My respect for Chef Valerie has only grown from the first time I met her at an event in April 2009. Her grilled Colorado lamb loin with bacon braised mustard greens, rhubarb jam, and foie gras red wine sauce probably remains one the few dishes I have found so irresistible that I actually savored it. Usually I devour food, but I ate that lamb so slowly I imagine it was painful to watch. It was a dish I obsessed about for months; it even still comes back to me during dreams. (I’m not kidding.) While that dish made me an instant fan of Chef Valerie, what made me adore her was the music she selected for that event: AC/DC. I don’t mess with girls who love AC/DC; they’re tough and I respect that.
So when I witnessed the petite Chef Valerie command a room of buzzed and lively foodies who wanted to do yoga with her specific directions and her glorious demonstration of headstand and then handstand, I flipped my lid. Chef Valerie became more than a Top Chef cheftestant, a fan of AC/DC, and a faithful yogi, she became one of the gnarliest people I know.
She’s a woman who puts her heart into everything she does from cooking to yoga to travel. She’s a proud omnivore who’s taking on the challenges of vegan and gluten-free cooking for the fun it. (See her blog post about it at http://valeriebolon.wordpress.com) Her ability to shake up the Chicago dining scene through underground means—check out her Culinary Speakeasy—is just another testament of her vision, drive and passion. Chef Valerie is one of those people you want on your side. And you can taste it in her food.
Some people live to eat--Valerie Bolon lives to cook. Born and raised in the Chicago area, Chef Valerie developed a passion for food at a young age, helping her mother prepare family dinners. But it wasn't until after she earned a bachelor's degree from University of Illinois that she decided to pursue a future in food by enrolling in culinary school. Valerie spent two years earning an associate's degree in culinary art from Kendall College.
Since then, Valerie has employed her talents in an array of settings-each of which refined her skills and tastes. Chef Valerie spent ten years cooking in the kitchens of Chicago-based restaurants that blended traditional and contemporary cuisine including Gordon, Spring, MK, and Hot Chocolate. Broadening both her palate and her technique, Valerie spent a year mastering French Creole cuisine in the world-renowned Emeril's Restaurant in New Orleans. After ten years practicing every aspect of the trade--from butcher to baker and line cook to sous-chef--she stepped out of the restaurant, packed up her knives and headed into the kitchen as a personal chef for individual clients, families, and small parties.
Valerie's adventurous spirit has led her to travel the world--exploring every continent except Antarctica--in pursuit of fun and flavor. Whether she is climbing Machu Pichu in Peru or backpacking through the jungles of Cambodia, each trip abroad brings her culinary tastes and skills to new heights-inspiring new and bold creations for all appetites.
In the fall of 2007, Chef Valerie was selected to participate as a contestant on Season Four of the internationally-acclaimed television series "Top Chef." After her brief stint cooking for a national audience, Valerie has since devoted her talents as a chef to support worthy causes; Valerie cooks for a variety of charitable organizations and events such as Paul Newman's Painted Turtle, Common Threads, and Meals on Wheels.
In addition to working for individuals, families and non-profit organizations, Valerie has recently formed her own underground dinner club, called Culinary Speakeasy. In this newest endeavor, Valerie creates gourmet meals for club members who crave quality cuisine, good company, and the comforts of home.
Chef Valerie Bolon interview with Amanda McGuire
Even before Top Chef you were a recognized chef, but after the experience you’re even more so. What’s the behind-the-scenes experience as cheftestant? And how has the experience affected your culinary perspective?
In general, Top Chef was a pretty crazy experience for a number of reasons. Firstly, the challenges in doing a competition of this caliber were twofold; competing with some really talented people in such a strange and foreign environment that no one is comfortable with, being totally secluded from the outside world for the entire time we were filming, and having no creative inspirations whatsoever made it very difficult. And the second, managing our nerves on a daily basis which was almost even harder than the food challenges, well certainly at the beginning. Never knowing what to expect at any given moment of any given day. Initially wondering whether or not our brains would allow us to produce anything at all once given a challenge was extremely difficult. I think getting the opportunity to challenge oneself in a way that not many people get to in life really makes for a very unique experience for anyone that gets chosen for this show. Also, putting yourself out into the world to be judged in front of millions of people is not something everyone can do. Not only are we being judged by some of the most respected chefs in the industry, but we are being judged on the one thing that all of us claim we do the best in life. It takes a certain strength of character to really understand that at the end of the day what matters most is what we feel about ourselves and that the lesson is always to work hard and do your best and the rest, well, is just the rest.
No, it's not very realistic to expect people to have 20 minutes and 10 dollars and have to put together a dish using one aisle in the supermarket, definitely not (for example). I mean, in what circumstance in life would a person ever really have to do this? Which is yet another reason why the experience is so unique and nerve racking. But it is also the reason anyone who takes this opportunity can feel good and proud with themselves for being able to step up and challenge ones self in a way that not many do. Just to be able to think quickly and produce some sort of tasty product is quite a conquest in my humble opinion and truly sets some people apart from others.
I think the notoriety is the main motivator to do a show such as Top Chef. The notoriety sudden propels a person into a chef status that is truly respected and admired no matter which challenge you get eliminated on. I have found that people love this show and really do have the utmost respect for the contestants and very much understand how difficult it is to perform under those circumstances. Even 3 years later I still get people recognizing me and asking me about my experience. People are intrigued and want to know how real it is, how hard it is, and what's Padma like (of course). I enjoy telling people about the experience because I know how the real fans love it, and they want to know that it's ten times harder than it looks, which it absolutely is! But it's honestly a level of instant respect that it brings to a person's career.
Where do you draw inspiration from when you create dishes for your clients and the Culinary Speakeasy?
My inspirations come from every aspect of my life. Whether it's going out to eat, trying new things all the time, or just simply talking to my friends and family about food. Eating, drinking and meeting people are all the things I love most in life and I make sure to embrace any opportunity I get to do such things. My travels are probably the main inspiration in my life, though. I have spent the last 15 or so years backpacking my way around the globe solo, and to me this is where the true depths of my soul come alive. Whether it's Africa, Southeast Asia (which had some of the best food I've ever eaten), South America or Spain, roaming around eating with the local and learning about where their food comes from and how they cook and what different cultures value, really gives me a greater understanding of myself and ultimately my food. When you think about it, food is truly the most universal thing in the world. Everybody has to eat to survive and every culture is indescribably connected to their food which is where the true inspiration lies.
Recently you’ve embarked on a new journey; you’ve begun a Culinary Speakeasy? Why did you decide to take a more underground approach to sharing your food with others?
I decided to start doing these dinners about a year ago because I really missed something about restaurant cooking and the whole dining experience. I thought it would be fun to able to cook my style of food and create a fun and unique way of dining. I wanted people to be able to get together over great food and wine and some of the things that I am passionate about. Being able to change the menus all the time and cook what’s seasonal and local is always a priority as well.
I know part of supporting local foods is supporting local animal farmers and butchers; you’re a proud carnivore. However, I saw a recent post on your personal blog where you discussed exploring vegan and gluten-free cooking. How does cooking for different diets and food-style choices affect your role as chef?
My good friend started this website called YumUniverse which celebrates good vegan and health conscious recipes. As any rational, pig eating chef would be, I was very skeptical at the beginning, but I tasted her food and realized that my friend has a great talent for coming up with new ways to approach food. So we are going to do some vegan speakeasy dinners together and really explore food in some other fun ways. For me it's about experimenting with food and learning other ways to make it taste good. I think there are so many people who are becoming more conscious of what they eat and where it comes from so we just want to create food that is unique healthy and very tasty. So I've decided to blog about random food ideas and thoughts whether they are vegetarian or full on animal lovers galore.
After talking with you extensively about yoga, I wondered if yoga sometimes was responsible for inspiring a dish. Does yoga inform your cooking in any way?
Well, what can I say except that I am a total addict. I love the practice of yoga for so many reasons. The main one being the connection between the mind, body and spirit that it brings. I'm not a very spiritual person by nature, non religious in any way but yoga seem to allow me to feel connected to the world and more importantly to myself, much in the same way traveling does. Having body awareness is a true gift that I have learned over the years and one that I find to be extremely important to create balance in my life. It's incredible to challenge your body physically and to really understand how your body works. Yoga is a life long process, something one can never really 'master' if you will, which is the true beauty in it. It leaves no room for competition, only finding a oneness within one's self. Knowing that some days your body doesn't want to do certain things and some days the body is so open and understanding is usually a result of what's actually going on in the mind....thus awareness. I love it and just keep getting better and better at understanding myself through this challenging practice and therefore it helps in all aspects of my life, cooking at the top of the list, of course.
Some of my favorite poses are those that encourage my creativity (well in my own mind, for whatever reason) such as doing inversions. Headstands, handstands and backbends are really things that somehow inspire me the most. But also being able to do things now at age 34 that even as an active kid involved in gymnastics and iceskating and things of that nature I was never able to understand or do. I love the instant enlightenment that yoga potentially possesses at times as well. There are moments in yoga and thus in life that you realize if I just place my hand an inch to the right I now can balance in a handstand; for example and that's a moment of true enlightenment about something that I've been working on for 9 years, but suddenly body awareness takes over and the practice truly becomes a gift. It's almost a metaphor for daily life if you allow yourself to see it that way. It's about feeling strong and centered, which is why I love balance poses of all kinds. But when I really think about it, all yoga poses are balance poses...maybe that's the strange irony now isn't it?!
Creamy Onion Soup with Caramelized Apples, Bacon and Pretzel Croutons
2 large sweet onions, peeled and rough chopped4 cloves garlic, minced
small handful of thyme1 bay leaf
1/4 pound bacon, small diced3 granny smith apples, 2 peeled and rough chopped for the soup and 1 for garnish, if desired
1 quart chicken stock (water can be substituted)1 quart of apple cider
1/4 c. parsely mincedsalt and pepper
In a large stockpot, render the bacon until the chunks are crispy golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside on a paper towel to drain off fat. Next add the onions to the stockpot and cook at medium heat until the onions begin to caramelize stirring occasionally. Then add the garlic, thyme, bay leaf and apples and continue to cook making sure the onions turn golden brown. Cook about 10 minutes and then cover with cider and stock. Bring up to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer. Cook at a simmer until everything is soft and tender, about 30-40 minutes. Remove from the heat and puree the soup in small batches in a Cuisinart. Strain the soup and season it with salt and pepper to taste.
Peel the remaining apple and cut into a small dice or brunoise (which is an even smaller dice) and cook in a sauté pan with a touch of butter, salt and pepper for about 3-4 minutes. For pretzel croutons simple cut up a pretzel roll into a small dice and place on a sheet try and toast briefly in the oven at 375 degrees for about 10 minutes. Add apples, pretzel croutons and parsley to soup before serving.