In the year Pilar Valdes has been on TV, searing steak or torching meringue on “The Drew Barrymore Show,” she never seems to break a sweat, or her smile.
Amid the talk show’s feel-good news bits and cozy celebrity sit-downs, her cooking segment is more like a call to play than to follow directions. Pilar might giggle, mid-garnish, as Drew recalls a silly moment they shared; or she’ll sample a dish with a gleeful wiggle while her famous co-host breaks into a full-on twirl. Their tandem serves up a refreshing twist on TV food prep. After all, not every home cook wants to toil through a masterclass with Gordon Ramsay, or is moved to make a bearnaise by a sultry, silver-tongued Nigella.
If Drew and Pilar are like gal pals raiding the fridge after a night out, it’s because sharing a kitchen is familiar territory. Since Pilar became Drew’s personal chef in 2018, the duo have made lots of delicious mischief together, feeding a friendship in the process.
Many recipes from Chez Barrymore made their way to “Rebel Homemaker,” a book they published together. Since its release last November, the book became a New York Times best-seller. It’s also led to some very public things for the once-private chef: Pilar giving Drew a sisterly snuggle on the cover of Cherry Bombe. Or last month, chatting up Whoopie and the ladies on “The View.” She even met David Chang on-cam, not to mention cooked him a dish from the book.
There’s been a lot for Pilar to shimmy about lately. Still, sharing author credits and screen-time with a beloved Charlie’s Angel takes some getting used to.
“If you watch any of the earlier episodes of the show, there’s two things I would always do that I cringe and laugh at — I would talk really slow, trying to calm myself and remember the 25 things that go into a dish. And I am clutching the countertop because I am trying to steady myself!” Pilar says with a tremorous laugh. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, you’re so relaxed, you just have your arms on the table.’ No, no, no, I’m clutching that table, hanging on to my dear life, because I’m so frickin’ nervous!”
In interviews, they often describe meeting at a crossroads: Drew, freshly divorced and futzing through her new life in New York; Pilar, ping-ponging through other people’s swanky kitchens, still reeling from the departure of a longtime business partner. They became a culinary Thelma & Louise, cruising through the winding tastes of the actress’s massive cookbook collection and kicking their own fun into recipes that served as pitstops.
Suddenly, Drew was asking her to drive their kitchen counter into the homes of millions of people. As someone who didn’t even have an Instagram at the time, Pilar may as well have been asked to speed off a cliff.
“I was like, ‘I’m not a TV chef! Please — I’m happy back here!’” says Pilar on resisting an appearance on the show’s test pilot. Cooking for America’s reigning sweetheart was one thing. She certainly had no plans of cooking for the world as well.
“‘Dude, please, just do this,’” Drew urged. “We’re gonna cook one thing, it’s gonna be a lot of fun. I can’t imagine doing this with anyone else, will you please say yes?’”
As unsettling as an on-set kitchen can be, it’s not the first time Pilar cooked out of her comfort zone. To operate a catering business from your tiny apartment may be up there in the realm of risky ventures.
She’d spent nearly a decade working at nonprofits, from clocking in clerical work as an intern to raising funds as a deputy director. She was nearing burnout and its only balm seemed to be cooking for friends in her spare time. Pilar’s dinners were memorable enough that word soon got around. “I can’t remember if it was for a wedding shower or a baby shower, but someone I didn’t know asked to pay for my cooking,” she recalls, hesitant at accepting the gig before realizing she’d already done dinners double its 20-person guestlist. “If it goes badly, then it goes badly — I can walk away.”
After the party, people approached her instead, asking for a business card and balking when they discovered she didn’t cook for a living. “Maybe you should consider it because you seem really passionate about it and your food is really good,’” she was told.
That same day, she called up Binh Ly, a friend and coworker also aching for more time in front of a stove than behind a desk. In 2010, they started Kickshaw Cookery, offering packed lunches by subscription; everything made from scratch with seasonal ingredients. “We were cooking out of our homes and under the table for the first few months,” Pilar says, laughing. “This was pre-Uber, pre-all of those [delivery apps], so we would carry the food on the subway and criss-cross the city like lunch ladies.”
From feeding a “very small, dedicated clientele,” Kickshaw soon shifted gears, landing a commercial space that same year. For two career renegades with neither a culinary degree or restaurant stint between them, moving up to a food incubator meant no turning back. Pilar often began breakfast prep at 4:30 a.m., wrestling 200 pounds of food into tasty submission, then spent the next 15 hours on her feet. She was exhausted, sure, but raring for more.
Kickshaw’s clientele grew steadily for the next few years. But by 2015, Binh decided to move back to Texas, where her family runs restaurants of their own. “The way we worked and the bond we had, that was very hard to replace,” says Pilar, who for a moment considered a return to nonprofit work. “I mean I still loved cooking and feeding people but I wasn’t sure what the next step forward was. It was at that point, actually, that I met Drew. Suddenly, this whole world of opportunities opened up for me.”
“Chef for Drew Barrymore” is an e-mail subject line Pilar won’t soon forget. If she hadn’t met the star for a job interview, where she’d be now is anyone’s guess.
“I don’t think I ever had a super clear vision of what I wanted to be. I’m not career-oriented in that way, where, when I was a child, I envisioned being a doctor — or my husband, he always knew he was an artist,” she says of Gabriel, a filmmaker and musician. Even her siblings, award-winning designer Bea Valdes among them, seemed destined to create for a living.
She was always curious about food, however; an instinct fed by her mom, who let her order anything she wanted at restaurants, so long as nothing was left on her plate. “One of the things I really picked up from her was a very strong reliance on my palate — to always taste and figure out what you like and don’t like. No right or wrong, just what is it about this thing that you find interesting?”
Feeling flavor out is a principle that guides “Rebel Homemaker” — and not just where food is concerned. Assembled entirely over the pandemic, the cookbook is also a gratitude journal. Imagine “Chicken Soup for the Soul” delivered in Drew’s signature lisp — from the a-ha moments of a single mom to her hopes for a society confronted by Corona. If the essays are a heart-to-heart between friends, the recipes aim to be just as soothing; a motive most obvious in a squash risotto they’ve called “Autumn Hug in a Bowl.”
With Pilar as her “culinary partner in crime,” it’s as if Drew vows to kill any bad vibes you’ve come to your kitchen with. Of course, food snobbery never stood a chance. “Drew taught me to embrace certain ingredients. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with iceberg lettuce in my life — now I can get down with it!” Pilar says of the faded salad bar standby, crucial to giving “Rebel’s” breakfast tacos its crunch.
The duo aren’t so much lifestyle authorities as comfort food freedom fighters. They’re certainly not above saluting a TikTok-famous way to enjoy instant ramen, or giving a Pinoy pantry icon the spotlight. “Whoever calls out Campbell’s, I will fight you,” Pilar laughs, referring to the cream of mushroom soup her mom used to heat up on sick days. “Even though it was de lata, I didn’t care! Even though you made it with evap, never mind! It always felt really fancy and special to me.”
With almond milk, cauliflower, and a heap of shiitake and cremini to chunk it up, Pilar’s “Ode to Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom Soup” is a cleaner route to the nostalgic craving; brightened, even, with a touch of balsamic vinegar.
“One of the things I really love about these recipes is they’re a true marriage of Drew’s palate and how I like to cook,” she says. “I love to lighten things up. Even though something is really rich, there’s something interesting to interrupt the taste, whether it be a crunch or pop of freshness.”
From grating lemon zest onto pasta to scrambling eggs with yuzu kosho, many dishes offer a sunny escape and at least a bit of wanderlust on the plate. Pilar even manages to whisk readers to her native Philippines via a recipe for kilawin — fish cooked with a squeeze of citrus and topped with coconut.
With some lofty food magazines circling around her to collaborate, there’s no doubt Pilar’s palate has taken her places. Still, there are days when all she can taste are the insecurities of a self-taught chef who’s winging it on television.
“What is my papel here on TV? I ask myself this many, many times,” she says, recounting the umpteenth time she bungled recipe ingredients on the show. “I tend to be hard on myself but Drew always tells me, ‘Dude, if you weren’t doing okay, [the network] wouldn’t have you back. This isn’t a favor to me. You’ve got to trust you’re doing a good job.’”
She added: “My wonderful husband told me, ‘You just have to think of that person out there watching, the person who you can get excited about making things.’”
For many of us, after all, motivation might take the form of a pixie-haired Filipina whose smile is as hardy as her love for canned Vienna sausage. Someone clumsy with blender buttons, or who gets so giddy about a grilled cheese, she does a happy dance as she snacks straight from the skillet.
Really, when you see someone have that much fun in the kitchen, it’s hard not to want to enter it.
Listen to the author's interview with Pilar Valdes below.