“I came home from work one day and my wife, Courtney, told me that Top Chef was holding auditions in Denver. I thought that was cool but didn’t take it much further than that. She did. She looked straight at me and said, ‘No, I already bought plane tickets. You’re going.’”
Pretty quickly, 34-year-old Del City native Josh Valentine found himself on a jet to the Mile High City. After a few days of auditions, he secured a spot on the Bravo TV show. Roughly 2 million viewers per week tuned in to watch Valentine and 20 other cooking ninjas race the clock and make culinary magic for the show’s 10th season.
Before he traded the hot lamps of a kitchen for the hot klieg lights of a television set, Valentine owned and operated Oklahoma City’s popular Divine Swine Pork Bistro. It landed him the Oklahoma Restaurant Association’s Hot New Concept Award in 2012, and his signature candied bacon sticky buns developed a cult-like following.
In addition to offering habit-forming food, Divine Swine served as a training ground of sorts. Valentine prepared all of the items on its menu from scratch. And cooking from scratch is what Top Chef is all about. Valentine learned early in his career that scratch cooking gave him the most control over the quality of the food he served. He doesn’t fight with purveyors to get the right ingredients. He cooks from scratch so he can guarantee that the food tastes better.
Toward the end of 2012, Valentine shuttered the doors of Divine Swine. It was made clear to him at the show’s auditions that the competition would be a 24/7 endeavor. From the minute he hit the tarmac in the host city of Seattle, it was game on. With its unusual challenges, the show pulls chefs out of their comfort zones.
Alas, no challenge demanded candied bacon sticky buns, and on the season’s 15th episode, it was duck that sent Valentine home. More specifically, it was a duck liver. Foie gras torchon is hard enough to make without racing a clock. It was the toughest dish he was asked to prepare.
“It’s virtually impossible to make foie gras torchon in two days. It’s usually a four-day process. But I had my mind made up. I was going to try. If I had pulled it off, the outcome probably would have been different.”
In the second to the last episode of the season, Valentine was asked by host Padma Lakshmi to pack his knives. He made more than a good showing, placing third. But, by then, he had something else on his mind – the birth of his daughter, Georgia. A longing to make it home in time for her birth was with him for most of the show’s season. He wasn’t just under the gun in the kitchen. He was under the gun at home.
“As we got further and further into the show, I thought about it more and more. When we got down to the end and there were just three or four of us, I was thinking that I’d make it home on time to see Georgia born. I was always thinking about it, but I tried not to dwell on it when I cooked. But any time somebody misses a life event like that, it’s going to affect them somehow.”
When he thinks back on his performance, it’s the stress that stands out the most. The days were long, never less than 15-hour stretches. Racing the clock again and again while meeting the demands of tough challenges was rough, but not that unfamiliar to him. Chefs encounter Quickfire challenges everyday. It’s how the good ones work.
“Working under stress is normal for a chef. Stress is an everyday thing. In a restaurant, we’re trying to get food out in a timely manner and make sure it’s perfect for the guests. It was the same kind of deal on the show. The stakes were just higher here because everybody in the country was watching us. But chefs actually thrive on stress.”
An exhausted Valentine didn’t make it home in time for Georgia’s birth. But he spent plenty of time with her before kicking off his next venture, The George Prime Steakhouse. Scheduled to open in late November, it will occupy the top floor of Oklahoma City’s Founders Tower. It will command the best view of the city, but that might go unnoticed by diners distracted by the food. While the restaurant will be a steak lover’s dream, Valentine plans on making it stand out with dishes unavailable at other steakhouses.
The George’s location is a bold indication of Valentine’s aspirations for the restaurant. The iconic, Art Deco building bills itself as the most exclusive address in the city. After a long vacancy, its rotating top floor will once again be home to some of the best food in the city. Previous restaurants on the 20th floor of the well-known building have set high standards for George Prime. Nikz At the Top, a much-lauded steakhouse, closed its doors amid legal wranglings in 2007. Before Nikz, it was home to The Eagle’s Nest, another well-reviewed steakhouse and Oklahoma City fixture – and hands down the most popular location for wedding proposals – for more than two decades. The owners of George Prime aren’t intimidated. Valentine’s proven himself in the kitchen, and his business partner, Kevin George, part owner of InterUrban Restaurants, brings heavy-hitting business acumen to the game.
And in case anybody’s wondering, the fate of the sticky candied bacon bun has not been sealed.
“There’ll definitely be desserts as cool as those. If we decide to open up for brunch, you’ll see the sticky buns again. They’ll also be around at special events and other things. They’re making a comeback, for sure.”