Top Chef Season 9: The SoCo Connection

SR Native Chuy Valencia, Janine Falvo on Top Chef Austin

Just a week into Top Chef Season 9, more than a dozen contestants have been unceremoniously chopped in Austin. From a pool of nearly 1,000 candidates, a record 29 chefs appeared on the season’s premiere, vying for the final 16 spots.  Among them, two chefs with Sonoma County connections: Former Carneros Bistro Chef Janine Falvo and Chicago Chef Chuy Valencia who grew up in Santa Rosa.

Falvo hit the “bubble” — a sort of purgatory — early in the show and never made it forward (she opined it was for a lack of visible tattoos, which she attempted to rectify with a purple Sharpie to the forearm).  But Valencia seems to be a serious contender after sailing through Round 1.

The owner of Chilam Balam, a Mexican restaurant in downtown Chicago, his saucy small plates have garnered critical acclaim and a  nod on Guy Fieri’s Diner’s Drive Ins and Dives). But the Santa Rosa High School grad grew up inspired by his mom, Leticia’s homestyle cooking. And his dad’s barbecuing.

“He used to get his hand in everything. He’d put his hands on the spices and put a little bit of this, that in everything. He was always watching me and his mother,” said Jesus Valencia, Chuy’s father, who lives in Santa Rosa. As a child, Chuy divided his time between Santa Rosa and Colima, Mexico where his grandfather had a family orchard and was a butcher by trade. He was always interested in food and all the good things to eat on the farm,” said Jesus.

Chuy’s favorite foods? “Anything with meat. I got him hooked on barbecue. The staple was meat, he’d eat steak and eggs or chilaquiles in the morning,” said Valencia. Another favorite: Cecina, a sort of Mexican beef jerky. When he’s home, Jesus said a favorite restaurant is Sonoma’s Girl and the Fig. Raised in Sonoma County with parents who grew food in their own backyard and always had some good to eat on the stove, he’s brought much of that influence to his Chicago eatery, supporting sustainable local ranchers and farmers.

It’s obvious from videos of Chuy, that he’s got a serious swagger and doesn’t mince words — as evidenced by plenty of bleeping in his bio. Jesus laughs it off, “He does not take no for an answer. Growing up we thought he could have been a lawyer. He can open doors. He’s a talkative guy.” Hired as a sous chef at age 19 by celeb chef Rick Bayless, Valencia quickly made it through the ranks at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, and claims to be a favorite of former boss Bayless.

So does dad know the outcome of the season? “I tried to ask him. But he can get into a heap of trouble if he says anything until the competition is over. I know he can’t divulge anything, but I wish he would,” said Valencia. Either way, Jesus and wife Leticia said they’re already proud of Chuy. “The competition is really good this season. They interviewed like 1,000 chefs, and he got his chef jacket. I hope he goes all the way, but i’m proud already. Anything else is icing on the cake.”

Watch Top Chef at 8pm and 10pm on Bravo each Wednesday Night.