Catching up with Valentine Howell Jr. ahead of ‘Top Chef’ premiere


Viewers can catch Valentine Howell Jr., former executive chef of Krasi and owner of Black Cat Eatery, on season 21 of ‘Top Chef’ starting March 20.

Top Chef contestant and Boston chef Valentine Howell Jr.
Valentine Howell Jr., former executive chef of Krasi and owner of Black Cat Eatery, is a contestant on season 21 of Top Chef. Stephanie Diani/Bravo

Some of the country’s most promising chefs are headed back to the competitive ‘Top Chef‘ kitchen, where all but one will be told to pack their knives. Will it be one of Boston’s own?

  • Chef Karen Akunowicz just opened a restaurant at Logan Airport

On Wednesday, Boston fans of Bravo’s cooking competition show can catch Valentine Howell Jr., former executive chef of Back Bay’s Krasi and a James Beard Award Best Chef Northeast finalist of 2023, cooking against 14 other “cheftestants” in Wisconsin, the setting for season 21.

The show has been a launch pad for chefs across the country, including quite a few in Boston who have earned themselves celebrity chef status because of and following ‘Top Chef’ — Tiffany Faison of Sweet Cheeks Q and Karen Akunowicz of Fox & The Knife, for example. Even Kristen Kish, a ‘Top Chef’ winner and the new judge to replace Padma Lakshmi, has a Boston tie, having worked as the chef de cuisine at Barbara Lynch’s recently shuttered Menton. 

Chefs Valentine Howell Jr., of Boston, and Savannah Miller on season 21 of ‘Top Chef.’ David Moir/Bravo

Except for short stints out West, Howell has spent his entire career cooking in Boston. He attended Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury for its culinary program, his first restaurant job was at Papa Gino’s, and he worked in a kitchen at Fenway Park when the Red Sox won the World Series in 2007. Howell worked in various kitchens before landing the job that changed everything for him: executive chef of Krasi, which opened in 2020. 

As is always the case with reality TV contestants, Howell couldn’t share any details about his performance or challenges. But the chef, who recently left the acclaimed Greek wine bar to focus on a pop-up concept he and his fiancee started during quarantine called Black Cat Eatery, shared what’s next for him in Boston, which area restaurants are impressing him right now, and who’s the toughest of the judges. 

This interview was edited for clarity and brevity.

What made you become a chef?

My dad was a chef when I was a lot younger. That kind of was the catalyst to me wanting to or thinking about being a chef. I went to Madison Park Technical Vocational High School specifically for culinary. But of course when I got there, there’s so many other things to do than just be a chef. I was playing football heavily. I had joined the Marine Corps ROTC there, so I almost went off to the military. And then I almost went to go play college football. But both of those things fell through. And I’m here where I’m supposed to be.

And how’d you get to Krasi from there?  

I worked for Mastro’s, but I was only there for a year until Krasi fell into my lap. That was fate. A friend of mine who is a partner in the restaurant group wanted to talk to me. I was one foot out the door of the industry because I really didn’t want to cook anymore. Mastro’s was … super monotonous, very robotic. The only creative ability I had was staff meal. (Krasi) was looking for a sous chef at the time. I did a tasting for them and met everyone, and at the end of it, they were like ‘we really loved everything that you did. We want you to run the restaurant.’ 

What made you decide to do ‘Top Chef’?

It’s always been a dream of mine to be on the show. At the beginning of 2022, I said that it was going to be my year. I didn’t exactly know what for, but I just had a feeling. The restaurant really took off and started gaining a lot of accolades. I made it to the (James Beard) finalist list. And then ‘Top Chef’ came along, and I was like ‘This is the year. I feel it in my bones.’ I didn’t know if I was going to get on. But when I finally got that call, it was the cherry on top. 

Contestants on season 21 of ‘Top Chef.’ David Moir/Bravo

That’s quite the trifecta — how exciting. But how challenging was ‘Top Chef’ really?

This was definitely the most challenging yet fulfilling experience of my culinary career. I don’t care what anybody says watching from their living rooms. It’s nothing like being there. People really took time out of their careers and lives to solely focus on training for the show. It’s definitely a mental game, a physical game, but it was amazing. 

So, who’s the toughest judge? 

They all have their things. But I guess for me, I think it would have to be Tom (Colicchio). Gail (Simmons) is super sweet, and she knows her s—t. Kristen brings a new perspective to the show, being the new host and also having been on the show and gone through everything we went through and rose to the occasion and won. But Tom is a tough cookie to crack. 

What’s next for you and Black Cat?

More pop-ups. Most recently, we’ve been partnering with Lamplighter Brewing in Cambridge. We’re looking to partner with other breweries and restaurants to really show the range of Black Cat as not just tacos. We want to do more plated things without being too pretentious or too upscale. I want to show my range, techniques, and flavor profiles. We’d love to be up there and considered with the great restaurants like Comfort Kitchen here in Boston. I personally look to them for inspiration for what I’m trying to do because of where they opened up in the city. 

My last question that hopefully isn’t too hard to answer: name a few restaurants or food service businesses in Greater Boston that deserve a shout out right now.

Comfort Kitchen. I think they’re doing a fantastic job with their cocktail program and their food. I’d like to give a shout out to the Urban Farming Institute here in Boston. Urban farming is definitely the way of the future, and we need to all get on that. Via Cannuccia on Dorchester Ave.: Another local spot that is doing really great things for sure. Dan Bazzinotti is doing great things with Blue Ribbon Brasserie. He’s a good friend of mine. Big ups to him for sure.

Season 21 of ‘Top Chef ‘premieres Wednesday, March 20 at 9 p.m. ET. Episodes will be available to stream on Peacock the following day.