help.” After I ate I went back into the kitchen. Working in a Spanish-speaking kitchen was exciting. It was so much fun to see their camaraderie. They kept giving me alcohol, saying, “Have another beer, have another beer.”

Did you pick up any food ideas?

I picked up a couple. I’m trying to figure out a way to put them into our operations. I’ve been working on a twist of a quesadilla called tlayuda.

How often do you visit each of the four Burton restaurants?

There are certain ones I spend more time at than others, especially Boston because we just opened it. If I have a new chef or manager I’ll make my presence known. I think it’s important to be involved in daily operations even if I’m not doing them so the staff knows I support them.

What’s the most difficult aspect of your job?

The most challenging thing that’s given me the most frustration is, when you’re working with multiple restaurants, everyone wants to do it their way. It’s hard to get everyone on your page. They do fine for a while and then they stray, and you have to bring them back. Another challenge is having specials that are really new.


For the most flavorful tomatoes, never refrigerate them.

Use a salad spinner to dry and store leafy herbs.

Describe your management style.

It’s very hands-on, yet I can still walk away from it. I bring someone in, teach them what to do, and always walk away. Also, I’m very observant. I think that’s helped my success in the kitchen.

Working in the kitchen, these people want to be noticed and recognized. Being involved in their daily operations and being compassionate for what they do outside of work contributes to being a good manager. Understanding where they’re coming from really helps.

Have you noticed diners’ taste preferences changing?

There are two sets of people. There are people who go to the restaurant and always order the same thing, and there are people who are always looking for a new experience. I feel they know good quality now. I have people who come into the restaurant and they know what they want, and they expect it to be as good as they always got it.

What would you like to do in the next five years?

I would love to see Burtons grow at the rate we’re going, and I’d like to create a research and development team under me. I would be the vice president of research and development and have a staff to maintain the consistency and quality in all of the restaurants.

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