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The Road to 'Top Chef': Oklahoma chef cooks his way to promised land

Chef Joshua Valentine is Oklahoma's first chef contestant on “Top Chef.” The Food Dude shares the story of how he got there.
by Dave Cathey Published: November 7, 2012

/articleid/3726175/1/pictures/1877651">Photo - Jeff Scott of Edmond North tries to take down Josh Valentine of Del City during the 1997 All-City high school Wrestling Classic.  Scott went on to win. Photo by Steve Sisney, The Oklahoman Archive <strong>STEVE SISNEY</strong>
Jeff Scott of Edmond North tries to take down Josh Valentine of Del City during the 1997 All-City high school Wrestling Classic. Scott went on to win. Photo by Steve Sisney, The Oklahoman Archive STEVE SISNEY

“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.”

Show time

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 Friday afternoon to hear our “Top Chef: Seattle” podcast.

by Dave Cathey
Food Editor
The Oklahoman's food editor, Dave Cathey, keeps his eye on culinary arts and serves up news and reviews from Oklahoma’s booming food scene.
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