Chef Chat, Part 1: Cunninghame West of Valentino Restaurant Remembers When He Was Homeless, But Had a Porsche
Cunninghame West, Executive Chef at Valentino Restaurant
Photo Courtesy of Michelle LeBlanc
Earlier this year at the Italian Expo, Cunninghame West, Executive Chef at Valentino Restaurant in the Hotel Derek, won the fan vote for most entertaining. Alongside Owner and Executive Chef Luciano Pellegrini, the two chefs were showing off with some air-bound pasta slinging and good, old-fashioned fun.
Meeting him in person, one of the first things you'll notice is how tall he is. Due to his height, he may seem imposing, but talk to him for a few minutes and you'll find that he is imminently approachable and has a great sense of humor.
We caught up with him recently for an afternoon chat.
EOW: You've been here for two years now, but people don't really know about you, do they?
CW: I've been a bit under the radar, yes. What would you like to know?
EOW: Tell me you how you got started.
CW: (smiles widely). This is going to be a long story.
EOW: Ooh, good. Tell me all the juicy details.
CW: I'm from Virginia originally. One of my first jobs was at the Mountain Lake Hotel where they filmed Dirty Dancing. I started as a dishwasher and a busboy -- I was about 16 at the time. One month after high school, I bought a one-way ticket to Santa Barbara.
EOW: Did you have a plan?
CW: Naturally, my plan was to move.
EOW: So what'd you do in Santa Barbara?
CW: I worked at Tinker's Burgers in Summerland five miles south of Santa Barbara, flipping burgers. It was my first true cooking job. From California I then went to Maui, where I worked construction and part time at Moose Mcgillycuddy's in Lahaina. I knew I had to work there when I walked in and saw a T-shirt that said "Where men are men and sheep are nervous." [chuckles]
CW: It was. I hitchhiked back and forth to work daily. When I first arrived in Maui I didn't have a place to stay. The travel people at the airport sent me to the Pioneer Inn, which cost $125 a night. Problem was, I only had $300. So I hid my stuff in the cane fields and looked for public showers until I got set up in this screened in porch for $300 a month.
EOW: I'm afraid of what happens next.
CW: I was a prep cook at Moose's, but I made more money doing construction, so I quit to do construction full-time. But then the GM at Moose's was like, why don't you work at night? So I did that too. I was in Maui for 11 months.
EOW: Why Maui? Was it wanderlust?
CW: Why not? I was young and didn't know any better. A friend had called me and said there was a Porche 911 for $5,000. I sent him payments every month until I paid it off, but then I had to go pick it up. It was in Santa Barbara. So I bought another one way ticket back to California. When I moved back, I had a Porsche, but I was homeless. I slept in a sleeping bag on the overhanging of a cliff in Summerland. There was another man that slept there, they called him "John Strange."
EOW: That's kind of...scary. Why didn't you find a place to stay?
CW: I finally did. And a friend got me a job at the best seafood house in Santa Barbara, the Philadelphia House, but that burned down in the Santa Barbara fires. I stayed at Andrea's Harborside, another seafood restaurant, until the owners sold it.
EOW: So, you never got any formal culinary training?
CW: No. I went to school at Santa Barbara City College, but couldn't figure out a major. While in school, I was working as a line cook.
Check back with us tomorrow when West tells us the rest of the story about how he became to be Executive Chef at Valentino.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Houston dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.