Running a restaurant kitchen is a big task. It takes organization, patience and management experience — not to mention major culinary skills. So when the executive chef position is held by someone under 35, it’s worth noting.
Meet three rising stars with Howard County roots who are already top chefs in the local restaurant scene.
Cynthia Valles, Phoenix Upper Main, 32
As a junior at Columbia’s Wilde Lake High School, Cynthia Valles would watch her father, Julio, lead the kitchen at Phoenix Emporium, she recalls. At that time, she worked there as a dishwasher. And she washed more than plates.
She recalls the unenviable task of scrubbing the kitchen floors at the end of each night.
“It wasn’t easy,” she said. “[My father] pushed the limits. But all for the right reasons. You have to start there.”
Almost two decades later, as the executive chef, Valles works alongside her father at Phoenix Upper Main in Ellicott City, where he is her executive sous chef. She has held the job since January.
“We’re very much the same. We feed off each other’s creativity,” Cynthia Valles said. “Before, I was younger, and I didn’t understand why he pushed me so hard. But now I get it. He keeps me on my toes, that’s for sure.”
It was that tough love and the experience of working her way up through the industry that prepared Valles to deal with obstacles from those who have doubted her because of her age, 32, her height — she’s 5 feet and 1 inch — and that she’s a Latina.
“Of course, there have been times when people doubt me,” she said. “I just have to keep my head down. The boss eventually sees. The way the world is changing — you see more females in big positions. But you do have to work a little harder. There is definitely resistance.”
Her work ethic prepared her for challenges as she worked in other kitchens such as Southern Provisions in Baltimore and Stanford Grill in Columbia and working with the famously temperamental television celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay.
“What you see of him on TV is what he’s like in person. He definitely knows his way around the kitchen,” she said.“The whole time I was anxious. All my muscles would hurt because how tense it was. There were all those cameras.”
Valles said she takes a collegial approach when supervising her team.
“I don’t expect them to call me ‘chef’ every five seconds. We’re all the same. If I ask you to do something, I will do it myself. I’ll never make them do something that I haven’t done. It’s not a dictatorship.”
She added: “I’m fair with them. I’m the first one there and I’m the last one to leave. Wherever I’m needed, that’s where I’ll be.”
A colleague’s opinion: “She has taken what she has learned and has put her unique spin on classic tavern food. She is a tremendous asset. She has earned the respect of everyone around her. She has been a tremendous asset to us. She is definitely in charge” — Mark Hemmis, owner, Phoenix Upper Main
Casey Dowling, Victoria Gastro Pub, 25
A less-than-pleasant experience in a previous job shaped the way Casey Dowling runs the kitchen at Victoria Gastro Pub. The self-taught chef, who has been working in the restaurant industry since she was 17, says it’s all about leadership.
“I don’t like bossing everyone around. You just kind of lead the way,” Dowling said. “Everyone has a different personality. But when you are true to yourself and have respect [for others], things work out in the end.”
Dowling, a Wilde Lake High School graduate who lives in Jessup, started working at the Columbia restaurant two years ago as a pantry cook. Within six months she was promoted to working on the fryer and grill.
After a year, she was lead line cook and moved to sous chef before becoming an executive sous chef and then executive chef in January. In her position, Dowling leads a kitchen staff of 50.
“We have fun in here. I have my respect. But everyone gets along for the most part,” she said. ”When we have disagreements, everyone comes together. It’s not shallow. We don’t do the small-talk thing. I’m leading in a direction that I would have wanted to be led in my path.”
Dowling balances her career with being a new mother. She had first child, a daughter named Ahjanna, in June.
“Honestly, I’ve got more energy than before. Feeling the purpose [of motherhood] on top of the adrenaline rush is pretty wild, but it’s a worth-it feeling. It’s pretty awesome,” she said.
A colleague’s opinion: “She treats all the employees that work with her like family. Once they work with her, they don’t leave. She’s not a hothead chef. She’s doesn’t lose her cool. She’s a good teacher. She likes to know what all the hip restaurants in the city are doing. She’s just smart.” — Heather Gotcher, chief operating officer, Victoria Restaurant Group LLC.
Steve Colegrove , Sykesville Station, 32
Steve Colegrove is applying his love of Southern cuisine to create an approachable, low-key restaurant in Sykesville Station, housed in the former Baldwin’s Station.
He was selected to lead the new restaurant, which was slated to open in August, with an upscale Southern menu.
Colegrove lives in Catonsville but grew up in Ellicott City, where he attended Mt. Hebron High School. After 13 years of working at various restaurants in the Baltimore region, Colegrove said he’s excited to return to his Howard County roots. The restaurant is in Carroll County, just over the Howard County border.
“It’s kind of nice to come out to the [area] and do something creative out here,” he said. “I like it out here.”
“It [working at Encantada] did open my eyes to playing with vegetables and making them shine. It was a cool experience,” he said.
Colegrove also had stints as a chef de cuisine at Under Armour and as a sous chef at White Oak Tavern in Ellicott City and the now closed Saute in Baltimore.
He said Sykesville Station will take advantage of the space’s outdoor deck, which seats 100 people and overlooks the historic train tracks.
“The energy that we are bringing to this space hasn’t been here for 20 years,” he said. “It used to be a fine-dining event space. We’re doing a completely different thing. What we’re really pushing for is a local crowd, a more sustainable crowd.”
Colegrove will keep his staff small. He doesn’t expect his kitchen to be more than seven or eight employees.
“I keep it pretty lean. All of our staff has experience. I think that COVID-19 was a part of me getting to hire so many talented people,” he said. “We were able to hire a lot of people and give people a living wage, which has been a blessing. I’m glad the owners were receptive to that. I’m really excited about that.”
A colleague’s opinion: “He’s just very jovial. He’s got a kind heart. And he loves food. He’s excited about food — whether it’s South Asian, Italian or new American. He’s educating the staff. And he’s just an all-around great guy.” — Christopher Santiago, assistant general manager, Sykesville Station