Behind the Line

Interview by Erin Jackson |
Culinary Personalities

Miguel Valdez—a man of immense culinary talent—recently received an American Dream award, presented during the National Restaurant Association’s Faces of Diversity Awards Ceremony. The award celebrates the accomplishments of individuals from diverse backgrounds who have realized the American Dream through hard work, determination, and enterprise. Helming two restaurants is only one of Valdez's proud accomplishments, though part of what has earned him such respect is his “no bark, no bite” policy—a respectful approach to work that helps maintain a productive, happy kitchen and moves young chefs to work toward their own success. DiningOut got the scoop on what it's like to cook with him, and how his inspiration is paving the way to San Diego's delicious growth.

What are some of the toughest challenges you've faced on the road to becoming a chef?

In my early years, I struggled with trying to stay out of trouble. It was inevitable in my area of San Diego. It may not seem like a dangerous city, but there are areas where you pick up trouble and temptation. Now, I unnecessarily stress over whether I can give people something really good. I’m always raising the bar for myself.

How did you stay motivated during those difficult times?

I credit my my wife and son, and the acknowledgements that came from diners when I created something they really loved. Those compliments drove me to create special dishes. This motivated me—and in turn, I motivated the rest of the staff.

Who were some of your biggest supporters at the restaurant during your rise from line cook to executive chef?

Justin Watlington, the owners’ son, was a big supporter. He always saw my potential. When the former executive chef left, he walked up to me and said, “Congratulations, you’re going to be the chef of both these restaurants.” The owners and the management team have also been supportive. They helped to guide and teach me. They were patient, and I worked hard to make these two beautiful restaurants successful.

How are you helping others at The Red Door and The Wellington Steak & Martini Lounge to reach their own goals?

I show them how to make sure the kitchen is a well-oiled machine. I guide them, but I also want them to figure out some parts of it on their own. That’s the best education you can give someone.

What advice would you give to aspiring chefs who have similar goals, but also face the many challenges of the industry?

Just work hard. Keep doing the things you need to do to make sure the place where you work is successful. That's how you as an individual become successful.