"Wherever I am, I always find myself going back to where it all started: the kitchen. That is because it is the one place where I can create, recharge, reimagine, and reinvent myself. It is where the dream of that little boy began. One day, he thought, I will share my passion for cooking with the world." ~ Chris Valdes; One With The Kitchen
Chris Valdes is a Miami born and raised chef, actor, cookbook author, philanthropist, and celebrity caterer. Chef Chris has been featured on the cover of numerous magazines, various national TV shows such as Hallmark's Home and Family and LIVE with Kelly and Ryan, and was a finalist on Food Network Star and Star Salvation.
One with the Kitchen: My Life as a Chef
It’s 3 a.m., and I can’t sleep. An important decision is keeping me up. I can’t make up my mind because it’s such a tough one. Do I add the truffle shavings to my lobster risotto, or do I not? These are the types of questions that keep me up at night. What can I say? I’m a chef. But I’m no ordinary chef. Indeed, my life has been far from ordinary. I wake up every morning thankful. With its ups and downs, I must admit it is more than I could have asked for.
I have always had dreams, and slowly but surely, I am accomplishing them. How? I’ve used a recipe comprised of hard work, dedication, sleepless nights, and tons of preparation. There is nothing more satisfying than achieving a goal, especially when it comes with a mouthwatering side of aged, New York strip steak, or a delicious orange scented crème brûlée. Food is love. This is a love story between food and me and the flavors I have created as a chef growing up in Miami. Naturally, my story comes with great recipes.
I was born on May 11, 1991, in a place that I call paradise and home: Miami, Florida. Growing up in Miami in the ’90s was truly a gift. Miami is such a magical place. I’ve had the pleasure of traveling to many places around the world, and I always say the same thing: there is no place like home. You have to live here to understand its madness and why it’s so special. Our culture, the hot food scene, our beaches, and even our craziness makes this place beyond special. You can walk the streets and see something new every day.
One of the city’s highlights is the food scene. You can literally find a vegan restaurant, a restaurant with the freshest seafood, and even a restaurant dedicated just to croquetas all on the same block. Walking down 8th Street will teach you a little bit about our Cuban-scented culture and flavors, and you may even bump into someone famous. I personally enjoy our café con leche, the smell of toasted Cuban bread with butter, our papas rellenas, and our delicious tres leches dessert.
Growing up in a family restaurant has had a huge impact on me. I’ve even asked my father if I was conceived there during the busy lunch hour, as I love food and am always in a hurry. Walking inside the restaurant kitchen every day after school was truly a thrill for me. I would just close my eyes, and, with the smells lingering through the air, I would envision what creation Mom was cooking up. Anytime I would walk into that kitchen I had questions for my mom—questions that she always took the time to carefully answer. What are you cooking today? Why does it smell like that? What are you adding to that pot? What is today’s special? And the most important question of all… may I taste? Sometimes I would just sit down on the kitchen counter and quietly observe everything from the cooking in the kitchen to how my father ran the restaurant - it was like a hobby for me. These observations taught me more than I could imagine, and they would one day prove to be very handy.
My stepmom was my first culinary superhero. She, along with my dad and sister, migrated from Cuba in the historic Mariel in the early eighties. She taught me all about Hispanic cooking and how special it is. Because of her, I learned what it was to love food and appreciate the process of making it. Mom's food has so much flavor that I can just close my eyes and daydream about it all day—like her boliche cubano that she makes for me on my birthday, or her shrimp enchilada. Till this day, I still have Mom's recipes and kitchen lessons engraved on me, but I must admit, no one (not even me) makes them better than her. Mom is the strongest woman I know, and, through her example, she taught me how to be a strong person and to never give up.
I’ve always been a businessman; I learned it from my father. My father was my best friend. He always treated me extra special. We would stay up late watching Scooby-Doo, and I would sit on his lap. We would eat a whole fried fish at least once a week, and we would bond about food every single day. My father taught me at a young age to get the work done first and have fun afterwards. He also taught me that hard work and dedication to your business pays off.
Back then, in the early ’90s, I remember how our entire family would sit down to enjoy our dinner together. When we weren’t eating together as a family, we would be working as a family. I would help my dad purchase the vegetables and fruits for the restaurant, throwing the crates into the back of his pickup truck and then unloading them at the restaurant. Of course, my favorite part was grabbing the oranges and selling them for a dollar a piece to the diners at our restaurant. When we weren’t working or eating, we would travel together as a family. As a child, I remember running down the halls of the Plaza Hotel in New York City. I remember locking my brother out of our room while he was in his underwear at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Great times ... while they lasted.
When I was six years old, I had everything a six-year-old could ever ask for. When I turned seven, I had nothing. My family lost everything when my father was sentenced to nineteen years in jail; our childhood home, our family restaurant, my best friend (Dad), my family., My childhood vanished in the blink of an eye. It was the beginning of a painful period that was filled with confusion, bitterness, and sadness.
But that is where I believe my journey truly began. Whenever I need strength or courage, I look within, to the little boy inside of me. The child that, despite everything falling apart around him, was strong and brave. Today, when I celebrate an accomplishment, I dedicate it to the younger version of me. It is he, young Chris, who inspires me to follow my dreams and who has taught me to never be scared, because life is an unimaginable journey.
After the big rumble that shook my family forever, we moved into a small apartment that I will never forget. It was nothing like our old home, but it was where I discovered my most important truth. One day, as I was flipping through the channels on satellite TV for the first time, impressed with how many options there were, suddenly a chef on caught my attention. Oh, but this wasn’t just a regular chef cooking on TV, this person was filled with excitement that made you wish you had smell-o-vision. It was entertainment like I had never seen on TV before. Within seconds, I decided that there was something quite fascinating about this man. As I watched him and he yelled BAM! BAM! BAM!, I’d get flashbacks as if I was him, the one cooking. I had a vision of tons of people screaming my name, the cameras blinking and the lights blaring, people clapping, and everyone looking at me. It came along with a slight pressure coursing through my chest. Of course, at the age of ten, I thought I was going crazy, or at least going through a rough case of puberty.
Chef Emeril Lagasse, the chef on TV, was my new culinary superhero (after my mom, of course), and he’s probably one of the reasons that I am part of the food world today. I wanted to be just like him. I wanted to motivate people from around the world to cook and have fun in the kitchen. I wanted to inspire kids to follow their dreams. e. Chef Emeril motivated me to do all that. Years later, I finally had the opportunity to meet my culinary superhero, briefly, at the South Beach Wine and Food Festival but I barely spoke a word—I was tongue-tied. However, I did manage to say one thing that meant a lot to me: “THANK YOU.” I’m sure one day we will finish the chat, and I’ll be able to tell him how he changed my life at a young age and at such a crucial time. And for that, I am forever grateful.
Chef Emeril was also who inspired me to cook my first dish. I was ten years old and had never cooked anything, but, after watching a few episodes of Emeril Live, I felt confident and ready. I went downstairs to the supermarket and picked up a few items with some pocket change. What was my first dish? A Latin-style arroz con pollo (yellow rice with chicken). I remember how impressed I was with the final creation, not to mention the fact that I made it without a cut or burn, or the smoke detectors going off. When Mom got home and saw the meal, she was upset. She thought I had allowed an adult inside the apartment to cook. I explained I did it with Emeril’s help…. And then she really got angry. “Who is Emeril, and why did you allow him in here?” I quickly explained and invited her to watch his show along with me while we ate together. That dinner with her is one of my fondest memories. It was at that point that I realized that I wanted to spend as much time as possible in the kitchen. It suddenly became a special place for me.
Like any child who discovers something new for the first time, I was eager to learn more. I wanted to know all about food and cooking, and I really wanted to experiment in the kitchen as much as possible. I purposely ate at the cafeteria downstairs every day. One day I asked the manager for a job - I told him I would do anything -even the dishes - just to be in the kitchen—and he said yes. Every Saturday and Sunday, I would wash dishes from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. for ten dollars a day. Some might call it child labor, but I was thrilled to be able to experiment with a new love, cooking. I would wash the pile of morning pots and pans as quickly as possible to make time to help with anything else, and my plan worked. In no time, I was plating the salads, making steaks, and even frying French fries. It was there that I endured cuts; I burned all four fingers of my right hand with a hot skillet, and I even accidentally caused a large fire. As tired as I was each night, I got all the experience I needed. Working there cemented my feelings for the kitchen, and I knew that there was only more to come.
Things started getting real in high school. All of my teachers from Felix Varela Senior High knew I wanted to be a chef and were very supportive. My English teacher, Ms. Graciela Reyes, even bought me tickets to have a meet-and-greet with Paula Deen, a day I will never forget. It was teachers like her that pushed me to follow my dreams. Another day, Mrs. Terri Reyes, the teacher who I talked of on the last-aired episode of Top Chef, went to find me in another class just to share the email she had just received. It was from Le Cordon Bleu Miami, and they were looking for students that might be interested in their High School Baking Scholarship competition. Of course, as exciting as this opportunity was, it was terribly frightening for me. The truth was, I was the worst baker I knew. Nevertheless, I filled out the application and submitted my essay. After a few days of patiently waiting, I received a phone call where they told me, “Mr. Valdes, you wrote such an inspirational essay, and we would be delighted for you to be one of ten contenders for our Future Bakers of America competition.” It was the most exciting and terrifying phone call I had ever received. It was like taking a soufflé out of the oven, hoping that it was properly executed…. And, well, this was no perfect soufflé recipe.
The day of the competition arrived. It was time to bake, and, I have to admit, I hadn’t prepared. I had never baked anything that wasn’t from a box. And what was I about to cook? A French tart cheesecake by Chef Emeril. In my eyes, if he made the recipe, then it was a winning recipe. Everything that could go wrong that day, went wrong. As I was melting chocolate over a double boiler, I smelled something burning and even voiced it out to the class, only to quickly realize that the towel in my hand had caught fire. To make it an even better morning, I mistakenly washed my class in baking flour and bathed myself in heavy whipping cream splashed from a mixer that was set on high. And my cheesecake never sat. I tried calling it a cheesecake smoothie, but that didn’t work either. Not only did I feel like a failure, but I felt that it was a sign that the culinary world wasn’t meant for me. It was the worst day of my life, and it shattered my dream. The place where I was starting to find myself was where I had lost myself once again.
Monday morning at school everyone anxiously wanted to know how the competition went. I quickly advised them that I was going to attend law school and that I had no intention of ever cooking again. Mrs. Hyatt, my teacher, knew something had happened, and I couldn’t help sharing the story with her. I told her about the flour bomb, the fire, the cream shower, and the complete fool I had made of myself. She told me that I was overreacting and that things don’t always go according to plan, that it was part of life. Crushed, I told her that I was done with it. I mean, it was like an episode of Master Chef combined with Kitchen Nightmares with a touch of Restaurant Impossible.
A few weeks later, as I entered Mrs. Hyatt’s class, I noticed she had an email that she had printed for me waiting on her desk. It was from Le Cordon Bleu. They were hosting their Cooking Scholarship competition with a grand prize of ten thousand dollars. Not only did I start laughing like I was about to lose it, but I told her that I was done with cooking and that I meant it. “Christopher, you are giving up, and that is not the person that I know.” She was right, but I kept imagining what could happen this time - another fire maybe? Mrs. Hyatt stayed quiet, which was unusual for her; she always had something to say, and still does. But I quickly saw that while she was silent, in the background, she would be taking action—action that was about to change my life.
I received a phone call a few days later. “Mr. Valdes, you wrote such an inspiring essay, and we would be delighted for you to be one of ten contenders for our Future Chef of America competition.” I quickly replied, “What kind of cruel joke is this? I know it must have been hilarious to see me running like a messy chicken with its head cut off. I didn’t even submit an essay, so please, I don’t appreciate this phone call or these types of jokes.” The woman on the phone explained that they did, in fact, receive an essay, and when I asked from what email, it was Mrs. Hyatt’s. She had sent my previous essay.
I went running to Mrs. Hyatt’s class to ask why she had gone against my wishes. “Christopher,” she said, “you were giving up on your first try, and, like I said, that’s not like you. Maybe it’s not meant for you, but what if it is? You won’t know unless you try again! That’s why I sent it.” I was at a loss for words, because she was right. I accepted the competition with a what-do-I-have-to-lose mentality.
Competition day arrived and I was so convinced that at least a kitchen fire would break out that I didn’t even invite my family to come watch me. Before the competition began, a contestant asked me what I was cooking. I replied, “Some French dish from Emeril that I don’t even know how to pronounce.” I was setting myself up for failure again as I hadn’t even practiced the recipe. By the way, the Emeril dish was pot au feu. As I reflect, I think, Man, that would have been such a mess.
“What are you making?” I asked one of the participants.
“I’m making pasta,” my competitor replied.
“What?” I exclaimed. “You are making pasta for ten thousand dollars?? You are crazy!”
Time to start! We all stood at our stations, ready to begin. As they yelled “START!” I suddenly felt a slight pressure pushing through my chest, like what I had felt when I was ten and discovered Emeril and my love of cooking for the first time. Except this time, something inside of me told me to follow my instincts, cook from my heart, and not to worry about anything else. Without hesitation, I did just that!
That day passed without any fires, classroom showers, cuts, or burns. I won first place and the prize was a ten-thousand-dollar scholarship to attend Le Cordon Bleu. It was the best day of my teenage life. Of course, the lesson I learned surpassed the award itself. That day, I learned that I should always follow my heart, stay true to what I have to offer and to always believe in myself.
I will forever be grateful to my teachers, Mrs. Terri Reyes, Mrs. Graciela Reyes, and Mrs. Hyatt. They believed in me, they knew I needed encouragement, and they pushed me to follow my dreams. This is one story I like to share, because often we think we aren’t suitable for a particular job, or we think the dream is too big for us to accomplish, and we end up belittling ourselves. But that’s, when with more courage and even more determination, you should take on the challenge and give it your all. As Mrs. Hyatt could see, I could have failed, but what if I succeeded? Just entertaining this possibility made me get to where I am today!
Attending Le Cordon Bleu was everything I ever wished for. After all, this was where the Queen of Culinary, Mrs. Julia Child, attended. Being the first in my family to go to college was important to me, and it made my family and I proud. I also valued my family’s and teachers’ opinions—making them happy was very important to me. I remember numerous mornings making large quantities of various stocks, crying while chopping pounds of onions, and even practicing how to make a perfect tourne (which, by the way, I still don’t know how to make, and why should I?). Every day, there were tons of recipes, techniques, and culinary histories to learn. But the effort was well worth my time, and the reward was always in the cooking and the tasting. It is no wonder that I gained over 25 pounds within a year of attending Le Cordon Bleu. I have to admit there were some pounds shed in molecular gastronomy class, which was also taught along with vegan class—neither of those was my cup of tea. My favorite memory was learning about wine. It was a room full of eighteen-year-olds drinking up to six glasses of wine with different pairings. As the student council president and a student ambassador, I was a little worried about illegal drinking, but it felt different in the context of culinary school.
After graduating and working at a few restaurants, I decided that I wanted to open a catering company. At the young age of nineteen, I did just that. I had no idea what I was signing up for. Maybe my mind was at ease because I was about to put to use everything I had learned in culinary school and from working in my parents’ restaurant. Nine years later, I am confident that this was the best decision I have ever made. Of course, it was a huge responsibility, but with every event and each client there was always something new to learn. To this day, I have catered over one hundred weddings and have even done some divorce parties. I have had the honor and pleasure to cater for some of the largest companies such as American Airlines and Royal Caribbean.
But being a young businessman, and only nineteen, it wasn’t as easy as it seemed. While you would think that adults would celebrate young talent, for me, it was the complete opposite. At first, it was very difficult for me to land any events because I was “just too young.” I remember leaving a tasting once in tears as the bride told me that the food was great, but that she couldn’t trust a nineteen-year-old for her special day. And there were many others like her. At some point, I just started telling people that I was a chef-in-training when they asked if I was the owner. I would simply say “Me? A nineteen-year-old? Owner of a catering company? Impossible!” My strategy worked, and I started to book more events. It baffled me that many people would reject me just because I was too young. I am glad I went through that, because as the years go by, I have realized how important it is to support and mentor young entrepreneurs and chefs in the making, rather than shattering their dreams.
In my catering company, I started experimenting and creating my own dishes and flavors in the kitchen. That’s what I love about catering—every event is unique and has its own menu. With every menu, there is a new recipe, and I was eager to create and test as many as I could. After finishing a dish, I would often think, This is missing a sauce, or we need to add something to this side to make it unique. Over time, that mindset—treating dishes as an experiment—led me to create my own distinct flavors and dishes that are unique, like my cilantro chimichurri, my signature garlic aioli, and my fried chicken.
But as successful as my life had become, there was something missing. I still dreamed of cooking on TV, sharing my recipes, and inspiring the world. Around the age of twenty-two, I made some home-cooking videos that never aired because I was afraid, and I was overweight. The content was great, and it was really me, who I am today: a bit of humor, good food, and inspiration. At times, I even had a hard time looking at myself in the mirror. It was a painful feeling. One day, I went to my doctor, and she looked at me with the eyes of a worried mother. She told me that if I didn’t lose weight drastically, I was at risk for a heart attack, and that nothing would bring me back to life. I admit that her comment scared the fudge out of me. I immediately joined a gym and hired a personal trainer. Within months, I shed the pounds. Even with a slimmer me, I still didn’t feel ready to conquer my TV dreams. I erased the home videos and never wanted to see them again, and, to this day, I never have. Some things are best left in the past.
However, the weight loss gave me the confidence to work on another passion of mine - acting. I attended the Miami Acting Studio for two years. I remember the first day. My acting coach, Ralph, asked me why I wanted to be an actor. “Because in my life, growing up, I had to be an actor every, single, day,” I said. He asked if I had any prior acting experience, and I mentioned the fifth-grade production of The Wizard of Oz. My role was the head munchkin. The acting classes helped me overcome my fear of what people would say about me, and I stopped fearing that little red recording light. I also benefited from a year of visiting my life coach, K, who was an old friend. I completed her tasks and assignments, and I felt ready for the next step. I felt as if I could do anything to make my dreams come true. Though I was working on preparing myself, I wasn’t quite ready yet.
As exciting as working on your future might be, there will always be speed bumps that slow us down. One such speed bump took its toll on me. After months of trying to fix a relationship that seemed unfixable, I decided it was time to say goodbye. It was a relationship that I gave my all to, and at times did a little too much of that. I’ll be honest, as strong as I am, this really broke me. I went through months of depression, bitterness, confusion, and a feeling of emptiness. I lost all desire to do anything.
Everyone kept telling me the same thing: “Time will heal your pain.” Let me tell you something about time: the wounds hurt less as days go by, but the memory of the pain will always remain. Little did I know that this black cloud would follow me around for over three years.
I found myself at the lowest point of my life. I started traveling anywhere I could, thinking it would distract me, thinking it could take the pain away, but that didn’t work. But, as they say in the entertainment industry, the show must go on. I knew I had to do something, and I wasn’t about to give up, because giving up has never been an option. I kept thinking of young Chris, how he never gave up and how he would not let anything or anyone bring him down. The one thing I knew I had to do scared the hell out of me, but it was the answer—the only thing that could actually distract me. I promised myself not only to do it, but to give it my all. And that is when I took out a sheet of paper and started to sketch out my ideas. What would come of those notes was Cooking with Chris.
I knew I wanted to be a TV chef, but it’s not easy to get that job. Similar to when I created my own business, I would have to create my own platform, and I knew that it would take time and effort. After weeks of preparation, I was ready to film my Cooking with Chris YouTube Series, which today has over fifty episodes. Not only did I create my own channel, but the experience saved me at a time when I was most vulnerable. After releasing the series, I started participating in as many food events as possible and asking others to join me in charity work—something that has been dear to my heart since high school. Slowly, I started to appear on as many news stations as I could to promote any current project, Cooking with Chris episode, or just to share a new recipe. The more TV time I had, the more I wanted. It was like craving a cupcake while on a no-carb diet. Don’t get me wrong. Many doors were closed in my face. There were dozens of unanswered emails, and even a few ignored phone calls. But I wouldn’t let that discourage me—I still don’t. I kept giving it my all, kept proving myself, and kept saying what I had to say. Eventually, with time and hard work, opportunities would come knocking at my door.
I always dreamed of someday being on the Food Network—ever since the age of ten. And, years later, after having those visions as a child, it happened. I applied for an audition, and I got the call. The rest is history. I was cast on season 14 of the Food Network’s Food Network Star and Star Salvation, a show I grew up watching and always dreamed of being on. The visions I had as a child were slowly all coming into reality. It was like going on a mission to The Food Planet, where everyone speaks your language. Also, you could get any food product you could imagine. Of course, the pressure was high. I was literally surrounded by over twenty cameramen waiting to capture all of the action.
The adrenaline was at an all-time high, the thoughts and ideas flying through my mind at a million miles an hour. And of course, the show biz element demands that I had to do it all while smiling for the camera. To spice it up a notch, I got to hang out with Giada De Lucentis, Bobby Flay, and Alex Guarnaschelli as mentors to guide me through the competition. All of these chefs were idols that I grew up watching and admiring their work.
The experience itself was priceless. I especially loved all of the amazing co-stars that I am happy to call friends: Jason, Samone, Rebekah, Christian, Jess, Amy, Harrison, Katie, Aron, Palak, and my buddy Manny. They are all uniquely talented, and we all share the same goal, which created an instant bond. I love them all, and they made the experience even more unforgettable. Today, we still keep in touch with our group chat named after our favorite word… “Delicious.”
Looking back on my life so far, I wouldn’t change a thing. I have truly been blessed since day one. No one’s life is perfect, and mine has been far from it, but I have never allowed my past to define who I would be in the future, and ive never given up. I wake up every day with a feeling of nostalgia and a mission to accomplish. Passionately, I share everything I can with my fans and anyone I come across. My mission is to inspire and teach about food, which isn’t so hard, after all - food is the one thing that we all share and have in common—we all like to eat. My travels have allowed me to meet people from all over the world, who also have stories to tell, and different foods and cultures define these stories. Wherever I am, I always find myself going back to where it all started: the kitchen. That is because it is the one place where I can create, recharge, reimagine, and reinvent myself. It is where the dream of that little boy began. One day, he thought, I will share my passion for cooking with the world.
Source: Chris Valdes "One With The Kitchen"