But that's exactly where he is today — and it's thanks, in part, to a bad breakup.
"I was in deep depression. It was something I had never gone through, and I knew I had to do something that would help me distract my mind," Valdes tells New Times. "I went to Paris, London, Rome, New Orleans, San Francisco — and none of that did the trick. So I woke up one day and I said, 'I’m going to work on my childhood dream.' I always knew I was going to be a chef, but I never knew I would get this much love and support from all over the place."
Valdes has since become a popular culinary talent. Awarded a $10,000 scholarship to Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts at an early age, he opened Chris Valdes Catering at 19. A decade later, the business continues to thrive, a success that has allowed him to partner with numerous brands and corporations from American Airlines to Royal Caribbean.
Valdes has been featured in countless South Florida publications, and competed as a finalist on season 14 of Food Network Star. (Next month, the chef will also appear as a contestant on the 50th season of Food Network's Chopped.)
But life wasn’t always easy for this talented young chef. His father was incarcerated for nearly two decades, during which time Valdes' family lost their home and restaurant business. That adversity, though, fueled his desire to make something of himself.
Valdes tells New Times that he began cooking as a child, mainly as his stepmother's sous chef. It quickly became a favorite pastime, alongside watching his culinary inspiration, Emeril Lagasse, on TV.
Cooking With Chris, wherein he shares his recipe tips and tutorials with thousands of followers.
"For years, people had been asking me where they could purchase my cookbook — and that’s when I realized it was time to actually write one," said Valdes. "I wanted to make something more than just the ordinary cookbook. I wanted to talk about my story and how I got to where I am. I wanted to share childhood stories, embarrassing stories, and open up about the persona behind the chef."
To that end, One With the Kitchen ($30) recounts Valdes' experience as a young entrepreneur who was inspired by his stepmother's cooking. Those memories, combined with the triumphs and tribulations of working in the industry at an early age, helped shape him into a chef and TV personality.
Valdes has imbued the book with a decidedly '90s vibe, offering readers a mix of what he describes as "old-school Latin recipes with a touch of modern influence." The autobiographical work includes 70 of his most popular recipes, from a Cuban steak sandwich with pickled jalapeños and caramelized onions to chili shrimp with pico de gallo topped with feta cheese.
One favorite recipe is his stepmother's boliche, a Cuban-style pot roast his mother would make to celebrate his birthday. The dish begins with citrus-marinated beef that's stuffed with chorizo and olives before it's tied and slow-cooked.
"Growing up, I would see her invest hours into creating it, making it with tons of flavor and love," Valdes says. "I still like watching her make it, and I still ask her how to prepare it even though I know how — just for the sake of keeping the kid inside reminiscing and remembering the old times where this love in the kitchen began."