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

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.

Weighty issues

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.

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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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