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The Road to 'Top Chef': Oklahoma chef cooks his way to promised land
By Dave Cathey
| Published: November 7, 2012
When Bravo's 10th season of “Top Chef” premieres at 9 p.m. Wednesday, Oklahoma fans will finally have a local to root for: Joshua Valentine.
Oklahoma-native Rick Bayless has been a superstar chef for years, and while he's always been open and flattering about his Oklahoma roots, Chicago is where he calls home and where his fame began.
But Valentine, 33, was born and raised in Del City and learned to be a chef as a member of The Coach House Apprenticeship Program. He opened his first restaurant, Divine Swine, here in 2010.
If you look at Josh's bio on the bravotv.com, it lists him as a Dallas chef because he moved there over the summer to take a job at the new FT33. But ask Josh about his heritage, and it's pure Oklahoma.
“Oklahoma is my home, it's who I am,” he said. “Oklahoma fueled me during the competition.”
If this dyed-in-the-wool Sooner fan can survive Wednesday's episode, he will go to Seattle carrying the weight of Oklahoma on his shoulders. And he's ready for the challenge.
Behind every man ...
Josh and his wife, Courtney, spent a lot of time watching “Top Chef.”
“We watched it all the time,” she said. “And he was always talking about how he would do this or that.”
Courtney felt he ought to put up or shut up, so she did something about it.
“I went online and found they were having auditions in Denver,” she said. “Talked to my parents, and they thought it would be a great idea to go.”
So that spring day when Josh got home, she told him about the casting call. He nodded with mild interest, but had no intention of following up thanks to the one-man show he was performing daily at Divine Swine, which boasted breads baked in-house, house-cured and house-smoked bacon and ham, burgers and sausage ground daily — even the ketchup was homemade.
“And we're going,” she said, showing him the tickets she'd booked earlier that day.
A few months later, a cryptic note appeared on the front door of Divine Swine, “Due to life-changing opportunities the Divine Swine is closed. We will reopen in August.”
The life-changing opportunity was a chance to cook for world-famous chef/restaurateurs Wolfgang Puck, Tom Colicchio, Hugh Acheson and Emeril Lagasse, along with Gail Simmons and Padma Lakshmi and compete for a $125,000 prize.
Wednesday night begins the final leg of the race toward the ultimate prize, but the journey began in Del City where Josh, a young wrestler, was looking for ways to pull weight without losing flavor.
The youngest of three boys, Josh was raised by George and Debbie Valentine — a deeply religious couple who raised their boys to work for everything they got.
“Josh's dad was big on things like ‘Give a man an honest day's work for honest pay,'” Debbie Valentine said.
George worked 20 years for Double Life Corp., which designs and manufactures fixtures for the oil and gas industry. Debbie has worked more than 20 years for the physicians group that owns Oklahoma Heart Hospital.
Josh graduated from Del City High School in 1997. Boys at Del City are expected to play football and/or wrestle.
“A good friend of mine wrestled with the youngest Smith,” Josh said, referring to the family of wrestlers that includes Olympian and OSU wrestling coach John Smith.
It was while trying to make weight as a 140 that Josh's passion for food was sparked.
“I got sick of eating the same thing all the time,” Josh said. “So I started researching what I could eat.”
He turned to gourmet magazines to find interesting food that wouldn't push his calorie intake.
“I remember being on the stationary bike reading Food and Wine to get new ideas.”
Those new ideas stuck with him long after wrestling season. So much so, he took a job at a Mexican restaurant owned by a friend's family.
“I was the only white guy in the kitchen; I was slicing milanesas for tortas,” Josh said.
At home, food was pretty simple.
“Lots of casseroles,” he said. “My dad made chicken-fried steak, and my grandpa made the best fried chicken.”
Debbie said her father was an excellent cook, and Josh was not shy about begging for grandpa's fried chicken.
“I think my dad was really one of the first big influences on Josh's cooking,” she said.
Finding his way
After high school, Valentine attended Rose State before joining the Army National Guard.
“I already have one son who is a Marine, so I was hoping he wouldn't make a career of the military,” Debbie said.
He didn't. When Josh returned to Oklahoma he knocked around a bit, working with a buddy at a cellphone store when he wasn't consuming hours of programming on Food Network.
“I used to cook a lot for my friends,” he said. “And everybody liked what I was making.”
One of those friends, Johnny Maier, went to the trouble of finding and filling out an application for the Le Cordon Bleu Culinary School in Minneapolis, unbeknownst to Josh.
Grateful to his friend, Josh went north and embarked on an eight-month program that he says opened his eyes as to what goes into a culinary career. From there he took an internship at Alma in Minneapolis under James Beard Award-winning chef Alex Roberts, who is known for ingredient-driven restaurants.
“Alex was great,” Josh said. “He is great at elevating food with five ingredients. This was 12 years ago, and all his ingredients were sourced within a 100-mile radius.”
From Minnesota, Valentine moved to Dallas for the first time, working at Local in Deep Ellum.
From there, he moved to California and worked in the Los Angeles area. He met a girl, got married and did what all Oklahoma chefs do when they start having kids — he moved home.
Once there, he had one goal: work for chef Kurt Fleischfresser.
“The first time I met Kurt, I was chef at Tom and Jerry's,” Josh said. “We were doing a wine dinner. Kurt is, to me, he is Oklahoma City cuisine. So, of course, I was nervous.”
“I remember that,” Fleischfresser said. “He told me he wanted to work at The Coach House, but I told him we run an apprenticeship program.”
Valentine didn't care what the situation was or how little it paid. He had one goal in mind.
“I just wanted to work at the best place in town,” he said. “And I wanted to learn from the best chef in the state.”
Valentine entered the program in late 2006 and emerged in 2009 with a profound respect for cooking and the man who instilled it.
“For me, I had cut my teeth already, so it really helped me grow,” Josh said. “There's great characters there like Vicki (Stilwell). She's a legend. All the apprentices come face to face with Vicki. I was lucky I was one that she actually liked a little, or at least she tolerated and put up with.”
Learning to coexist with driven young chefs, Valentine said Fleischfresser's influence is beyond calculation.
“I owe a lot to Kurt. I learned a lot from him. He's my biggest mentor,” Valentine said. “I mean, I spent a year doing pastry technique, and that's the only way I could be doing what I'm doing now at FT33.”
Josh's current job is pastry chef at the white-hot Dallas restaurant, owned by chef Matthew McAllister.
Immediately after his graduation from The Coach House Apprenticeship Program, he returned to Dallas, where Fleischfresser's recommendation got him a job in the kitchen of the renowned Stephen Pyles Restaurant. Pyles was so impressed with Valentine, he hired him as sous chef at Samar by Stephan Pyles when it opened in November 2009.
Life strikes back
Just as Josh seemed on the fast-track to culinary relevance in a town with terrific national reputation, life reminded him who was boss.
His father became gravely ill, and he couldn't bear the thought of being away so he moved back home to be with his dad in his last days.
George Valentine died in March 2010. Four months later, Josh's marriage of six years ended.
Josh, who had taken a job at The Coach House upon his return, concentrated on cooking. On a trip to Stella Modern Italian to check out the food of fellow Coach House graduate Brian McGrew, Josh was smitten with the hostess: Courtney Evans.
That chance trip to MidTown led Valentine to his new bride, the mother of his third child and catalyst for his chance for a trip to Seattle for the 10th season of “Top Chef.”
Together they saved enough money to open Divine Swine, which was described as a “pork bistro.” Josh's love affair with pork is best represented by the pig tattoo on his arm.
The restaurant was ambitious to a fault. The initial menu promised way more than one man could prepare. It was a veritable daily “Top Chef” quick-fire challenge. But he trimmed and adjusted until he'd found his stride and opportunity found him.
The chance arose to join McAllister, with whom he'd worked at Stephen Pyles Restaurant, and it was offer he couldn't refuse.
“It was a really tough decision,” Josh said. “Matt has so much going for him, and the job gives me some flexibility I didn't have at the Divine Swine.”
Debbie Valentine said when informed her youngest son had been selected for “Top Chef,” she immediately accused him of being a liar.
“You are not!” she said.
She said it's been very strange seeing her baby on national television commercials.
“But his daughters really like it.”
Neither Josh nor his mother believes the feeling has completely sunk in. He did say it's been odd having complete strangers come up and ask to have their picture taken with him after seeing him on commercials.
The only downside to the competition has been the handlebar mustache he returned wearing.
“He did it for his dad,” Debbie said. “I would never let his dad have one, so he did it because his dad couldn't.”
“Courtney hates it,” Josh said with a wry grin.
Debbie also said it's a little haunting seeing her son on TV thanks to his resemblance to her husband.
“Josh looks just like his dad,” she said. “And I know he would be so proud of him.”
“That's been the hardest part for me,” Josh said. “I wish he could've been here to enjoy this with us.”
When the show airs tonight, Debbie will be surrounded by family. Her only concern?
“His mouth,” she said. “I hope folks at church can forgive his language. If they know him, they know he's a good boy.”
Watch party, podcast
Fleischfresser will host a “Top Chef” watch party from 8 to 10 p.m. at The Tasting Room, 4322 N Western Ave. Cost is $20, and light hors d'oeuvres will be provided.
Call 604-3015 to reserve seats.
Go to NewsOK.com Friday afternoon to hear our “Top Chef: Seattle” podcast.