Chef Chris Valdes traveled back to Felix Varela High School to be Principal of the Day, share his signature dish and motivate students through his story.
A 2009 graduate, Valdes, now 26, has his own YouTube channel and catering business, Best Chef Catering, which he started when he was 18.
“This was the first time we’ve given the honor of Principal of the Day to a former student,” said Nery Fins, principal of Felix Varela High School. “In the past we’ve had celebrities such as DJ Laz, the current morning host of 97.3, and Ron Magill, wildlife expert at Zoo Miami, but with him being an alumni we knew this was the perfect fit.”
Valdes got a hero’s welcome as he approached the school. There was a marching band, cheerleaders on both sides of the entrance shaking their pom-poms, and a 7-foot-wide sign in Varela colors of green and white that read, “Welcome Chris Valdes.”
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“This is a 10 compared to a normal school day,” said Nichole Garcia, Gabriela Rivera and Aitana Aponte in unison, all seniors.
“I was almost ready to faint,” said Valdes. “I remembered thinking to myself, that’s not a marching band, that’s not a marching band. It was shocking, but it made the morning that much better.”
The first part of the day was spent baking for students who attend the school’s autism program. The students, who bake every Friday, were made aware a chef was coming ahead of time, said Mercedes Parada, the school’s autistic and intellectual disability teacher.
When Valdes arrived, the students were already donning white chef aprons and toques. They surrounded him at the big baking table, where students rolled out their cookie dough on their trays, something they normally don’t do during their Friday baking.
“They were super excited because they love cooking,” said Parada. “For many of my students, it’s hard to process how to measure and use the recipes, so it’s really nice to have someone come in and teach them something different. It’s very important.”
As the cookies baked, Parada put on some music. Soon everyone was singing and dancing to “Guantanamera.”
Valdes makes sure to give back because he knows how the little things can help change a life. He experienced it first-hand from three of his teachers at Varela, whom he calls “angels.’’
Valdes recalled how he failed a baking competition and felt completely lost. He was showered in flour and cream and even burned his towel. His tart never raised.
“When my friends asked about it, I told them I didn’t want to hear about it,” Valdes said. He told his friends: “I’m going to law school. Cooking is not my thing.”
One of his teachers, Terri Reyes, stepped in. During the school year, she and Valdes would watch the cooking show, “Top Chef,” and talk about it the next day. She told him of another competition, a future chefs of America event at Le Cordon Bleu in Miami, a branch of the famed French culinary school. It didn’t involve baking.
“When Chris said he didn’t want to do this anymore, I remember telling him how most of the people on ‘Top Chef’ always do worse on the baking part of the show,” said Reyes. “I knew what he had in him.’’
While this boosted his confidence, he was still shaky and decided not to enter. A few weeks later, he received a telephone call.
“The school calls and says I’m one of the finalists for the cooking competition and they want me to participate,” said Valdes. “I’m like, what? That’s impossible, I’ve never even submitted anything.”
It turns out another teacher at the school, Sharon Hyatt, whom Valdes considers his second mom, secretly entered him in the competition.
Valdes won the contest. With it came a $10,000 scholarship, which he used to go to culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu in Miami. His winning entree was a chicken and pasta dish.
“I did it for him,” said Hyatt, holding back her tears, as she recounted the story when Valdes came to school. “I could see his potential a long time ago. He’s my Christopher and anyone he comes in contact with he leaves a lasting impression.”
Another teacher, Graciela Reyes, had Valdes as one of her students during her first year at Felix Varela in 2006. She, too, saw his passion. She bought him cookbooks and helped pay for him to have dinner with Paula Deen.
“Chris is one selfless person that I consider one of my children,” said Reyes.
Valdes’ return to Felix Varela brought back all the memories.
“Teachers can make or break you,” said Valdes. “These teachers gave me the confidence by pushing me to become the person they believed I could be. I’m talented, I’m unique and I can’t go wrong if I believe in myself.”
Now that message is being passed down to a new generation at Felix Varela by someone who knows that in many instances, all you need is a little push.