Chef Chat Part 2, Cunninghame West of Valentino Restaurant

Yesterday, Chef Cunninghame West told us about some of his adventures in Maui and Santa Barbara after he graduated high school. You can read about it here.

Today, we talk about how he came to be at Valentino.

EOW: After Santa Barbara, I understand you spent some time in San Francisco.

CW: I moved to San Francisco with a girlfriend. When I got there, I was at a local tavern, where I asked one of the waitresses if she knew of any jobs. She told me that a famous chef was opening Bubba's Diner, so I went in to see if I could get a job. Now, at this point, I thought I could cook. Steve Simmons, who's currently chef at Skywalker Ranch, asked a basic question. He asked me to make mayo and thousand island dressing.

EOW: And let me guess, you couldn't make it.

CW: No, I couldn't. I realized that I didn't know how to cook. I could take what people had prepped for me and heat it up in a pan. After six years with Steven Simmons at Bubba's Grill in Marin County, I became his "white knight." He was black and he tells me that there was a beam of light shining on me when I walked in.

EOW: I like that. White Knight.

CW: I worked eight hours on on Tuesday and 16 hours on Wednesday and Thursday -- 40 hours in two-and-a-half days. I only worked the night shift. We had 34 seats, so I met a lot of people, and celebrities like Santana, Huey Lewis, Sean Penn. I met chefs and caterers too, and picked up another job doing high-end catering. I cooked George Lucas's daughter's graduation party. Then my sister passed away from cancer. It was time to move.

EOW: I'm so sorry...

CW: I had a contact in Seattle. Jason Wilson, a chef, taught me how to cook in Maui. He was a surf buddy. So I moved to Seattle and worked at four different restaurants there. It was there that I met my wife, who was a pastry chef at Stars. I stayed in Seattle for one-and-a-half half years before moving to Vegas. She knew about Valentino, so I applied. Renato de Piero -- who's now at the Hotel Granduca here in Houston -- was at Valentino. He says, "You come in when you're ready." They were going to have me start line cooking, but it was big pay cut so I kept on looking.

EOW: Where did you end up?

CW: I got a job at Joel Robuchon's La Mansion at the MGM for three weeks. Then 9/11 hit. I wasn't union, so I got laid off. I went to Park City, Utah and worked the Olympics. It didn't go so well. Then Renato called me back and asked if I wanted to be sous chef. I was sous chef for three years at Valentino, but then I quit to become Executive Chef at Gaetano's in Henderson, Nevada, an Italian restaurant. We got named best new off strip restaurant while I was there.

EOW: I remember you saying you had your own restaurant.

CW: Yes. My mother had put in a B&B in my hometown and bought a bank building, where we opened up a restaurant. It was in Pearisburg, VA -- Paris is spelled Pearis, not like the city in France.

EOW: Cute.

CW: We opened in 2005. We were open for four years, and it was a hit immediately. We made money from day one. It was a good business, but then Luciano called me and asked if I'd be interested in opening a third Valentino. It was an amazing opportunity. So I sold the restaurant and moved to Houston.

EOW: And here we are now. What exactly is your role at Valentino?

CW: I'm Executive Chef of the Hotel Derek, which means I'm responsible for anything food-based -- the bar food at Vin, Fine Dining at Valentino, banquets, the employee cafeteria, and room service.

EOW: You're not always in the kitchen, then?

CW: I make sure everything is organized. As a chef/owner, when you write your paycheck, it comes out of your account. I was responsible for everything. I was the prep cook, cook, dishwasher, even front of the house for a while because my wife, who was going to be front of the house, got pregnant shortly after we moved back to Pearisburg. So I've done that...Here there is a lot of menu development. I take care of food costs, employee relations.

EOW: Tell me about menu development.

CW: We have a unique approach to Italian food here. Luciano won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southwest. He was the first chef to blend fruit with seafood. When we first opened, I worked on the menu in Vegas with Luciano. We had a very aggressive, different menu than we have now. We had a seven-course tasting, a five-course tasting, and tons of daily food specials. The menu was a lot more ambitious. But now we have a more simplified menu. It's more user-friendly.

EOW: What is the philosophy behind the menu you have now?

CW: I learned a lot from Steve Simmons, who told me "Never waste flavor." From Christopher Fernandez, I learned "How does it eat?" From Luciano, I learned "Have your dish thought out before you start," in other words, thinking of the color combinations and the dish as a whole.

EOW: What's the must-have dish here?

CW: The lobster mezzaluna. It's our signature dish.

Check back with us tomorrow when we taste what West can do when he's in the kitchen.

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