Valerie Bolon is the cat’s meow. Don’t believe me? Check this: In the culinary world, Bolon has worked with some of the greatest chefs including Emeril Lagasse (Emeril’s New Orleans), Mindy Segal (Hot Chocolate), Don Yamauchi (Gordon), and Shawn McClain (Spring). Previous Bravo TV Top Chef contestant and now personal chef, Valerie is one of the coolest chicks in the Chicago food scene. Last week, I had the honor of sitting down with Valerie at The Map Room, a fitting scene for this experienced globetrotter, to talk about her background in food, personal endeavours, her childhood crush on Jack Tripper, yoga, and her latest project with business partner Rachel Winpar, Culinary Speakeasy. What started out as an interview for a write-up turned into the beginning of a friendship…something that is easy to do with a gal like Valerie.
Born and raised in Glenview, Illinois, Valerie comes from a very close family, a set of people she often referenced as being the core to her strength throughout all of her culinary and travel experiences. Every night at 6:30 sharp, dinner was on the table, no exception. This type of tradition taught Valerie from a young age that food equals people coming together. In fact, Valerie would tell you that the beginnings of her desire to deconstruct and” build something from nothing” -as she refers to her excitement when cooking- can be credited back to her working with her dad on building and fixing things around the house when she was young. Years later that same desire to dissect things manifested itself in the world of food science at the University of lllinois. Valerie completed her program and received her degree, but something inside told her she was cut out for something else… something off the radar and definitely out of an office. The summer after she graduated, she took a job at a bakery and soon realized that this was the something different she had been looking for. Working with actual food, not only the science of it, would provide her the avenue to play, build, break down and put things together again. After completing culinary school, Valerie left the states and traveled- an evolving passion and something she would return to time and time again to find inspiration and creative energy. Upon her return, Valerie set off for New Orleans to work for the infamous Emeril’s. She credits his restaurant as the place where she learned the most about what it takes to be a chef. Thrown into the fire, working every station from pastries to the hot line, Valerie had to learn fast. She quickly realized there was a hierarchy in the kitchen and in order to succeed, you needed to put your head down and get the job done…humbly and without question. This was the different that Valerie had craved. After a year and a half at Emeril’s, Vaerie set off to travel once again in order to find the inspiration for her next journey. She says food has always been the best way to learn about different cultures , and this has always shaped each of her new adventures. Most impressive to me was Valerie’s uncanny recollection of her travels including details of all of the places place she has visited, how she got to those places, the strangers who became close friends and the food that served as a vehicle to the rest of the world. It was fascinating to hear speak so vividly about travel and one can tell how inspired it has made her as a chef and as a person. Learning about cultures in different places has continued to encourage her work as a chef, having traveled to over thirty-five countries by the age of thirty-six. Impressive, indeed.
When she returned from traveling, Valerie made her rounds in Chicago going from noted restaurant Spring to the infamous Hot Chocolate. She continued to travel in between, but she describes working at these restaurants as another milestone in her career. At Hot Chocolate, Valerie says she really began to understand the invaluable tool of working with desserts. Anyone who is a serious pastry chef will tell you the specificity involved in a recipe is downright a science…something Valerie was familiar with from her days at U of I. Through these experiences Valerie learned how to be a good leader, and if she had a philosophy it would be, as she puts it “Just get involved in life” and get involved she did. When Bravo producers came to Chicago to scout potential cast members for the fourth season of Top Chef, Valerie was recommended by Mindy Segal as an ideal addition to the cast. Bravo reached out, Valerie accepted, and the rest is history. Although, she was voted off early, Valerie does not regret the experience and was very happy for her Chicago friend Stephanie to take the title as Top Chef winner. She said the biggest lesson she learned was to always remember to be more confident because when you are confident, you win in everything. Being from the Chicago area and with season four being filmed here as well, I asked Valerie if the city she calls home as influenced her craft. She answered “People make a place beautiful. People make life so interesting”. This is when I fell in love with Valerie. This is where her and I see eye to eye. Now a practicing yoga instructor, Valerie has found a way to balance her energy while still promoting her enthusiasm for life. She emanates an energy that is alive yet peaceful. Her tremendous charity work has helped her to give back to communities while spreading the joy of life to all that will join her.
Currently, Valerie works as a personal chef and is half of the team for Culinary Speakeasy- a supper club event held several times throughout the year at her business partner Rachel’s home- a stunning and sprawling downtown apartment with five balconies and views to die for. The menu replicates the beauty of the atmosphere in its simplicity and taste. Using seasonal and local ingredients, Valerie and Rachel know how to throw an elegant yet warm, sophisticated yet down to earth event that highlights amazing cuisine. There is no shortage of food on their five course menu and guests are invited to purchase wine to accompany their meals. Most recently, Valerie led the team in the first ever Farm to Fork dinner in Naperville. Taking her leadership skills to a whole new level, Valerie led a team of mostly strangers to head up one of last season’s most exciting farm dinners with a guest list that well exceeded three hundred people.
These days, Valerie admits she misses working with a team and is seeking out new projects for her career. She will also tell you the only way to keep moving forward in life is to hone your craft. Valerie lives food as she also admits it is what she thinks about all the time. Yoga practice centers her thoughts giving them a depth that they have never had before. This is what makes me most excited to see where Valerie’s adventures will take her next. “What matters is the effort. I measure myself against myself”, Valerie says as we finish our beers and chit-chat with everyone from the bartender to the bouncer who gives us some of his homemade chili before we end our night at the Map Room. She even has her name written on the one of their infamous chalkboards above the bar. Of course she knows everyone here. Of course the Map Room is her neighborhood watering hole. Yep, exactly my kind of gal.
Peep some photos from October’s Culinary Speakeasy with Valerie and Rachel.