Podcast Episode 50

‘Winning Has No Shortcuts’ – Culinary Olympian Edward Leonard’s Inspiring Personal Story

Edward Leonard | 68 Minutes | July 12, 2022

In today’s episode, we speak with Edward Leonard, an award-winning Certified Master Chef, a Culinary Olympic gold medalist, author, and international lecturer.

Edward led the American Culinary Federation’s Team USA to five championships and over 34 gold medals. Throughout his career, he also received global recognition for his contributions to the culinary industry and passionate leadership, including receiving the Chairman’s Medal from the American Academy of Chefs and being inducted to the Cordon d’Or Culinary Hall of Fame.

Listen as Chef Leonard talks about long-term career growth, not giving into complacency, working internationally in the culinary arts, and the lessons learned from winning culinary competitions.

Watch the podcast episode:

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Notes & Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, we’re speaking with Edward Leonard, an award-winning Certified Master Chef, Culinary Olympic gold medalist, prolific author, and international lecturer. He has received recognition and awards around the world for his contributions to the industry and passionate leadership, including the Chairman’s Medal from the American Academy of Chefs, Cordon D’Or Culinary Hall of Fame induction, and two honorary doctorate degrees in culinary arts and hospitality management. And those who know him simply call him, “Chef.”

Join us today as we chat with Chef Leonard about his incredible journey to Olympic gold, his culinary North Star, and the impact that he’s made in the private club industry, and so much more.

Can I just tell you how excited I am? There he is. Good morning, Chef!

Ed Leonard: Good morning, sir. How are you doing?

Kirk Bachmann: I’m a little tired after that intro there, buddy. And I probably could have gone on, and on, and on, and on.

Ed Leonard: No, no. I always say, “We cook with water; we don’t walk on water.”

Kirk Bachmann: There’s the first of many quotes! Oh my gosh! It’s so good to see you. You look phenomenal. Thanks for taking the time. Beautiful jacket. I’m not surprised.

How are you doing, more than anything? Your story’s amazing. How’s the family? How are the kids? How are you doing?

The Food Culture of New York

Ed Leonard: I’m doing great, man. Coming back to New York has been kind of nice. Coming from Florida of all places, right. Not so much Chicago to New York, but, you know Florida. People are like, “People don’t do that. They go from New York to Florida.”

Kirk Bachmann: They go the opposite way, yeah.

Ed Leonard: It’s great to be back. I lived in and worked in the city for a long time. I lived and worked in Westchester for a long time, but I’ve never been on the island. Long Island is kind of a whole new thing.

What’s really cool is I’ve got a lot of Piesanos there. There’s Italians everywhere. Even from where I live, three blocks, there’s a Sons of Italy club for Italians. I’ve got an authentic Italian sausage place with salamis and all kinds of stuff. I’ve met the people.

The food culture here, to me, is just so great, especially over Florida. That’s what I think was missing. Florida had no soul when it came to food. You can get food, you can get stuff. Here, man, I’ve got two Italian guys that literally speak, love, from Italy, to get me all kinds of incredible stuff. I’ve got a Greek guy. I get aged feta in a wooden barrel – literally, a wooden barrel comes in. I’ve got to break off the seal.

Kirk Bachmann: I got chills on that one.

Ed Leonard: Brooklyn’s not too far for me, so I needed pierogies for an event. I’ve got a Polish lady who hand makes pierogies, made them, put them in an Uber for me, got them here. Chocolate company in Brooklyn, I needed stuff from, same thing. Uber’s changed the world. They just, “Okay, Chef, we’ll load it up in the Uber. It will be here tomorrow.”

Friends in the city that send me things. That whole environment just makes you more passionate and keeps you going, just fuels the fire, as I say. My guys, too, when they get everything.

West Coast, Hawaii, I still get stuff shipped in and everything, but there’s just so much here that’s really incredible.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that.

Ed Leonard: Family’s doing good. Celebrated my third-year wedding anniversary on Friday.

Kirk Bachmann: Congratulations.

Ed Leonard: That’s good. Still going.

Kirk Bachmann: Still going, buddy! I love it.

Ed Leonard: It’s good. I just came back from South Africa in February.

An African Vacation

Kirk Bachmann: What were you doing there?

Ed Leonard: It’s where my wife’s from.

Kirk Bachmann: Wonderful.

Ed Leonard: I went the year before, too. This time was cool. We were in Cape Town, that’s where she’s from. I spent some time with the chefs at this incredible hotel on the water called Twelve Apostles. Actually, learned Cape Malayan food, with this incredible lady who has a little restaurant in her home. She does cooking lessons in this very historic area. Cooked with her and did all the posts on Facebook with here. A great time.

It’s a beautiful country, great opportunities. I went to a cheese-maker, an incredible farm where they do the milk, then make the cheese. Toured all the cheese rooms. That, for me, is vacation.

Kirk Bachmann: Only you would make your trip to your wife’s homeland about food! I hope you prioritized as you needed to.

Ed Leonard: Oh, yeah. I let her have this girls’ day. She had this girls’ day she wanted. I took off. I went to the marketplace and spent three hours in the food market taking pictures, eating, and buying stuff. I sent some pictures, and everybody was like, “I thought you were on vacation?” “Well, yeah, I am. This is good for me.”

Kirk Bachmann: As only you would. I love that you brought up the Italian connection and Italy. I just finished Stanley Tucci’s book. Similar story, right. He grew up in Westchester, Italian family.

Ed Leonard: I just started.

The Social Center of Food

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, you’re going to love it. There’s probably ten dozen recipes in that book. One is easier than the next. They’re so simple. Eggs and tomato. I mean, eggs and tomato. My kids devour it. They just love it.

So let’s segue from that. Gosh, I’m so happy we’re doing this today. Let’s start at the beginning. There’s so much to talk about. It’s a great story, yours is. You grew up in this Italian family. Cooking was a big part of your life. Still is. Take us back. What was that like in Grandma’s kitchen, or Mom’s kitchen?

Ed Leonard: Nonna’s kitchen, yeah.

Kirk Bachmann: Nonna’s kitchen. Yeah.

Ed Leonard: With those families, it’s always an extension. My mom had, I believe, twelve sisters. My grandma had 16 kids. No Dish satellite, no Comcast. That’s a lot of kids, man.

You look at those days. I was still a very young kid – I have memories more in the later years – but when you think about how we live today and how things, financially, can be challenging. But you have 16 kids, man? No superstores. No big stores. They grew a lot of everything in the backyard. You’re self-sufficient. You had chickens running around. They had their own eggs. I got involved because you come for Sunday dinners and everybody’s got to help. Rather than do the dishes and stuff, I helped in the kitchen. You sit there and you roll some pasta. You watch them making stuff. Even as I grew up with my mom always in the kitchen. She’d hit me with the spoon on hand. “Stop touching.” I’d take the fried meatballs and start eating them.

What’s important is that I’ve always said, out of all the things in the world, food is the one thing that unites people, brings people together, at all kinds of occasions. Sometimes sad, whether it’s a funeral, or something bad happened. Marriages. Anniversaries. Business deals. Birthdays. The scope of what I think brings people together around a table is more than anything else. No matter how many cell phones we have, apps, computers and everything, the one thing that brings people together is dining. At restaurants. Getting together, being social. To me it’s very universal.

But I think what I learned more importantly with an Italian family is, unlike today where the kids will sit at dinner and…do that. You see couples at restaurants, and they are both sitting there on their phone. I’m not sure why they’re out together.

Kirk Bachmann: Not talking to each other.

Ed Leonard: It was about eating, but it was also about being family and talking. Conversation and talking about the food. I think that’s why sometimes the meal lingered so long.

I remember, I went to PARMA for a big food exposition. An Italian family that has a pasta company I got involved in in my early years. We went to Torino. She owned a house right across the street from this restaurant. The restaurant was on this hillside overlooking the mountains. We walked in there. It was a Sunday. 200 people is all they take every Sunday, and as I walked through, you see all these tables, big tables, set with communion cakes, whatever it is. Kirk, I’m telling you, I think it was almost a three-and-a-half-hour experience. Everything was served family style, restaurant service. Everything in season. Then you just take breaks. You get up, you take your wine, you walk along. People were smoking, looking over the hillside.

I went back in the kitchen, of course, expecting to see the chefs and stuff. It was literally six Italian ladies, all cooking, cleaning. Just loving what they do. Of course, they said, “Where are you from?”

“America.”

“Oh! American-Italian. Okay.” There they go. “You know the problem with America.”

I was like, “Here we go!”

“In Italy, we live to eat. In America, they eat to live.” Their message was the passion that they have. These six ladies, cooking for 200 people, cooking all kinds of dishes and cleaning. But coming from their heart. To them, they knew a lot of these people – people make reservations and come, but it was like feeding the whole family. 200 of my family are coming. We’re putting out a feast.

It was the same at the house. You pass food. You talk about food. You talk about your day. To me, that’s a culture, I think, sadly being lost. Today, people have dinner in front of a TV, kids doing what they want, or parents, “Go get a pizza or something.” I think I learned the importance of that.

Through all my travels, especially outside of the country, even when I apprenticed in France, you stopped, you had a nice lunch. You talked, whether it was about food, the day, the business going on, or whatever.

That always registered with me and stayed with me. I had some other aspirations here and there, but it always came back to cooking and wanting to share this thing called food that I know, universally, was never going to go out of style, never be a fad. I think it’s an important way of life. Those who don’t enjoy that aspect and have that centric thing about it, I think they’re missing something important.

Steering in the Culinary Direction

Kirk Bachmann: Clearly, it was an inspirational time in your life and it’s how you grew up. And it sounds like it’s how you still live your life. When did the whole concept of doing that for a living become reality for you? “Hey! I can do this.”

Ed Leonard: I think things in life happen for a reason sometimes, right? I was in middle school, and I wanted to go to the high school. I actually wanted to play football. I’ll play a little football. They were opening up the first-ever Connecticut trade school. There wasn’t that kind of vocational schools at that time. There was one in Hamden called Eli Whitney Tech, which would be the first one. I remember the counselors came. My mother said, “This is going to be a great school. You learn something you like, maybe. Even if you don’t, you’ve gone through a four-year process.”

I remember going through the interviews. You had to be interviewed. You had to be accepted at that time. It was a bigger deal. I did get accepted. I had to give up football, though. State-owned school, they didn’t have the money for a football team and the field. I did some other sports.

I went through auto mechanics, fashion design, all kinds of different things. And I got to the culinary piece. The culinary piece really was two chefs from the CIA, ex-chefs. They came to open this program up. You cook lunch for the students. There’s a dining room for the teachers, the faculty. Once I got to that part of my class, and just kept doing it every day and talking to the two chefs that mentored me. One was was Dominic Demaio, Army Master Chef, served in the military. I just saw the things you can do with food. How you can bring happiness to people.

I had a very artistic background. Even fashion design. Even though I was a guy, I did very well because I liked the artistic piece of doing things. In those days, you applied it to food. You had Chaud-Froid hams, you had decorations. You do truffle cocoa paintings. All that classical stuff that enabled me to do my artistic side, so it really appealed to me. We’d take these field trips going to farms, and sometimes we’d go to culinary competitions and I’d see the chefs compete.

Then matching what my mom was cooking and my family background and the dinners I used to go do. It just kind of makes sense. It was steering me in the direction, I think.

Kirk Bachmann: Very European. That’s been the process in Europe for a very, very long time. You either continued with academic studies or you went down the vocational route. That’s what my dad did. He went all the way to Meister in Germany.

I think some of that’s coming back, more so apprenticeship-type approach to education. I’m thinking about our audience here, so many students are listening. As your journey as a cook and as a chef and as a leader, you’ve spent so many years apprenticing and helping other apprentices and honing your own skills. Quite honestly, I know you’re humble, but ultimately becoming one of the most well-known and revered chefs in the nation, or the world.

It’s a lot of pressure. You’ve traveled France, Italy, Germany, England, Beijing, Singapore, Dubai. Name it. South Africa. Talk a little bit, if you could, about your pursuit – and maybe even reference the book, “Taste and Tales of a Chef,” one of your many books – the pursuit of culinary knowledge. What drives you? Just even starting today, you’re talking to me about the food at the Cape and the neighborhoods in New York. It just doesn’t stop. Where does that drive come from? That’s what our students need.

The Reward of Teaching Excellent Chefs

Ed Leonard: That’s a good soul-searching question. I saw somebody the other day who has known me for a while, texts, going back and forth, but they said they saw my postings on LinkedIn and Instagram. Said, “When are you going to slow down? You’ve done all you need to do. You’ve done more than probably most people with half of your accomplishments, and yet you still keep doing it?”

When you said the apprentice: yeah, I’m still an apprentice. I’ve always been. I’ve asked myself sometimes what’s wrong with me, because I’m intense. I’m still fueled and it is, many years later, still doing this. This would be the time to have an even keel, and I just can’t. I’m built with a competitive-nature, number one. I’ve always felt I have to be the best I can be. You mentioned nicely all the accolades and the list of awards, recognitions, trophies, everything in a box. Honestly, most of my stuff is in a box in storage, because the most important thing to me during this whole journey that is still going, is when I get the notes and the texts.

I look at the class at Westchester Country Club, a couple of recruiters, and one, David Myers knows me well, he says, “I don’t, in my whole career, recall a class of culinarians coming out of one country club. One big hotel, beach property, not just a club.” A very special club. The class of people that come out of there and where they all are today, from Mike Ruggerio, Mike Matarazzo, Jonathan Moosmiller, Brian Beland. Two master chefs came out of there. Having the team there and having chefs like Rick Rosendale, Dan Scannell. The list can go on. The regional team, Drew Garms, all these people that I see today, all doing so well. When I get a text [from] Nick Landry when I was still in Chicago, “Chef, I’m coming into town. I want to buy you dinner. Please let me know if you have time, because I want to thank you for everything you’ve done.” He goes, “Sometimes some of the things you pushed me to do, I didn’t realize it at the time how valuable they would be. Not only professionally, but personally as well.”

I went to see Darryl Shular a couple of weeks ago, as you know, Master Chef who I was fortunate and honored to train for a couple of years. He said, “Dude, you mean so much to me, the industry. You don’t understand how many people you’ve touched and affect. Sometimes it’s just from your postings. Your philosophy with every post that you put a message to. It all comes from you. We know that you’re real, how you feel.”

Somebody said, “Oh, it must be nice. You’re on the mountain top.” I’ve never looked at it that way. I do what I do for a living. I try to be the best. I do have a humble confidence that I have achieved some things. But I’ve always told people, probably getting to the mountain was a lot easier than staying on the mountain.

Kirk Bachmann: No doubt.

Pushing to the Top of the Mountain

Ed Leonard: That journey of getting there was hard and had its challenges. But your energy. You’re pumped up. You just want to keep going and win and do the things. Even when I competed, I think the difference between today and those days is you get a bronze medal. “Ugh. Man, I’m pissed off. I didn’t do good enough.” You go back, and boom, boom. You keep going and going.

I remember, it was a big show in Connecticut, one of the top shows there was, and Fritz Sonnenschmidt was one of my mentors, incredible culinary institute, the garde manger, the dean. I’d go in there about two years. I remember: Silver. I’d look at the food like, “There’s no way!” Then the third year, I go. I’m waiting in the room. The room opens up and everyone is running to the table to see what your ACF medal is, and I see perfect gold. I stop. I was like, “Wow!”

The judges came around. I remember Fritz coming up to me. He goes, “Chef, you did this, this.” And then he looked at me before he walked away, and I’ll never forget as long as I live. He laughs when I tell him. He punched me in the arm. “Just want you to know something. You had a gold last year. And you had a gold the year before, just about. But just a gold.”

I said, “But I got a silver.”

He goes, “Because I know you. I gave you a gold then, maybe you’ll slow down and say, ‘Here I am.’ But I wanted you to push yourself to keep getting better. I saw something in that, and that’s why you have that perfect score today.”

Ed Leonard: What a beautiful story!

Kirk Bachmann: I always felt, too, that you don’t ever want to the be the guy that “used to do this. I was here. I was there.” I think chefs sometimes can get complacent. I think if they’ve been at a property too much, the learning stops. “I’m the chef. I know what I’m doing.” Today, you’ve got to be ahead of the game. We worked together for a good four years at Cordon Bleu. I remember one of my first classes. I would do my visits and watching, and instructors teaching. I see the kids on their phones. I see them doing this and that. I remember having that discussion afterwards. “Hey, you’ve got 16-18 students sitting there. They don’t all learn the same. You’re teaching out of a curriculum, a syllabus. Half of them aren’t paying attention.”

The other interesting thing is these kids today can say, “Oh, sauté. Chef Leonard’s teaching sauté.” Or so-and-so. And they can rate you. It’s a different world, so you have to be ahead of it. I think you get respected. Every generation talks about the ones coming up.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s what we do.

On Leadership

Ed Leonard: “When I was here.” But things really have changed. From the energy, sometimes, I think the work ethic. How to get somewhere. Social media has really changed some things. They see instant money. They see different ways to do things. I think sometimes they want to make it easy. They look at us like, “You guys work too hard.” They respect it, but there is an easier way.

In our profession, the key to me, is I’ve got a bunch of younger guys. Pretty much everyone in my kitchen is at least 20 years younger. You keep them motivated by mentoring, by showing them cool things, by doing a plate up that they’re like, “Wow!” That’s how you get their respect. The title, your accomplishments, the initials after your name, to me, only hold so much worth. It’s what you’re still constantly doing. For me, I may be a mentor, I may be a teacher now, and influencer for people, but I’m still a student. I’ve always remained a student.

I remember saying to Brian Beland in Detroit the other day. We exchanged our dinner pictures, and he said, “Chef, I don’t know how you’re always a plate ahead of us. We’re young guys on the cutting edge, and you still find a way.”

But I think that’s what you need to do. I’m fortunate, I guess, Kirk that honestly, it’s a driven thing in me that is my DNA. I get excited about food. I get excited if I’m watching TV. I watch Stanley Tucci on the trip to Italy, and I’m like “Oh my God, I’m ready to jump into the TV!”

Kirk Bachmann: It’s so amazing.

Ed Leonard: It’s filled with substance. I sit at night, and I write my menus. Sometimes on my day off, I’m writing menus. I get excited on the dishes. I can envision them; I can see them coming together. Right now, we’re in summer. Beautiful grilled peaches going to this salad. Pickled plums into this salad. How are we going to make a contemporary presentation? How are we going to take a classical dish and make it into a new dish?

Teaching people. When you get to teach people different things, and the cooks see something for the first time, something they’ve never made before. For a lot of these cooks, cassoulet was a foreign name to them. So we made a beautiful seared duck breast, they learned how to cure the meat, and then we did the cassoulet. When they all took that spoon and took the bite of it – these are young, cool guys – they were like, “Oh my God! This is so good.” They’d never seen a dish like that. Then you do the modern presentation with it.

That’s what keeps me going. I’ve always said, Leadership, there’s books on it. You can talk for hours on it. You can go to lectures. But at the end of the day, I really believe it’s the ability to take a group of people and send individuals to a place in [their] life that they never would have gotten there, or at least to where they are, total pictures, if it wasn’t for your caring, your influence, and your mentorship.

If you do that, that’s the most successful thing you do in life. It’s not the cars you have left, the house you have, all the money in the bank. It’s the people. The greatest chefs in time, from Escoffier to all these great chefs, who came through their kitchens? You look at Marco Pierre White and the people that came through his kitchen. Paul Bocuse, all these great chefs we can talk about. The legacy is not so much the food or what they accomplish; it’s what everybody else is doing that came through that kitchen. That, to me, is still a very important responsibility that I take seriously. I get excited.

These guys now that I have here in New York, I’m going to develop them. I’m going to get them opportunities. I know they’re going to do well. That to me is the most exciting thing, beside loving the food, too. So it all fits together.

Kirk Bachmann: I so love that you’re still a storyteller. Let me say.

Before I move on, I have to comment on the Fritz story. It’s beautiful. We’ve all got one. We’ve all got one of those Fritz stories where he punches you in the arm. I love that.

But mentioning Richard, mentioning Darryl, Danny, Brian, Moose, all these people I met through you, as well.

Ed Leonard: Shawn Loving is another guy.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, Shawn. So many years. Darryl was on the show a few weeks ago. So passionate! So focused on what he’s working on. So committed to it. I know the list is longer. I definitely know the list is longer. It’s really important. It’s a great lesson for those that are listening. Don’t forget those who helped you in the past, or those who you helped.

In your travels, Chef, when you think about where you’ve been, what you’ve learned, who you’ve met, who you’ve taught, and how those experiences impacted specifically your career, is there that one moment – is there a podium of insight that you’ve walked away with? Or are you still writing that book?

Lessons from Otto

Ed Leonard: You never stop writing. You put a new pen to a new chapter and you try to make it better than the chapter before. Kirk, I’ve been blessed. I’ve been fortunate to be all over the world. So much time in Germany because of competing with Team USA. I’m talking almost 16 years of going to Germany at least once a year, sometimes twice a year, spending great time there. Singapore. Dubai. Beijing. New Zealand. Spain. Lisbon. Portugal. The list goes on. France.

And I’ve met some incredible chefs. Incredible people. If I had to take one off the top of my head right now would be Otto Weibel, who was the executive chef at Singapore. Otto was the guy in Singapore at Raffles Hotel. The famous Raffles Hotel. I think it might be a Fairmont now. The thing about Otto that I’ve always respected is the people who came out of his kitchen.

I remember, I went to Singapore to interview for a resort world VP of culinary, food and beverage. Otto had a lot to do with [helping] me open that door. The first thing they said to me was, “What we’re really looking for is a chef that’s someone like Otto. Because the people that go through his kitchen end up successful. He mentors. He teachers. He keeps a great energy. That’s what he spoke of with you, why we should be talking to you.”

I remember his hospitality whenever I went to Singapore. My last visit was December 15. My last visit. Took me to lunch. An incredible place. Did dinner. Talked about food, chefs all over the world, competitions. I couldn’t even pay for anything. “No, you’re visiting the country. I’m your host. It’s a pleasure to have you.”

I remember being in Raffles, when I stayed there the times that I went there. One morning, he says, “Chef, you’ve got some time for breakfast?” “Yeah, I don’t want to bother you. It’s early.” “No, not a problem here, believe me.” We sat and talked. He said, “Yeah, I’m here every day at six.”

I said, “Chef, why would you be here at six in the morning? You’re the director of this huge hotel.”

He said, “Chef, think about it. What’s the one meal at every hotel that the majority, 90 percent of your room people are going to eat? It’s not lunch. They’re out on business. They’re touring. They’re doing sightseeing. Dinner? We do a nice dinner business. Don’t forget in Europe, and as you know Asia, it’s different. People actually do go to hotels to have dinner. But still, the majority are going out and trying restaurants. Everybody’s here at breakfast. To me, it’s the most important meal. If I don’t visit the three restaurants and make sure the specs are there to standards, everybody’s doing their job, that’s our first touch point. If they love breakfast so much, there’s a good chance they’re going to make an effort to have another meal in one of the other restaurants.”

I sat back and said, “Makes a lot of sense.” And from that day on, even the other day here, I was in at 6:45. They’re looking at me like, “Okay? Chef’s here.” The morning people, the breakfast people.

Kirk Bachmann: What’s wrong?

Ed Leonard: Members notice. Because he was right. Sometimes you have to be there. If I’m going upstairs to do menus or paperwork, but my presence is there. Then I can take a look and see what’s going on.

So I learned from him that the circulation of communication, seeing everybody, saying hello at all day parts, not just making the chefs that do the fancy dinner important. The breakfast guys are just as important.

He always resonated with me. He was captain of Singapore culinary teams for so long. He just shared so much. “Whatever you need. I’m here for you when you come and visit.”

John Sloan. Peter Knipp, great people all over the world. But you always get the one. Otto just amazed me in the hotel, how he ran it, and his philosophy for being who he was. That’s where I learned about humble confidence, too.

Another Fritz Story

And I think, as you said, Fritz Sonnenschmidt. We’ve all got Fritz stories. I’ll give you a quick other one. My first apprentice at the Culinary Olympics I apprenticed for Fritz. I believe it was right before the ‘88 Olympics. I’m down there. I said, “What do you want me to do, Chef?”

He gives me these pears. So fast, he takes the paring knife. Pew! Pew! Pew! Makes Dutch shoes out of the pears, these little Dutch shoes, a little melon ball scoop because he was going to put marinated, pickled melon balls in each thing to tie into his theme. He goes, “Yeah. I need 24 of these.” So Kirk, I’m up all night. It’s in the morning. It’s for Fritz. I’m trying to get them right. He walks in about two in the morning. He looks at me, looks at them, throws one in his mouth and eats it. And then he took the best nine on the frigging’ tray. To the rest, “You do what you want.”

I just said, “Why’d you have…?”

“Don’t worry about it. That’s what I want you to do. I took the best nine.” And he walked away.

Kirk Bachmann: Isn’t that something?

Ed Leonard: I’m still sitting here with my mouth open today. He took me to the pork place across the street for Schnitzels and for pork shank. I always remember the two things he taught me on that trip. Never forget where you come from.

“I got introduced to you by a phone call. Look, this is a good young man. He wants to compete. He has a lot of interest. He follows your book.” For that friendship started in the early ‘80s to now. In fact, we just talked last month. I wanted to say hello to him, see how he’s doing. He’s in Georgia.

He always said to me, “Ed, no matter who you become, what awards you win, stay to your roots. Stay the person you always were on the way up. That’s going to mean more than any accomplishment you have.”

Those are two things. I’ve learned about great cooking. I’ve learned about passion, food. I’ve watched chefs make incredible dishes that I’ve learned from. But those two things about that humble confidence, give more than you take, has always resonated in my career. In a world of “Me, Me, Me,” today, I do have challenges with it. It is a different world that way. I still believe the other way is better. Hopefully we will all swing back eventually to that.

Communicating with the CEO

Kirk Bachmann: Well said.

Currently, you’re back in the northeast, as we discussed. You’re at Fresh Meadows. I’m always fascinated by this story, and you and I used to talk about this a lot in downtown Chicago when we were trying to figure things out. Take us all the way back to TrustHouse. The reason for that, you were there over a decade. For many people, Chef, that’s a career! But for you, you were just getting started. That was just the beginning.

Take us back to how important – again, I’m thinking about students and how scary it might be to go abroad – but there you were in England, working for a massive company. You were there for over a decade. Tell us about why that was so important and how that shot you into the next part of your career.

Ed Leonard: It was unplanned. It happened because of a takeover, to be honest with you. Part of my career not a lot of people know about, but a part that was an integral part of my teaching: I was the executive chef at General Electric’s world headquarters, which is based in eastern Connecticut. Not just an office building by any stretch of the imagination. Jack Welch, the number one CEO of the world at the time, the revered CEO with a philosophy of “Be one or two in the world, or get out of it and don’t do it.” You’re either one or two in the world, or you don’t belong.

Interesting dynamic. The building had a full-size cafeteria cafe and we fed probably 500 meals a day. Kirk, I’m talking about people coming there for lunch and getting a Consommé Madrilène. High-level food. He had three private dining rooms. One for the senior management, his dining room. Unbelievable dining room table. I had a chef in each kitchen. Then there was the middle management and the junior management. We had a 26-guest house, a room that was designed by I.M. Pei all triangle architecture built into the side of the mountain. The elevator – normal elevators went the other way because of the design, going into the mountain. The kitchen was all black tiles. Beautiful guest rooms. We fed all the corporate jets at Westchester. All the jets that left. One of my chefs had my namesake, Thomas Leonard, whom I still keep in touch with today on social media. Incredible chefs and cooks.

Mr. Welch, I didn’t have a lot of involvement with a guy at that level. I’m just the chef on property. One of the stories I tell people was I walking down the hallway. There was a big basement and kitchens there. We had a lot of levels. I saw him. I’m looking down, and I see him. I say, “Whew, boy! Big boss. The guy is here.” And I’m getting a little nervous. I was a young guy at that time, and here is the revered CEO. The janitor is mopping. And he stopped, shook hands with the janitor, and talked to him. He started walking back again.

He says, “Hello, Chef, how are you?” He starts the chef bit.

“Yes, sir.”

He goes, “Chef, I noticed you saw me talking to the janitor. You’re probably wondering why I would be doing that as CEO of General Electric. I’m going to give you a lesson today. Great communication: obnoxious people think it’s about high English, big words, being able to communicate with the wealthy or the very intelligent. The best communicators in life know how to talk to level people that are integral to your operation – like that guy who takes care of our building, our floors. In your case, your stewards, your dishwashers – up to having a conversation with somebody as myself. If you can master that for communication, to speak to all levels of people and acknowledge them all, the other ones are as important as the others, you’ll do well.”

That was from Jack Welch. I just walked away star-dazed. “What the hell!?” But I never forgot that. I always: stewards, “How you doing? How are you?” I feed them well after the wedding, after the rough night. They get the steak dinners.

TrustHouse

TrustHouse Forte came in and bought out the company that had that contract. It was my first opening eyes to what they call corporate catering. We had the hotels as well, in the city, Plaza Athenee it was the Westbury Hotel that I stayed at quite a bit. There’s a big property at the airport called the BiCal.

TrustHouse, not a lot of Americans know about them. He was the Marriott of England in its heyday. A little Italian guy that started with milk stands in World War II, bought property, and ended up being up the biggest hotel and caterer in England.

I was fortunate to be part of that because I got to travel. I apprenticed in France because of them. Spent a lot of time in London, from cooking at the Cafe Royal, to learning to cook-chill before anybody understood what cook-chill was, sous vide, or anything. They had all these little chefs on the highways. Kirk, we walked into this big commissary. This was years before anybody knew this stuff. They were doing it.

I saw filet mignons get cooked medium rare. I saw eggs get poached. Then I would travel with the chef and the driver to the locations, and all they had was Retherm ovens, minimal experience with cooking labor, because they were designed that way, who would take this Retherm oven, reheat the filet, re-do the eggs, and the eggs still had the yolks running, still had the filet medium rare.

They owned Wheeler’s fish houses; they ran all the concessions at both airports. I went to Holland, France, all over England, not just London.

Working for that company, not only did I get to work and have fun and get paid and do what I love, I got an incredible education. It got the see the best hotels. I got to stage Saint-Jacques in Paris. Man. I look at that 13 years, I was based in the States, but spent a lot of time overseas with them. I got so many different things to do. Even running corporate dining rooms, like NatWest Bank on the water there in New York that had the Blue Room, the Green Room, the Red Room. All named after the Limoges China from France. I had Andres Soltner as sous chef work during the day for me in those dining rooms.

The gas of what I learned and what I did there was honestly incredible. The one lesson I can give students – there’s two things I take away from that time, besides the great travel, the great food experience, and competing in Hotel Olympia, all these. Going to Harrod’s Food Hall. It’s mind-boggling when I think of those years.

Go Where You’re Needed

But the biggest takeaway is I remember they wanted me to go to New Jersey. They had a big problem with one of their major accounts there. I was like, “New Jersey? What? I’m not going to New Jersey, forget that thing.” I didn’t take it. I didn’t go. I get a call from the secretary saying, “Chef, CEO would like to see you tomorrow morning in his office. Nine o’clock.” So I go.

“Chef Leonard. How are you doing?”

“Good, sir.”

“We want you to go to Jersey, but you didn’t want to go.”

“No. Jersey’s really not for me.”

“Okay, Chef. But I’m going to give you a pass on this one.” I’m just looking at him. You’re young sometimes, you know you’re pretty good at what you do with the company. “This is a pass. Here’s the lesson you’re going to learn. When a company needs you, because we value you, we ask you to go there for a reason, because of what you do. What I see you do. How you can train people. When a company needs you to do something, if you want to succeed in that company, and keep moving up the ladder, you kind of need to do what they need you to do. This is a pass, and I hope the next time I need you to do something, you’re going to be running that fire line, jumping, and doing it.”

Sure enough, I did. Those are things you learn that you don’t think of. When somebody wants you to do something, a company, and “Ah, I really don’t want to.” But that’s how you progress. You look at even the great hotels, the Ritz, the Four Seasons, if you’re working in that environment and they need you to go open this or go do that, that’s how you become valuable in that company and keep moving ahead. Or you can become a dinosaur and stay in a property until maybe the day’s up. So that was a valuable lesson.

The other one was I remember being called to the Westbury Hotel for dinner with the president. At that time, I was Vice President of Operations, food and beverage for all of New York, mid-Atlantic. Great catering properties, catering business. We had a great hotel in D.C. with the French chef there, Jean-Pierre. Great stuff that I was doing.

He said, “We want you to take over as executive vice president of sales and marketing for North America.” Kirk, honestly, I sat there and I’m looking around and say, “Are you sure the secretary made the right appointment with me?”

He didn’t find it funny, though. He’s looking serious. He goes, “That’s what we need you to do. There’s attributes that I see in you when you walk into a room, and how you sell, how you manage, your passion. I kind of need you to do this now because we’re having some challenges with our revenue and getting new accounts.”

Kirk Bachmann: And you had no more passes.

Ed Leonard: I’m a culinary guy, right. I’ve got everything. I took the job, Kirk. I did it. As I tell people today, when I still think of my positions. I think the cool thing about when you work for a company like that, younger people if they’re listening, you can stay ten or 13 years somewhere, but when I look at what happened from being an executive chef at a property, then to a regional chef, to a regional manager, district manager, then I was director of operations. In that 13 years, I had five/six different positions.

Each one a growing position. Each one a learning position. Each one taught me, “Know what you know, know what you don’t, and get help for what you don’t.” When I was made a director of operations, I knew the budget was an issue. I knew there was a lot of problems there. I’m a chef. I’m a culinary guy. I’m a passionate food and beverage leader. I didn’t know. Finance was not my strength. So what did I do? I hired a regional manger that had a financial degree. Was very solid. I said, The key is to surround yourself with the best people, better than you at some of the skills that you probably don’t have or learn. Your job is to support them, manage them, make them part of the team, and lead them into the vision, direction you’re going. You don’t need to know everything.

During that time, you do learn what they know to a good point that it helps you manage. I did that job. I’ll still say it was one of the worst jobs that I had in my career as far as position and me getting excited sometimes every day. But I look back, and it taught me the most. It taught me that we don’t always see the future. We don’t always know what it holds in store for us. That almost two years taught me a lot.

They sent me to a management school, Thamside International. I learned about sales, management. I did study at FleishmanHillard which is still one of the biggest consultants in New York. I sat in a board room with a problem and issued cameras, and they would do these role plays. “This just happened. Here’s the press asking a few questions about this.”

Speaking from the Heart, Having Vision

All that stuff, when I became president of the American Culinary Federation, from being able to speak, being able to get all the training, all the business acumen, having a vision, presenting the first five-year budget and game plan to the ACF, and getting up to speak comfortably in front of 1200 people, and doing it the way I do it, from my heart, from here.

I remember when I got off that stage after my first speech in Orlando, 1200 chefs, ACF’s running. “The press is here. We need a copy of your speech. We’ve got some opportunities to promote this stuff.

I said, “Sorry, I don’t have anything.”

She goes, “Chef, stop joking. Where is it? If it’s on the podium, I’ll go get it.”

I said, “I’m sorry. I really don’t have it.”

She said, “You spoke for an hour from the top of your head?”

I said, “Yeah, that’s what I do. I don’t say anything unless I really feel about it. There are some pointers. You can go get my index cards. I’ve got some points I wanted to discuss. But that’s it.”

I look at everything I did. When I went to the famed Westchester – and I love Westchester because of the Biltmore Hotel. You go to a club that has a hotel built in 1926, man, that’s awesome. Biltmore. The combination of the old, the history, the new.

I remember when the board wanted me to present. I was there. “Just talk about what you need.” So I went up there. I had a computer, I had a PowerPoint, I had a screen. They are all looking. They just got out of conversation. I remember, “Chef, you need pots, pans, tell us what you need.”

I said well, “I’ve kind of got a presentation.” I gave my vision, where I wanted to be with the culinary team, what we wanted to do, the importance of priorities. I remember putting employees and team members, then members number two. Mr. Pepe, great president, he said, “Chef, just time out a sec. You know why we hired you. You know we’re a member club, correct, Chef?”

I said, “Yes, sir.”

“Well, you have members number two.”

“Mr. Pepe, we’ve got two choices. There’s that beautiful driveway in the back where security is and the loading dock that everybody comes to work. If the team member is going to that parking lot, getting out of their car and saying, ‘Aw, man. Really, I got another day here again? You’ve got to be kidding me,’ what kind of member services and experience are you going to have? But if they get into that car, can’t wait to say, ‘What’s Chef got in store for us today? I can’t wait to cook this thing. I can’t wait for this party. We’re doing something great.’ The member experience is going to be ten times. We got a happy team, you’re going to have very happy members. The other way around doesn’t work so well.”

He just sat back. They all looked. “Continue, Chef.” Next day, the GM calls me in. He goes, “Two things: One, they want to know where the hell I got you from. Two, now I have to make all the other department managers come up with their vision of what they’re doing with their department, and they want to know why it’s never been done.”

I guess the moral is that time at TrustHouse took me away from what I really love to do sometimes, but taught me to be the chef that I was going to become and have that business acumen to look at things differently. To know the importance of marketing, sales, and building revenue. There was so much that I was fortunate to spend in that time. I think it was the launch pad for where I knew I ended up.

Mind you, having a vice president role, a corporate role, and then deciding to go back – I started a company at that time. Westchester. I went back to my roots and what I loved to do, but this time with a whole different way of looking at things, and things that I’d learned through so many good people.

Winning Has No Shortcuts

Kirk Bachmann: Great response. Great storytelling, as always.

Let’s talk competition for a bit. I think we both agree that competition of any sort can develop you as a person. You have been a professional competitor, leader, tasted victory at the Olympics, as we talked about. Over 30 medals and then some. It’s a big topic, probably a whole other podcast.

Ed Leonard: Funny you say that. I’ve got a podcast. Rich Rosendale tomorrow at 10:30.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh my goodness!

Ed Leonard: And that’s what he’s focusing on.

Kirk Bachmann: There’s so much there. In our time, I know the journey is important and I know the experience is important. But you told me one time, we were talking about going to take your master chef exam. You said, “You don’t come to take this exam to learn. You come to take this exam and demonstrate what you know.” There’s no right or wrong there, it just is what it is.

For today, I don’t want to make the focus on winning, but I kind of do. What does it take to win?

Ed Leonard: You’re right. I used to have when the team came to Westchester and we had our practice sessions, I used to have a big banner up that said, “You don’t win silver; you lose gold.” They would all look at that.

You don’t always win, at the end of the day, but you have to try and win. I think that sometimes is the difference. I think when I look at how we’ve evolved and how competitions are, sadly, not as prominent as when you and I grew up in the business. You had the Bocuse, which is a big marketing machine now. There’s still some interest that you still have the Olympics. But I find today when people don’t succeed like they think they should, they just drop it and stop. Whereas many years ago, people just kept fighting and fighting until they got there. Maybe they never would, but there is always that try.

Because what it brings, you’ve got two factors. To me the most important thing – the gold medals and trophies and stuff are all nice – but it is the relationships you build, the networking you’re able to do, the friends you have when it’s all said and done. You push yourself to get better because you’re competing with other people better yet, if you’re on a team. When you look at my teams, man. Damn. I had three master chefs on that team. So talk about trying to lead three master chefs into battle and the other chef. You have to be on top of your game, and you learn and you share.

I used to bring in people like, God rest him, Peter Timmins, Ferdinand Metz, Hartmut Handke. Guys I know that would push or make us think differently.

But winning, at the end of the day, with all the shortcuts we can see in life, whether it is TikTok or whatever it is, to get where you need to be notarized [sic], winning has no shortcut. You have to put in the time. You have to practice. You almost have to live it every day.

The Character Behind the Olympic Gold

I always say true character in a person is never shown when life is going well and things are going well. True character happens when your back’s against the wall, things don’t quite go the way you planned. When I look at the year, ironically when we won the championship in 2004, it was funny because we went there with maybe two different on our cold presentation. We’re out first for the cold table. We built this ridiculous table, spent too much money, probably, but this table with all these different things we thought were cool. We were maybe a little progressive in our food. I think we got away from probably where we should have been with it.

We got a high silver, which was good, but man, we didn’t get gold. So on your first day out, you’re on a national team. You get a silver. There’s expectations. The pastry chef at that time was Trish Nash and did a phenomenal, unbelievable pastry that actually did get gold. That score added up. We had a gold and two silvers on our cold. We were disappointed. Dan Scannell, Russell Scott, CMCs, that whole team outside of the pastry.

And I remember walking by the Canadian table after everything went up. We were very competitive. I had some good friends, the Canadian, but there were a couple, too, that “Oh, the great American Power didn’t do so well today, did they?” as we walked by. Man, I started to turn around quick, and I remember Dan grabbed me and said, “No, Chef. Let’s keep going.”

So we got to the hotel. Everybody was kind of bummed out. You’re tired. You don’t go to bed for 24-34 hours. We had breakfast the next morning, and I said to everybody, “Look. We have two choices here today. We still have the hot program. In the scheme of things, hot food is what we do every day of our life. That’s the most important part of this competition. Ferdinand Metz used to say, ‘The hot food is where chefs should excel. That’s where you show how you’re really a chef.’” Some people can be an artist and do incredible cold platters. It doesn’t mean they can cook or run kitchens.

“We have two choices. We don’t do very well going into our next two days in our hot kitchen. We fly back home sulking, people attacking us, making their feedback, their criticisms. That’s the world we live in.

“Or we can get our crap together. Forget yesterday. Not discount it. We still got two silvers and a gold. We’re still up there. And we just go in there in two days and rock the shit out of the hot kitchen. Where it counts. Where it really matters. Where we’ve spent most of our time.

“Those are our two choices. Are we resilient? Do we have great character? Do we really care about what we do? Let’s just go have fun and cook the food we love to cook. We made this menu. We developed this menu.”

At that time, we had a little surprise for everybody in our menu, and you being of German descent would appreciate it. We did a German dumpling, but the difference in that dumpling is we stuffed it with braised venison neck, which hadn’t been done before.

We went to that hot kitchen, and Switzerland is next to us, the guy from the Icelandic countries. In those days, they had kind of taken over the Culinary Olympics, so we had them right next us. Norway. We had the other team. They are bringing all these fancy refrigerators, all this fancy stuff. That was our competition. That was a heavy day, man. Canada was there.

And we did our thing. The funniest thing, I remember Joachim Buchner, great friend, Master German chef, and American. He was in charge of the dumplings. I’m sitting here saying, “Chef, how many dumplings do you got done?” He tells me. And I say, “This is so many minutes a dumpling. We really got to push it.” He looks at me like….

And we did our meal, Kirk. We did this incredible braised, roasted venison with these cool condiments. But the dumpling. We cleaned up. We’re tired. We’re done. I thought we did a good job.

I remember one of the judges walking by. Punched me in the arm and said, “Chef,” in whatever language it was, “Nice job. The dumpling! Wow! We all cut it open and said, ‘What is this?’ We didn’t expect it.” We did the butter sauce over it with the crumbs like you used. A potato dumpling, but stuffing that venison neck.

And I remember being at the awards ceremony. You’re on pins and needles. Everybody’s there, and they’re giving the medals out. They are going through. They always went top to bottom. Then they got to the hot kitchen and everything, and you’re not called. Now all of a sudden, you’re not feeling so good. “Man. Canada got called. Norway got called. Switzerland got called. Man.” All of a sudden, they said, “Highest gold medal in competition, Team USA.”

Everything erupted. I was standing in back. Kirk, honestly, when I got up there, if you look at the pictures from that Olympics on the awards stage, when everybody had to stand up and the national anthem played…and the best part was the Canadian team was right in front of us. We’re getting that. You look at the picture, my eyes are a little watery. I remember Peter Kniff, who was very big in Singapore, marketing guy, called me on the phone. He says, “Ah. American who shows emotion, too.” Breaking my chops a little. “Great job, Chef.”

And that moment, to this day, means so much. It showed that the team, everybody, had character. It showed we weren’t going to give up. We still had an opportunity to show we were the best. The last time the team won in the hot kitchen championship, I think, was Metz’s last team in ‘84 or ‘88. I remember getting a personal letter from Fer-Me [Ferdinand Metz] about that win and what I did. That meant the world to me.

Just to bring a bunch of people together to have that is always a memory. Nobody can take it away. We finished third in the world. We finished ahead of Canada. It was a great plane ride home, no doubt, and great celebration. A special time.

But that’s what it takes. It takes that determination. It takes the practicing. It takes work, man, but I also think it takes something from deep inside that you have to have. You have to reach in sometimes, when it doesn’t always go the way you want it to. Food is subjective. Judging is very subjective.

Prepping for Competition and the Masters

Through the years, for me, competition was always a way to prove myself, get better. I look at the chefs that have done it, because people started labeling, “Competition chefs. There’s competition chefs.” There are some very, very good competition chefs that are extremely successful and great cooks and chefs in their restaurants and everything. I think it teaches you to discipline. You learn to work in a clean manner. You learn to work under pressure. That experience, no doubt, helps. It helps when you go to get your Masters.

But even then, the CMC, which is always controversial about how many make, how many fail. Brad Barnes was my partner in crime when we studied. Brad and I spent a lot of time cooking, studying. If somebody says, “What was the key thing? If you had to take one thing that you think helped you going into that exam?”

Plain and simple: Brad, he was a corporate chef for a group of restaurants. I was executive chef at Restaurant 64, Greenwich Avenue, two-story restaurant. The first of its kind on that avenue, three-star with the New York Times. Brad and I didn’t fire anybody, but we took two cooks off the line that used to work, and have them prep and help expedite. Brad and I went behind that line every Friday and Saturday night for 220 covers. Switching stations every other night. We cooked for three months solid like a chef running a place would not go back and do.

I said to me, “What am I going to do? I’m going to cook, man. It’s a test. But I’m going to cook food, food that I love, doing what I love to do.”

I remember Dieter Doppelfeld one time. He used to hide behind the racks with his notepad and clipboard, watching me sometimes. He came up to me, before it was over. He said, “I watch you every day. You have no papers on the board. You don’t pin stuff up. You don’t have timers. I can tell you are just at home. You love what you do. The food’s connecting with you. You know when to check the stove. You know when to do these things. The person across from you had the whole board, everyday, ‘Take this out. Do this.’” That wasn’t cooking to me.

When I reflect, I think it’s going back behind the line, which is a hard thing to do. I hadn’t been behind the line in a long time. Just to get my mojo back, my timing, my sense of being in that environment of cooking. You know what it’s like: tickets get written, you’ve got to get food out. That was probably more valuable.

It shows that no matter what you accomplish, going back to what got you there, and excelling at that, and making sure you love to do that as part of your DNA is going to help you. As you say, the winning form.

Chef Ed Leonard’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: Winning has no shortcut. You know I’m grabbing all kinds of quotes from our time together today.

Here’s the really good news, Chef. We’ve just touched the surface. I have to bring you back because I’ve got a lot of notes on some other areas that I’d like to go. But before I let you go today, the name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. I know that this is going to get emotional. Chef, what is the ultimate dish?

Ed Leonard: The ultimate dish. Man.

Kirk Bachmann: Hey, the braised venison dumpling is starting to set in a little bit, right?

Ed Leonard: Well, you know, it’s funny. I’ve been blessed to eat all over the world, man. When you go to places, people want to impress. I remember going to this progressive dinner in Hong Kong. I actually stayed at the Disney in Hong Kong. What a dinner! Held by Chef Rudy.

I remember being there, and the last leg of that dinner. We’re sitting in this big room. These Asian women would come up with these silver trays and domes. Chef in each corner. Pop open the dome. Beautiful baby stuffed roast pig that was sewn back together. Immaculate. They brought it to the chef who sliced it and fed it to us. Hot pots with wagyu.

When I think about all that I’ve been fortunate to experience, and you’re asking me to pick the one ultimate dish!

I would say – similar to watching Stanley Tucci and starting to read his book – my first trip to Italy. I was fortunate, I had five trips. I wanted to see where my grandmother was from in Naples. Honestly, Kirk, one of my favorite foods to this day that I still play with now I’ve got my wood-fire pizza oven. It’s pizza, man.

When I went to Naples, the home of where it all was, started. That chef showed me what they were doing, took that pie out of the oven, sat down and we ate it. Oh my God! I said, “Shit! This is pizza, man. This is not the stuff that I’m making making back in my country. I’ve got to get it to this.”

Something so simple. Today, I’ve got this beautiful wood-fired oven that we light up, and the members, we made margherita. When you look at the core of something like that, Kirk, it’s flour, water, some dough starter, yeast, a little olive oil, and salt. It’s tinned tomatoes. I buy DOP-certified San Marzanos. Incredible, real, extra virgin olive oil. Hand-pulled fresh mozzarella, and I use a 24-month aged reggiano. Quality ingredients.

When you look at that pizza, what is it? No toppings coming out. There’s no opening a sous vide bag after sixteen hours. There’s probably not a person in the world you don’t put that pizza in front of when it’s done right, and that crust is bubbled, and [inaudible [01:03:32]. And you take a bite of that, that it doesn’t put a smile on their face and say, “Wow!”

That to me is the essence, as we end this, to all great food. I’ve seen trends come and go. I’ve been part of doing trends. But I’ve always felt that, at the end of the day, great-tasting food done simple but elegant. Ferdinand Metz taught me a long time ago. He used that word, and I looked at him. “Simplicity with elegance. Got it.” He said, “No, you don’t. I gave you these three words, but trust me. As you go through your career, trying to master something that’s simple at its core and you’re putting elegance to it and making it a wow factor will always be a challenge.”

If I had to reflect my cuisine, that’s what it is. I’m not, maybe; my posts do vary. There’s times it is a little artsy and very modern, but it’s still great-tasting food at its core. And then there are times there is just great-tasting food. The other night, we had Michigan asparagus. Purple asparagus, green asparagus, beautifully done on the bottom. Two whale soft shell crabs coming from the frigging’ ocean, that were delivered to me within 24 hours, sauteed in brown butter. A little frisee salad on top. Man, what is better!

It may not be sexy, but to me it’s sexy, because you see food and it makes you hungry. When I see a dish of food, or you see a picture of food, and it makes you hungry, as a cook and chef, you’ve accomplished the best thing you can accomplish for a person.

If they ask what it is – and don’t get me wrong, I’m not knocking these…Grant Achatz is incredible. I knew him before when he was at the hotel and did an 18-course dinner for me. But there are people that leave and say, “This was great, this was great. I’m not sure what this was and this was, but the experience was unbelievable.”

Well, the person can see that plate of food, know what it is, look at it and get hungry, and every bite they savor. As a cook, you’ve done your job. That trend will never, ever go out of style, my friend.

Kirk Bachmann: How come I knew that was going to be beautifully said. Hey, I miss you, buddy. I love you. Thank you for being on the show. Unbelievable. I think we need to change it to The Ultimate Dishes.

Ed Leonard: Yeah, right. If we had time, I’d probably give you four more. These memories come. But it always comes back. I’ll be honest with you; no matter what dish I would give you, it comes back to simplicity.

I was fortunate to do consulting in Lisbon with the Portuguese National Team. Great bunch of chefs. I had Portugal on my back, Kirk. The pastries. Sardines. My hotel was two blocks from the ocean. I used to go sit there in the morning. I had my cafe in the morning, with a little Portuguese roll and some porchetta before the chefs would pick me up.

This old guy sitting across from me got to know me. “You know how old I am sir?” “No, how old are you? 70?” “I’m 92.” I looked at him. Wow! Shows me this little thing of port. He says, “Every day since I was 19 years old, I had this little glass of port, one a day. You want to live a long time, get our port and you drink it everyday.”

Kirk Bachmann: One a day.

Ed Leonard: We went to restaurant that night. Chefs know chefs. We get in. We sit at this beautiful table, the four of us. The line starts forming outside. Kirk, all we ate that night was seafood literally caught 20 minutes away, steamed, fried, frito, broiled, sauteed. No fancy sauce. They had condiments, sure, but no fancy presentation. No sous vide this. No that. And every bite, Kirk, was like, “Man. I’m eating something that was caught today. Done today.”

Those things are what really build some memory. The cool dishes you remember because they’re cool, and they’re nice. Seeing the ones I do sometimes. But when I take some contemporary cool dishes, I still take those things that everything I knew was just caught today. My ahi tuna from Hawaii shipped 24 hours and lightly seared and put together with the right accoutrements. That’s the kind of food that the majority of people eat, and will never go out of style. You learn to master that, the rest kind of comes natural to you.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. Absolutely beautiful chat. Great to see you. Try not to work so hard, buddy. I know you will continue to do that. Let’s try to figure out a chance to see each other, okay?

Ed Leonard: Yeah. We shall. We do that, man. Good stuff.

Kirk Bachmann: And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

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