A fresh face on the Memphis culinary scene, Valarie Hall is no newcomer to the food business. She’s a fourth-generation chef who grew up in hotel restaurants, including ones at the Boca Raton Resort & Club and the former Trump Taj Mahal. Her resume includes positions with the Four Seasons Hotel Los Angeles and Pebble Beach Resorts. Among the elite local chefs who are appearing at the upcoming Memphis Food & Wine Festival, Valarie is now the executive chef at Ridgeway Country Club, where she treats her members like family. Her real-life relatives are also a part of the scene, as her father is the general manager and her fiancé is the bartender. Since moving to Memphis three years ago, Valarie has made Midtown her home, where she lives with fiancé Kobie Grimes, dog Hannibal and cat Scar Adventure St.Croix. Get to know Valarie Hall — today’s FACE of Memphis!
Tell us about your upbringing.
My father was a corporate chef for Marriott and Interstate, so we were constantly in transition. He would open up the restaurants for any new hotel, and we were in there before they even opened — running around with the chefs. The chefs were our friends, our babysitters. Being able to go into the big shop at the Boca Raton Resort & Club and go into the cookie box in the cooler to see all the different cookies — the macaroons and canapés and everything your imagination can go wild on — and I didn’t know anything different. I thought it was normal to be able to run through kitchens and dodge grease fires.
How did you know you wanted a career in the food industry?
My great-grandfather was a butcher, my grandfather was a butcher and restaurant owner, and my grandmother was a home baker. I didn’t have a choice; it’s always just been in our blood. One of the stories my father likes to tell is that when my brother and I got punished, we had to peel garlic. The cooks would take a crate of garlic bulbs, break them up and put them into a bucket. Then, they would sit us on a milk crate, and we would start peeling. My father said he knew he was in trouble when I just kept smiling. He did it so I wouldn’t want to be in the kitchen, but all I wanted to do was be in the kitchen.
Did you attend culinary school or learn on the job?
My father was one of my biggest educations. He gave me my knife skills. I was probably 6 or 7 years old when we would take the silver skin off the tenderloins. I didn’t do any culinary school; I didn’t need to. I would have loved to go take more classes, but I was able to do that through the Four Seasons. If you wanted to learn sushi, they brought in the top sushi guy. If you wanted to learn how to make pâté, they taught you. They never said no to you. If you wanted to go to another property and work for a bit, they let you. The Four Seasons gave me an outlook on life — even more so than just a job.
How would you describe your cuisine?
For the longest time, I said I was upscale homestyle, but I’ve evolved. I’m bringing in flavors from everywhere. I just did a miso-glazed halibut with a Mexican papaya salsa and a sweet potato ginger purée. I mean, where does that come from? It’s really just imaginative cuisine.
What’s the most popular dish that you serve at Ridgeway Country Club?
Probably my wild boar lasagna with rosemary tomato cream sauce. The lasagna takes seven days from the day I start preparing it to the day when I can actually cut and serve it. I get my boar flown in from Texas and marinate it in Tuscan flavors and red wine for four or five days. Then, I add salted pork belly, grind the meat and do my mirepoix. I cook off my meat, drain it and reincorporate the fat and juice to make my roux. My lasagna are my fresh pasta sheets. I grind my own Parmesan and mozzarella. It’s a process. I make it once a month. But I’ll have members that will order eight or 10 at a time. I’ll portion, freeze and Cryovac, so they can just take them home. I give them directions along with my sauce on the side. Most of the time, I’ll even give them the pan to do it in, and they just bring it back.
Do you have a signature dish at the club?
I do a Friday night fish special. I do all my in-house butchering. I bring all whole fish. I get daily messages of what fish just landed inland from my fish companies. If they get spear-caught hog snapper, I’m first on the list for that. If there’s a 40-pound wreckfish off North Carolina, I want that wreckfish.
Which three ingredients should every cook have in the pantry or fridge?
Being in the South the first few years, there was so much butter in everything, I actually gained 60 pounds. Since February, the country club’s kind of been on a diet with me. So I’d say infused oil — chile oil, basil oil, cilantro oil. The club members don’t miss the butter. Another thing I can’t live without in my kitchen is at least a 20-year-old balsamic. I was in Florence last year, and I got my collection for about the next 10 years. In my personal kitchen, it would be Kerrygold butter, an Irish pure butter.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in Memphis, and why?
I go to places that have food I don’t really cook every day: Phuong Long, Bhan Thai, Sekisui in Midtown, India Palace. I go to The Majestic Grille for brunch if I ever get a Sunday off. I’ll cruise through Alchemy every once and awhile and have a cocktail and a little bite. I’m usually going to cook my own steak, but I’m a Ruth’s Chris girl at heart from when I was a kid.
How would you describe the Memphis food scene?
Extremely diverse. You can find something for everyone’s palate at pretty much every price range — casual to high-end. There’s really something for everyone.
How did you get involved with the Memphis Food & Wine Festival, and what will you be making for this year’s event?
Al LaRocca, a gentleman who cofounded the event, is one of my members, so that’s how this all started. My brother, Ashton Hall, was actually the one signed up for Food & Wine last year, but he ended up having to move, so they asked me if I wanted to do it. I’m like this little country club chef out in Germantown, where all my members are happy and I’m recognized among them, but no one knows me. I go to meetings with all of these really amazing chefs, and it’s such a boys’ club. I kind of sit to the side with José [Gutierrez] from River Oaks, because he loves me. Last year, I made wild boar bolognese with homemade herbed ricotta and little fresh noodles. This year, I’m doing a white truffle risotto, chanterelles, duck confit and chicharron. I’m getting two big Parmesan wheels. I will cut open the top and hollow out some of it for the risotto. Every time I scoop the risotto, I’ll get a layer of that cheese mixed in.
What is your best piece of advice?
Always ask questions if you’re unsure. I don’t mind if you don’t know; we can learn it together. Telling me you know how to do something [when you don’t] is one of the worst things. Before I hire someone, I’ll give them a few simple tasks, and about 50 percent of the time, they don’t ask questions, and they’ll do it wrong.
What are three things you can’t live without — with the exception of faith, family and friends?
My pasta machine. Can I say my hair scarves and my wardrobe? I’m in chef’s clothes all the time, and I’m super ’40s, ’50s and ’60s throwback [in my style]. I’ll be full-on dolled-up pinup when I’m not at work. I always wanted some Food Network show like “Pinup Val.”
Thank you, Valarie! To learn more about Valarie’s menu and dining events at Ridgeway Country Club, visit ridgewaycountryclub.com. And to learn more about the upcoming Memphis Food & Wine Festival, visit memphisfoodwinefestival.org.
Thanks to Micki Martin for the fabulous photos of Chef Valarie Hall!
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