Chef John Leonardis graduated at the top of his class at the esteemed Culinary Institute of America (CIA). He has worked at some of the finest restaurants in the country, including Citronelle Restaurant in Washington, D.C. and Trattoria Monaco in Atlanta. Since moving to Arkansas he has been offering cooking classes at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute and the Arkansas Extended Learning Center. He also founded Gourmand Guru Group, or G3, a catering, consulting, and cooking education business.
Chef John graciously agreed to this interview.
How would you describe the Arkansas food culture? Is it any different in Little Rock than in the smaller communities?
I would say that it has more of a metropolitan influence. Things are a little more refined here in the city. There are a lot of people from Louisiana, Chicago, and bigger cities in Texas. They are helping to create a diverse dining scene. I also love the fact that almost everyone I know has a garden. Some need a little guidance on how to get the garden into the pan or bowl, that’s what I am here for. As for the food in the surrounding counties, I love “down home comfort food.” Recently, I was in Mountain View and went to the Rainbow Diner and had chicken fried steak. We also had fried pickles, which I have come to embrace and love. The fact that there are so many taco trucks and a Tamale Trail is awesome as well. There is so much being offered here we need to embrace it.
Are there any dishes that you would describe as distinctly “Arkansas”?
I would have to name four: Catfish, Purple Hulls, Sorghum, and Fried Pickles. I use these four because I was never introduced to them until I moved here. I have come to love them all and use them quite often. I will say my love of fried pickles came with much resistance. Coming from big northeastern food scenes, I was not seeing the culinary genius in frying a pickle, but man they are good. I still cannot eat catfish; I just don’t enjoy the taste. Fear not though, I will not quit trying.
You have been working as a workshop instructor quite a bit since moving here. How is being a teacher different from being a chef?
Like a rebirth, I thought I was going to be in a restaurant kitchen until I fell over and died, and then we would have the wake in the dining room. But going through two restaurant closings in a row opened my eyes. I had to ask the question, could I do this forever? Teaching is giving me an outlet to show people how to cook the simple things better. In the South I sometimes feel like I’m preaching to choir. Sometimes I feel like I have nothing to teach because most of my students are older than me and could teach me a thing or two. I also love teaching because I want to get the message out there that there is no such thing as “health food,” only good food and bad food. I want to show people the difference.
Having been to two of your cooking demonstrations I have been struck by your salads and salad dressings. Why are salads so important to you (and to the rest of us)?
Salads are a showcase of your local ingredients. The southern culture is a very proud culture and I think it should be. Not every place in the country puts effort into cultivating what the land has to offer. Some parts of the country have more chain restaurants than farmers’ markets.
You also have an impressive proficiency with soups. What kinds of soups do you enjoy making?
I love soups with beans and legumes, I also love dark greens and cabbage- based soups. Those ingredients are inexpensive, nutrient-rich, and tasty. I am a runner who also would like to be lighter so making those types of soups gives me that nutrient burst I need and allows me to eat a big bowl to fill my belly and limit my calories.
If you could your own restaurant, what would it feature? How would it distinguish itself from other restaurants?
I never would have guessed three years ago what my answer is going to be, but by the previous responses we could all guess what it is. Now I wouldn’t want to cook Arkansas food, I would want to use Arkansas ingredients. There is no reason to lock your self into a cuisine or style. As long as your food is good and your product is fresh and CONSISTENT, it will be successful. I would like to put an influence on educating the public. I would also like to have a store connected where I would sell prepared food, wine, cheese, and utensils. I think that would be just perfect for me.
What is the most important thing you learned at the CIA?
I think I learned how to work with so many different personalities. You need to know how to adapt and deal with each employee on an individual basis. I got a lot of practice in school and I feel like it made me a better chef. Being able to read people and cater to their personalities makes for a happier kitchen.
Visit Chef John’s website (www.g3food.com ) to see what is cooking and follow him on his blog (www.cookrunbeer.blogspot.com) for healthy recipes, beer reviews, and trail running stories, and be sure to follow his valuable advice, “Cooking can be fun and therapeutic and a balm to the hungry soul.”