By Clarissa Buch
Photography by Felipe Cuevas
The new chef charged with leading one of Fort Lauderdale’s most iconic restaurants, Valentino Cucina Italiana, isn’t quite what one would expect. Joel Ehrlich, the tall and slender 45-year-old, is exceedingly stoic. In a time when chefs of his stature are almost always synonymous with stardom, Ehrlich is refreshingly humble. Ask him about his successes, and he’ll credit those who generously guided him or simply claim they came out of sheer luck.
But as someone who has been tasked with taking over for one of South Florida’s most beloved culinary figures, Valentino’s chef and owner Giovanni Rocchio, there’s more to it—and Ehrlich’s journey into professional cooking proves just that.
Growing up, Ehrlich never wanted to work in a kitchen professionally. In fact, when he graduated high school, he was on track to study marine biology at Florida Atlantic University with dreams of becoming a high school science teacher. In 1995, after spending a summer with his brother, Adam, in North Carolina, Ehrlich’s life took a drastic turn. Recently discharged from the Army, Adam was living near Fort Bragg and planning to attend culinary school when Ehrlich came to visit. As any little brother would do, Ehrlich followed.
More than 20 years later, Ehrlich isn’t a science teacher, but loyal diners at both Valentino and sister restaurant One Door East consider him a professor of flavor. Ehrlich educates diners on the emotional connection behind food, such as the feeling one may experience when biting into savory agnolotti carbonara that’s expertly topped with a dash of black pepper, pancetta and parmesan foam.
“The way we present this dish at Valentino is exceptional,” Ehrlich says. “We transform the carbonara sauce into a gel-like paste and infuse it into the pasta, resulting in an explosion with every bite. There’s a multitude of textures, but the flavors diners are familiar with, the flavors that will remind them of the past, are very much there.”
Though Ehrlich has worked in kitchens since he was 13 years old, he didn’t start cooking until his mid-20s. When Ehrlich was a teen, his father, a police officer, encouraged him to get a job; sweeping floors in a restaurant was all he could nail. Post-culinary school graduation is when Ehrlich truly began to understand the beauty of becoming a chef. He fell in love with the way quality, flavorful food could touch people with a single bite.
Beyond educating, Ehrlich’s own hunger to learn has remained a constant throughout his career, from his first kitchen role in Boca Raton, all the way to acclaimed wine country restaurants, including Philippe Jeanty’s Michelin-starred Bistro Jeanty, Michael Chiarello’s Bottega Napa Valley and award-winning Coqueta in San Francisco. It was at Coqueta in 2012 that he met Rocchio and Elke Quintana, the power couple behind Valentino, the fine dining Italian restaurant that opened in 2006, and One Door East, the newer and trendier next-door restaurant to Valentino serving casual, globally inspired food and drink.
The two men became fast friends, and it wasn’t long before Rocchio invited Ehrlich to Fort Lauderdale as a restaurant consultant for One Door East. “Now it probably makes sense why the wood-burning oven I had at Coqueta is the same one we use now at One Door East,” Ehrlich says.
Less than a year ago, Rocchio asked Ehrlich to leave California and oversee operations at Valentino and One Door East. Rocchio, who has worked in restaurants since the tender age of 7, spent 13 years running his restaurants, in which he rarely took a day off. His goal from the beginning was to elevate Fort Lauderdale’s dining scene, something he feels he has accomplished. With Ehrlich at the helm, this past fall Rocchio decided it was time to move on—to sell his stake to his partners and spend more time with his own family, including his elderly parents. Though Rocchio’s exit appeared abrupt to the public, Ehrlich’s move from California to South Florida was not. It was all part of Rocchio’s plan.
In typical Ehrlich fashion, however, he credits “the stars aligning” as the reason for this success. Ehrlich admits, however, moving to Fort Lauderdale is more than serendipitous. Since he was a child, he promised his parents he would take care of them when they got older, something he had watched them do for his grandparents. “The time has come, and it’s my turn now,” he says.
Beyond the kitchen, Ehrlich and his wife, Amanda, are ready to buy a house and start a family. After less than six months of living in South Florida, they’re weeks away from closing on a property in Fort Lauderdale. Ehrlich’s brother now resides in Missouri, running fast-food franchises across multiple state lines.
Now working at Valentino, Ehrlich isn’t looking to “reinvent the wheel,” especially since he’s taking the reins from a chef as decorated as Rocchio.
“The restaurants both have extremely loyal followings,” he says. “My goal is to open them up to even more people through creating this emotional connection between the diners and our food. You want to bring your customers back to a place or a moment in time. You can have the best tasting food in the world, but if you don’t have flavor, people will forget. Some of my fondest memories growing up were watching the bubbles boil as my grandmother cooked baked ziti. When I taste our Bolognese, I go back to that place. You can’t bottle that feeling and buy it at a store.”
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2019-2020 Issue.