Over the last 40 years, chef Guillermo Valencia cooked for Senator Ted Kennedy, managed more than 220 cooks, and competed across Europe.
Guillermo Valencia starts and ends most of his days in the dark. As head chef at the Huntington Crescent Club, a prestigious country club just outside of Long Island, sixteen-hour shifts are de rigueur, especially for the ones in charge.
No one knows this better than Valencia. He's spent the last four decades working inside some of the world’s largest and most exclusive clubs and banquet halls. All these years later, he finds it virtually impossible to quantify the amount of people he’s served or plates he’s cooked.
But ask him about the time he met Ted Kennedy, and he’ll have no problem walking you through every last detail, even down to what he cooked for the Senator that day.
“It was a simple saffron risotto with seared scallops and roasted asparagus,” Valencia remembers. “After lunch, he charged into the kitchen and demanded to talk with the person who made the food. When I raised my hand, he told me it was the best lunch he ever had in his life.”
Valencia, who at the time was an 18-year-old chef’s intern at the U.S. Embassy in London, was, naturally, in shock. “He told me if I ever came to America, to call him and he would help me start my career,” he says. “I didn’t know what to say. It was crazy.”
Three years later, in 1985, the Barcelona native moved to the U.S., and with help from Kennedy, he says, he landed in Washington, D.C.
“I worked for a few years at the Capitol, the Pentagon, and the FBI and CIA buildings as a banquet chef,” he says. “It was a daytime job, so on the weekends I worked as chef garde manger at the Kennedy Center. I cooked for many different embassy and political events.”
Valencia’s initial opportunity through Kennedy quickly snowballed into a 40-year career overseeing large-scale kitchens, and gave him the opportunity to complete in European cooking competitions in Germany, England, and France.
“Doing this job would be impossible without organization,” he says. “I make all of the plans, I design all of the menus, I handle all of the shopping lists and purchases. No matter where I’ve worked, it’s all come down to a science with running these operations.”
It wasn’t until Florida, working at the PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach, where Valencia scored his biggest opportunity yet: Oversee more than 220 cooks and more than $65 million in food revenue, between the hotel, the club, and nearly a dozen on-site restaurants. As executive chef, he was in charge of thousands of guests, and at times, he and his team prepared up to 6,000 meals per day, averaging about 1.3 million each year.
“I love the action,” he says. “I never have and never will work in only one restaurant. I can’t imagine that life.”
Though Valencia loves to cook, his role now keeps him in meetings rather than on the line. After he arrives to the Huntington Crescent Club around 6:30 a.m. each morning, he prepares for his 9 a.m. daily meeting. Once he’s out around noon, he roams the dining halls and restaurants to meet as many guests and members as he can. There are about 1,000 at the club each week, which means Valencia oversees the preparation of more than 1,200 meals or more, depending on what events are scheduled.
“You can’t do this job, or at least be successful at it, without passion," he says. "The main point in this business is loyalty and consistency. It’s all about the members, which is different than running a single, traditional restaurant.”
About a 10-minute drive away, Valencia returns to his home in Northport, New York around 10 p.m. most nights. He only has about eight hours until he gets up to do it all again. Sometimes he goes right to sleep, but other nights he rides his stationary bike or plays the drums to work off the adrenaline from the day.
“Many years ago, around the beginning of my career, I met my wife and we had two kids,” he says. “She passed away, and ever since then, everyone I’ve worked with in all of these clubs have become family. Now my daughter is 28 years old and my son is 30, but when they were young, I would bring them to work, and everyone – the cooks, housekeepers, and other staff – would help me. This job can get demanding, but I’ve had a beautiful life. I wouldn’t change it.”