'Top Chef' exit interview: Chef talks emotional final episode and the beauty of Alaska

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Image Credit: David Moir/Bravo

SPOILER ALERT: Don’t keep reading unless you want to know who was eliminated from Top Chef last night.

This week’s episode of Top Chef was emotional for the three cheftestants, just one challenge away from competing in the finale. But it was especially tough on Josh Valentine, who got the news that his wife was delivering their daughter while competing against Brooke and Sheldon in Alaska. On top of that, his take-three spin on foie gras got him booted. EW caught up with Valentine to discuss his emotional last episode and whom he’s rooting for in next week’s finale.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This week’s episode was a big one for you — not just with the approaching finale, but with the birth of your daughter. How did you juggle all those priorities?
Man, obviously it was super difficult. That may be the hardest thing that I’ve done. As a husband, you want to do everything you can to be there for your spouse, and I wasn’t able to. So it was really hard on me. I tried not to think about it as much as I could, but obviously that’s always kind of lingering in the back of your mind, especially as we got further on in the competition. Once we got to Alaska, I knew my communication with her was going to be very limited, so I was kind of in the dark. And I finally got a hold of her and it was that time, so it was pretty challenging.

At the same time you guys were really thrown into the Alaskan mix this week, with the glaciers and cooking at a dog sled training camp. What was that like, dealing with the new environment?
Alaska was beautiful, the scenery — it was really cool, and to be able to take a helicopter ride on a glacier was amazing, just to see that part of the world that’s so untouched by man and by modern buildings and all this. It was really amazing. It was truly breathtaking. I think it was probably, aside from my daughter’s face, it was probably the most beautiful thing I’ve seen.

Some viewers were surprised that you went for the foie gras because it didn’t seem like “your cooking” — even though it was supposed to be such a personal challenge. Talk a bit about that decision.
I mean most of my food up to this point has been what some may consider simple and straightforward. But simple food is the hardest food to be because it has to be near perfect. But I wanted to step outside of what the judges were used to and what people were used to seeing me do and do something that really inspired me to be a chef. The first time I actually had foie gras, it connected all the dots for me and it just made sense that this is what I wanted to do. So I had the chance to try and replicate that memory, and I probably bit off a little more than I could chew — I was a little ambitious — but I was happy with it.

Tom made a point to talk about the dish’s difficulty. But on your end, even though it was something that you were taking on out of your comfort zone, what was it like doing three spins on foie gras at once?
Obviously the most difficult component was the one I came up short on, which was the torchon. That’s a process that usually takes two to three days to do and I was trying to melt it down in four hours. And I had the same mind-set throughout the Top Chef journey which was once I had an idea, I was just going to try and do my best to see it to the end. I wasn’t going to try and second-guess myself, because I’ve seen a lot of chefs stumble at that point. I was either going to live by it or die by it. Being stubborn, I had the same idea: in the back of my head I’m going, “You’re never going to get this torchon done.” But I wanted to try and prove myself wrong.

So the finale will come down to Sheldon, Brooke — and the mystery winner of Last Chance Kitchen. Are you rooting for anyone in the finale? When I spoke with Stefan, he said Brooke could win it all.
For me personally, I’m probably rooting for Sheldon. I love all there of them. Everybody that’s in it — Lizzie, Kristen, Brooke, and Sheldon, whoever makes it from Last Chance Kitchen — we all got really close. We were all the ones that kind of, aside from Kirsten, the rest of us went almost this entire journey together so we all became pretty close. But for me personally, I’m rooting for Sheldon. We’re boys.

What was it like to come back and have Emeril cooking for you guys?
Oh yeah, it was totally surreal, completely unexpected. You never know, when Padma says, “I have a surprise for you,” you never know how that’s gonna end up. That could end up really well or that could end up terrible. The whole ride back while she’s driving, we’re all anxious to see what it’s going to be — and to see Roy and Emeril cooking for us, that capped off a terrific day.

Looking back, what was your favorite challenge and your personal proudest moment?
I think my favorite challenge was the Reynolds Wrap aluminum foil challenge. It was a lot of fun. Everybody was at the same disadvantage at that the point, nobody had an advantage over anyone. You were kind of stuck with what you got and had to cook with it, so I thought that was a lot of fun. Obviously my proudest moment would be the fried chicken challenge, where I won all the wine. I got to do justice to my family. I got to honor my grandfather.

Do you feel like your style of cooking came through, that somebody watching the whole season can step away and say that they know what a Josh Valentine menu looks like?
I would say for the most part they would know the style that I cook. It’s pretty simple, straightforward, not a lot of fuss. But at the same time try and execute everything really well, bold flavors. So I think for the most part that came across pretty well.

A last question: What’s next?
Right now, I’m a pastry chef down in Dallas at FT33. I’m just kind of focusing on that. I don’t know, we’ll see what opportunities arise and we’ll just play it by ear and take it from there. Right now I just got to put my head down and keep working.

Read more:
‘Top Chef’ renewed for 11th season
‘Top Chef’ recap: One Mistake
‘Top Chef’ contestant talks elimination and cruise cooking

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