Cover Chef Pilar Valdes with actress Drew Barrymore

Pilar Valdes recounts the leaps of faith that led her to become Drew Barrymore’s private chef, a regular guest on her talk show, and a contributor to her upcoming cookbook.

My path to the stove was never an obvious one, although I have always been, as my mum says proudly, a very good eater. After graduating from college in New York City, I worked in the field of non-profit and philanthropy for ten years before making a (fairly) late-in-life career switch to the culinary world. I suppose it should have been more apparent to me; throughout those years, respite from my office job has found me cooking monthly dinners for 40 people, and baking bread at 4am.

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Growing up, my mother’s kitchen was in constant open-house mode, humming with activity with the feeding of a steady rotation of friends and family. I remember our meals so vividly—like a beautiful roast beef, studded with garlic and rubbed down with fresh herbs. Our sushi nights meant a trip to the Japanese speciality store, and a lesson on how to make sushi rice (I would end up drinking the vinegar-dashi mixture when mum wasn’t looking). Oh, and the mussels—glorious, succulent and fresh, baked in coconut milk and spiked with chillies and deep-fried garlic.

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To be honest, I didn’t really cook much as a kid, but when I moved to New York, I started cooking out of necessity and as a way to ease my homesickness. I think I started out as a pretty horrible home cook! Those early meals were littered with disasters along the way, but I remained tenacious (as did my friends who continued to show up for dinner parties of lopsided dishes and poorly risen bread).

What I would do is read cookbooks all the time, picking out flavour combinations that excited me, and techniques that agreed with the way I liked to eat. I would dine out as much as my budget could stretch, always learning through tasting.

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Eventually, I began my catering company Kickshaw Cookery in the fall of 2010 with my dear friend, Binh. We were both feeling restless in our respective fields of work and were grappling with answering the “what’s next in our lives?” question. Before that, the thought of considering a culinary career had never crossed my mind, let alone the idea of starting my own business. Neither of us had any business background or formal culinary training. What Binh and I did have in common was a strong work ethic, a passion for food and feeding people, a particular culinary palate and a healthy obsession with details.

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Kickshaw Cookery is about trying to capture some of the most important things that surround eating good food: the comfort from something that is made with care; the excitement of discovering new flavours, textures and ingredients; and the relationships built over shared meals.

A few years back, Binh decided to leave New York for Austin, and once again I was faced with the question, “what’s next?” As anyone who has run a catering company (or a restaurant for that matter) knows, it’s tough to go on your own; and so, I slowly started to pivot, focusing more on working one-on-one with clients and their families, as I took a step back to re-evaluate my business.

Becoming Drew Barrymore’s private chef and joining The Drew Barrymore Show has been a surreal experience. When Drew first asked me if I’d consider being on her show, nerves and self-doubt took over, as I’m naturally a private person who is most comfortable behind the scenes and by a stove. I was probably mid-sentence airing the reasons why I was second-guessing myself when she just said, “Don’t worry, I’ve got you. You’re an amazing cook, and I’ve been on TV all my life. We got this.” It’s incredible to have someone in your corner like that.

I always think of myself as someone who is more cautious and risk-averse, but when I reflect on some of the milestones of my life, they do involve leaps of faith. Working with food has really affirmed my belief that we are all teacher-learners. As someone who didn’t go to culinary school, nor worked at a restaurant, I always recognise that there are gaps in my culinary knowledge. But with a lot of reading, eating and leaning on people who have been in the industry for a long time, I’ve grown and made my own way. Hopefully, my journey and my food can teach as well as nourish, or at the very least, give someone that extra push to try something new.

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