In today’s episode, we speak with returning podcast guest Edward Leonard, a Culinary Olympic gold medalist and Certified Master Chef, who mentors culinarians with his unique philosophy on success.
Between writing numerous cookbooks, developing impactful recipes, and inspiring culinary leaders, Edward has received recognition across the globe for his contributions to the culinary industry.
Listen as Edward talks about leading the American Culinary Federation’s Team to over 34 gold medals, the equation of success, and why purpose is more important than passion when pursuing a goal.
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Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, I am welcoming my good friend, Edward Leonard, back to the show. He couldn’t get enough of me! So here he is again. If you haven’t already listened to the 50th episode of the Ultimate Dish, Chef Ed is an award-winning Certified Master Chef, Culinary Olympic gold medalist, prolific author, and international lecturer. And he’s a friend.
Today we’re going to talk more about his many cookbooks – eight, I believe – his mentorship philosophy, and how he molds young culinarians. We’ll also talk about his relentless drive to keep building and achieving as much as he possibly can, for an already accomplished chef. And we’ll talk about much more.
And there he is. Good morning, Chef. He’s in the kitchen!
Edward Leonard: The Kitchen. Best seen from the floor of my kitchen, from my office
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it. I know that’s virtual, but that’s your actual kitchen, right?
Edward Leonard: Yeah. My office sits on top. I’ve got the whole oversight of the main kitchen.
Kirk Bachmann: Very nice. Very nice. Let’s get some of the fun stuff out of the way. It’s the heat of the summer. He’s talking to me. He’s directing traffic. I would expect no less. How’s the summer going?
Edward Leonard: Good. Good. Nice season for air. That’s life. It’s busy. A lot of golf events. We just had the dedication of a brand new $2.5 million range we opened. Sold out dinner. So the golf events. A lot of member-specific stuff. We actually have the California Farm to Table coming up this week. We’ve got a Rat Pack next month. We’re going to do a regular Rat Pack – the cover guys – got a nice Italian-American dinner.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that.
Edward Leonard: A lot of cool stuff going on.
Kirk Bachmann: When we chatted previously, we were laughing this morning because we only got halfway through the agenda. I’m not sure we’ll get all of it today. There’s a lot. We might have to consider a series down the road.
Edward Leonard: We’ll try to make it through some of today.
Kirk Bachmann: I’m so appreciative of your time. This feels really natural, very organic. We’re both at work.
Edward Leonard: The best work, right? No studio, no nothing.
Kirk Bachmann: Here’s what I love the most about you, Chef. We no sooner completed our first podcast and you immediately said, “I’ve got more to share.” I just love that. We’ll see what Part 3 and 4 look like.
You continue to share your knowledge and your experiences not only with me verbally and with all the folks that you’re training, but also through your cookbooks. You’ve published, I believe, eight to date. You also impact people through mentorship. I’d really like to spend some time talking about the cookbooks, the process, what they mean to you. I know they’re super important to you. I’ve got one here. I had to wrestle it away from one of my students. It’s probably my favorite. I remember when this one came out, “You Eat with Your Eyes.” There’s a few recipes that I actually executed pretty well. Really easy to follow.
There’s a journey when it comes to writing a book. I need to understand your approach as a chef, as a busy chef, as a leader chef. Walk us through how you put pen to paper. What goes into that? How much do you work with the publisher? Is there a ghostwriter? Tell us everything. Maybe even focus on the biggest challenges of putting a book together. It’s you’re brand. It’s your name going out there.
Edward Leonard: Surprisingly, the first book was quite a learning experience. A very different book. The first book was actually after Fritz Sonnenschmidt. It’s called, “Tales and Tastes of a Chef from Apprentice to Master Chef.” I signed with a publisher. Okay, this is cool. It has to be a lot of short stories, really cool stuff. Teamed up with an artist to do some of the pages of each opening, and just recipes. No big photos or that.
At that time, I’m running the Westchester Country Club, which is the 12th club in the country, Biltmore Hotel. Each property, all the stuff that it entails. I said, “I’ll just go in early and write a couple chapters here and there.”
Kirk Bachmann: “I’ll just go in earlier!”
Edward Leonard: Time kept coming, and my thought process of writing a chapter and how long it takes was so far off it wasn’t funny. “Chef, where are you? You’re behind. You promised X, Y, Z.” So I had to go in even earlier. I learned then that, no matter what I outlayed in my mind, I’m getting ready for my banquet or my a la carte dinner. This was a different animal, and it just took a lot more time.
That was cool because it really was based on sharing the stories from when I started up until now. Fun stories, too. Funny issues. I was young and foolish. Writing like that, more of a book, it takes a lot more. We’re not writers. You do recipes. You do forms. You do SOPs. This writing was a bit different.
Then when I got to the second opportunity, which was “Club Cuisine,” that was the first photo book. It’s going to hit all the marks that I wanted. Decided to do this. It was really to launch and get club cuisine where I felt club cuisine needed to be. We’ll talk about that later, where club stood and the evolution.
It took quite a bit of task. You have your inner battles with publishers with what you want. What your vision is is sometimes different than the direction they’re going. They’re looking at cost, sales, all that stuff. Then the photo shoots. The photo shoots take – Man! – a lot of time. I had a pretty good system, a lot of it learned from competitions. How do you mise en place? How do you set up? Every recipe we were going to do was done on a tray, everything ready. A team of chefs behind me wanted to get involved. That’s why I was thanking them.
You go for days. Again, in your mind, “We’re going to go crank it out.” I remember the photographer, Ron Manville, who did my first book. He said, “This is ambitious. I’ve never shot so many photos in one day. You’re an animal. You’re not stopping.” You did hit that curve, when you got tired. Your best intentions, at some point, you’re burning out.
Each book, I learned and got better at it, but because of the time frame, because of being busy, you make every day count. You went to “Eat with Your Eyes.” The photo shoots. Honestly, that whole book was done in two or three days. We just kept pumping out the photos, the staging. There’s a lot of the behind the scenes photos that I felt were always cool.
Team USA cookbooks came and were a different animal. Then I had help. I had all the other chefs’ input from the team. Again, getting everybody together.
When you look at a book by a famous TV star, a lot of the recipes are done by other people, a whole room full of people. As you know, at Le Cordon Bleu, a lot of students externed in New York writing recipes and stuff for other people, people who got their faces on the covers of the cookbooks.
It is different, too, when you’re a chef, and you take your concepts, your food that you cook every day, but now you’ve got to format it. Now it’s got to be in a recipe format. It’s got to be made for six to eight people.
I’m actually talking right now about doing another one. I have to make sure I make the commitment because I know what’s in store. We’re looking at either doing a “Club Cuisine 2” or a “You Eat with Your Eyes.”
“Club Cuisine” was the first real book, and it still has a lot of good [feedback]. I still get chefs today at from the Club arena saying they still use that book. They go back sometimes and look at things. When I look at it now, things have evolved. My food has evolved, so when I look at that book, I think, “What the heck was I thinking?” It is a weird thing when you look back at your own work and think, “Seriously? That’s what I did?” But a different time and space.
Each one you learn. You get it better. You get to involve your team, which I thought was really special. They get to be part of something that’s probably a rarity for most of them. To be a part of the photo shoots, be part of the whole process, and be thanked, and have their name in it.
When I was young and apprenticing, I remember Fritz Sonnenschmidt and his fifth “Garde Manger” book. He has my dishes in there, a lot of my platters. Just to see my name, you think, “Wow!” So when you get to do your own…
But I think, again, you don’t get rich on books. That’s a big [misconception]. You know Thomas Keller’s book, selling at the French Laundry, maybe 250,000 copies. So unless you add that TV piece or that other Michelin piece that really helps the seller rate [it doesn’t make you rich].
The “Book of Buffets” was a very special book because, to me, I worked so hard to get buffets to a space and time where I called them “dine arounds.” I changed the format. I really felt buffet food, especially in the club or resort arena, needed to be really revamped. It really needed to be broken and looked at again. How can you put out fresh food? How can you make that buffet not that old chafing dish, Golden Corral look? Really do it. And of course, Cordon Bleu embraced that book. It’s part of our curriculum. Again, another special moment for me to do that.
The book you had in front of you was originally designed by Fortessa china. He designed some china that we did for Crate & Barrel. So you see that book in Crate & Barrel. I did do a couple of stages at Crate & Barrel to promote, standing behind the china and the Fortessa display of the book.
All that stuff, really, were special memories. When you see people use it in the industry, or people write to you saying, “Man, you have great concepts. Thank you for doing this.” Then you get the haters and the naysayers. You’ve got to be ready for that, too. You always get that.
Kirk Bachmann: Everyone has an opinion. I have to say, what’s really impressive. “Eat with your Eyes” was 2008, 2010 time frame. It was a few years ago. I’m looking at Tomato Tarte Tatin right here. Beautiful shot. You can see the puff pastry is perfectly prepared, the salt on the tomatoes. You mentioned the china. The dim sum. Absolutely beautiful. In a strange sort of serendipitous way, twelve years ago you were kind of already ahead of your time because there’s nothing in this book, on these pages, that is outdated. It’s really, really beautiful.
You mentioned Fritz. You mentioned Thomas. When you’re envisioning what this was going to come together as, was there a prototype? Was there a model? “I want it to be on the coffee table of every house in America” type of thing?
Edward Leonard: I think with that book, Scott George actually endorsed it on the back.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. And Martin Yan.
Edward Leonard: And my friend, Martin. You get two very great, well-known celebrity chefs endorsing your book.
I think my view which you just explored, my vision at that time was to learn. When I look at “Club Cuisine,” there’s still some good stuff in there. But I do look at that and say, “I would do this dish different.” Very cool, modern, kind of contemporary. It’s still maybe kind of ahead of its time. I display some of the products. The lobster club, I remember all the little pieces that went into each shot. It’s kind of an eclectic shooting in a different mode.
That book, I wanted it to last us a time. You just said: You’re picking that up now and the majority of all those dishes you can create now and people and customers would still go, “Wow!” And I think that was a learning curve that I had. Make your food so you’re a little ahead of time, but five or eight years later, people are still going to look at that setting and say, “I could make this and make this. My customers would be happy.” Or you’re entertaining at home. You still have wow factors in there.
Even from plating the salads. I used the cake bowls from the pastry shop. How I did certain salads, those presentations still wow people when they see them.
That was more of a goal of that book, to make it a visionary book Like you said, a coffee table book in a chef’s office. They could still open it up today in 2022 and say, “Wow, we can do this. We can do that.”
Kirk Bachmann: It’s interesting. We made this the other night. We changed it up a little bit. I don’t know if I ever told you, but the salad of watermelon, mango, goat cheese, arugula? We made it the other night. For the kids we –
Edward Leonard: Different versions you can do.
Kirk Bachmann: Right! I’ve prepared this as my own for other people. I’m not going to lie! People can’t even believe this salad. “What? Watermelon?” For the kids, we cube it with all the same ingredients so it’s easier for them to eat. It’s absolutely one of my favorites. So fresh.
Edward Leonard: A salad I use today, sometimes, that ladies want. They get that presentation. I tweak it. I add a little lettuce, some little flowers now, or herbs, but people are still, “Oh my God! This is incredible.”
Kirk Bachmann: It’s cold. It’s refreshing.
You started to touch on this a little bit, Chef. Not to put you on the spot, but legacy is important. You’ve been very intentional and careful with your career. Always trying to build upon. Everything made sense. When you think about cataloging your cookbooks and those that are yet to come, two things: 1) How important is the legacy? And 2) What do you really want them to accomplish?
Is it more important that I can pick this up and teach my kids how to make a watermelon salad, or that club chefs are still finding guidance from you as they build their repertoire? Or is it both.
Edward Leonard: I think it’s a mix of both. Somebody once said, “The book just substantiates that you’re the expert at what you’re doing.” When I started those projects, it really was just a love of what I do. It really was that mentorship of getting my cooks, my team, to help with these books and to get involved. All of the synergy and energy we have for learning, to give another spark.
I think of the Disney movie with the little mouse.
Kirk Bachmann: “Ratatouille.” Of course.
Edward Leonard: Chef Gusteau, right. Cooking’s for everyone. I remember one time, I was with my daughter and my son. I think she was four or five. We were in Walden Books. One of the books was there. She said, “Daddy, that’s your book! That’s my daddy’s book.”
I said, “Probably not one of the bestsellers.” But you kind of walk in there…
Kirk Bachmann: There it is!
Edward Leonard: I held her up. You get those moments. I think books, to this day, I still buy books. I know there are ebooks, the tablets. I get it all. I’m far from old school, but there is just something about the arts, whether it’s cars, which I love, theater and art. Cookbooks. When you have this beautiful book, you’re opening up the pages, it’s always there for you without always plugging something in or pulling it up on a screen. I’ve always found books very special.
I think it suited the need, whether for chefs I knew who used it in their restaurants, hotels, clubs or people at home that I gave a lot of books to. Fortessa really drove that book. It went to a lot of consumer sectors as well.
I am looking to do one more to leave the capstone of them. Hopefully that will get done in the next couple of years. I guess it’s another part of a career I’ve been pretty blessed doing. I guess it was one of those steps that you do.
Kirk Bachmann: Stanley Tucci, I think we mentioned this last time. He’s of Italian descent, and he put a really simple book together. He calls it a memoir, but it’s really got 12 dozen really simple Italian recipes in it. That’s what I’m waiting for. I want that coffee table, lounge chair, Ed just kind of relaxed. What does Chef Ed eat at home? What’s he feed his kids, his wife? The simplest recipe in that it’s almost too simple. It’s a cast iron skillet. It’s a very traditional Italian sauce – make it any way you want, with garlic, without garlic, onions, no onions, whatever you want – and then you poach a few eggs in it and serve it on beautiful crusty bread for your family. How can something be that simple and that delicious, right?
Edward Leonard: I think that’s the key to food, simplicity teamed with elegance. Read some of my posts of of late. I’m getting feedback, “Chef, simple is the dish, but man, I just want to jump into the screen and eat your food.” I remember listening to Joël Robuchon. I think it was his last interview or close to the last interview before he passed. The key thing I took out of that interview, he took a section and the next thing he said is, “As I’ve gotten older…” and mind you, him getting older and opening restaurants in Singapore and everywhere, he says, “I realized the importance of making my food more simplistic. I realize the art of putting those two, three, four ingredients together. When I look back at my cuisine, a lot of it is over-engineered. A lot of it really was too much. As I get older, I appreciate more the focus on the flavors, the harmony, the things that come together in a simple way.”
When people still talk about Joël Robuchon, his potatoes, pommes puree. With the simplicity of such a dish, but made in these steps that really make a difference when you’re making the pommes puree.
I think all of us, at some stage, start looking back, reflecting and saying, “It’s not about smokes, mirrors, and gimmicks.” My cuisine, for the most part, has never been that. But there are times I tried to go out a little on a limb for a presentation. Now I find I bring it in. The key thing is when I look at that picture, if it makes you hungry, if the food jumps out at you.
I did a tuna with a warm slaw salad Friday night, posted it on Instagram. When you look at that tuna from the marinade on the outside, you see where it was cut open, the purple potatoes, the 8-minute egg that’s runny. The octopus dish that I did, it is so simplistic in all these natures. I really think that’s what great food is about. It’s bringing those simple procedures and flavors together in a way that, man, when you take a bite and you eat everything, you’re like, “Wow!” Then you vary the presentation here from time to time.
It really is what surprises me, what gets me excited. Before our podcast, I just got done writing a five-course wine menu I have to do for a menu. I’m sitting here and I can envision the food. I can envision what I’m writing. Between now and that dinner, I’ll plate it three different times in my head, but it gets me excited. It gets me excited just getting the words down, getting the combination of flavors down. I think when that still drives you, still gets you going, it is something that, to this day, it’s like I’m still entering a kitchen at times.
I remember growing up, my mom used to look at me and say – I was a bit different – she goes, “You know, Edward? You’re a man now. There’s always that little boy. Your actions, your behavior, your cars, everything you do. Probably don’t ever lose that.” I don’t think I have. When I sit here with food, it still really is different. I can not just pump it out and I’m done. I’m getting excited and I can’t wait to do the dinner. How am I going to train the guys? What outlines am I going to do?
I think that’s a great thing about a world that’s gone to working at home. Technology, the crafts and arts and even trades are disappearing. Machines are taking over. I was listening to a business interview driving home the other day about a guy that has opened a burger place in California that’s all done by robotics. They’re making the burgers! But yet, he consults these chefs. He’ll go to a Michael Mina or somebody and get their burger version, and put that version on the menu, but it’s not a human being putting that burger together.
Kirk Bachmann: That brings back memories to the consulting you did with the burger place in Chicago. Let me tell you, I don’t care what the burger place is, but if they’ve got a special piece of equipment just for searing foie gras, like you had, I’m in. I’m in. I had never seen anything like that. Isn’t it funny how whatever your mom says can really hit home and you never forget it? I love that story.
By the way, it’s not just me and you. There’s a lot of people who like the charred Spanish octopus appetizer with hummus and caramelized onion and purple potatoes, and most importantly, seven-minute egg. Not eight! Not six! Seven-minute egg.
Edward Leonard: When I cut that open with my garde manger guy, Speedy, his eyes just popped open. The yolk starts to flow. That whole dish, I brought it to the picture bob so he could shoot it. Every chef, cook, lined up after that – even waitstaff – to start taking pictures. That, to me, is just – Man! They’re that excited. To see the final product, how it comes together. It’s amazing. If it’s posted on their stuff, then it’s all worth it.
Kirk Bachmann: And it’s fun. You mentioned Cook just a little bit ago. I was going to dive into the obligatory question, “How are great chefs made?” Let’s start with the basics. I’d love to hear from you, Chef, how great cooks are made. To the point that we’re bringing up here: simplicity, elegant simplicity. When you think about mentorship, inspiration, motivation, your style of cooking, leadership, what is your approach? Not to let the cat out of the bag, but is it different for everyone who comes into your kitchen? Do you have a plan for those individuals, or is it your basic “Chef Ed” plan? This is the way you become a great cook. If you follow this, regardless if you’ve come to me from Thomas or from Fritz or from Moose or someone else, you’re in my kitchen now. Is there a specific path? Or do you find yourself, like we do in school, sometimes we have to meet our students where they are?
Edward Leonard: It’s a good question. We were probably doing a podcast 10 years ago. I think it would be different today. When I started teaching with you when I got to education. One thing I learned when I went to a classroom and watched chef instructors teach: the ones that just read off the syllabus, the ones that just did the MO, followed the book to a T. But sixteen people were out there, watching them. He’s supposed to be teaching them. Each one is learning a different way. Some, because they’re not learning the way that gets to them, are on their phones doing other things.
I look at my team in the same way. All of them learn differently. All of them have strengths and weaknesses. I coach and I mentor to them. I’m a little more in tune with that because of the situation we are in today with labor being a priority, and a sea change going to robotics, any way they can dispose of labor to some degree. Human beings: How do you retain them? You retain them by giving them a sense of purpose.
You also have to give them a sense of worth. Each personality, how do I coach them and talk to them? Some I can go back and do the old way, and they’re good with that. They react to that. The other ones I can’t. More cynicism, where I have to do a different approach.
Our work is monotonous at times. It’s a lot of prep, a lot of mise en place. That’s why nights when we’re ready, I’ll plate. When they see the final product come together, that mindset of monotonous stuff is no longer there. They know there’s an end to this. They know, “Man! I’m chopping this. I’m doing this. He wants this cooked this way. Wow! When we put that on the table…when he asked me to do four different cuts of these heirloom carrots. I’ve got 10 to 15 pounds, but he wants this dice, this slice, this roll cut.” But when they see it plated, and they see the effect it has, they get excited.
I think it’s very much being in tune with it. You have to read your people. You have to understand them and what it feels like. If you can get to that place, you get loyalty. You get people that want to stay, people that feel they are part of something. I think that’s key.
Even social media: It’s probably my biggest weakness. I’ve been told this before; I’ve never been a great self-promoter. Maybe I should have been on TV. Maybe I should have been doing different things. But even now, I do sit there at night. I’ll post. I do it more for my team, because they want to feel part of something special and work for somebody special. They see you’re on a podcast. They see you’re getting hits. They see your Facebook is lighting up, or LinkedIn you’ve got 13,500 followers. The ones who love the business are growing. They want to be part of that cool thing that’s happening now. “Look at Chef! He’s still doing this. He’s still the man! I’m probably a third his age, but Man! Look at him go!” That’s the generation. You need what connects with them, what turns them on.
My other goal is always to have a story. You said your mom resonates. You’re always going to go back to one or two things from certain people you meet in your career. I want it to be the same thing. I want them to think back when they’re doing something. I remember, Nick Landry from Louisiana wrote to me. She was in Chicago as a chef. “Please have dinner on me. At times, I couldn’t understand you were drilling me the way you did with certain things. Personally, you would coach me.” Now, he’s got this corporate job. “Now, man, when I look back at what I had to do and how I had to get ready, how I prepare, all those things I didn’t know at that time are now serving me well. Even in my personal life. How to look at something.” That, to me, that’s legacy.
Legacy isn’t the dish you leave behind, the cookbooks, whatever programs you’ve been on. It’s the people you’ve affected. It’s the people who, when they come to a certain point in their lives doing a certain thing, most of the time says, “I’m in the kitchen. When you first left after the years we worked together, I swear there are times you’re just looking over me.”
Brian Beland said, “I plate something up, and sometimes I say, ‘What would Chef think?’ I’ll do something and I catch this. ‘Chef would have killed me for this.’” That’s the greatest impact work you can have in your legacy.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s validation. It’s also legacy. It’s what you leave behind. I absolutely love that analogy. Keeping with that theme, I’m going to get you to get emotional here. It could get emotional. I’m curious: Just like parenting in a strange sort of way, sometimes we have to stand by and watch the mistakes. When my 11-year-old boy, Joseph Henry, raises his bat too high because he saw somebody on television doing that. I’m trying to explain to him, “Buddy, you won’t be able to get the bat down fast enough.” But he has to learn for himself, when he swings and misses.
There’s a time when we have to pick our kiddos up and ensure that they learn from those mistakes and they grow, how it made them feel. I’ll go either way, has there been a time that you’ve seen a cook – no matter how much you’ve mentored and tried – but, Man, they’ve just made a bad decision? Perhaps it was detrimental to their career. Or the opposite, if it’s an easier story to tell, where “Wow! What a great decision!” Maybe they stopped and thought -maybe it was Brian – “What would Ed do?” I’m always fascinated by how it manifests itself down the road. You saw something. Either you felt like, “Wow! Way to make the right decision. Or I couldn’t say anything, but not the right decision, my friend.”
Edward Leonard: I have done that. I’ve also learned that the right decisions for them or for me are what I perceive.
Kirk Bachmann: Good point.
Edward Leonard: There’s a few examples. Talk about the disappointing things, they aren’t so much decisions as just what happens when we’re doing that mentoring role. I think my first learning experiences were by a good man. “He was a bull.” Matt Roach, Westchester. I’m a local banquet guy, cook guy. He would be a nonstop machine. Work. But I was always on him. “Do this. Do that. Come on, Matt. Boom, boom!”
I remember after however many years it was, four or five, he resigned. He said, “Chef, I’ve got a great position here. I’m going to go give this a try.”
“I’m happy for you. I really am.”
And before I said another word, he goes, “Chef, I just want you to know something. Through the years, you have really pushed me. You pushed us all. You pushed us to get better. Every day, every event, every year goes by, you just keep spinning it. We’ve got to get better, doing better. Be consistent. But that’s not even good enough. You want to push the edge again. I’m not like that, Chef. You know that. I’ve never been that. But I will say this, now that I’m leaving. If I can retain half of what you taught, if I can work half as good as how you pushed, your standards, I will be so successful out there, it won’t be funny. And for that I thank you.”
I sat there, we did a man hug, and he went on his way. And I thought about that. He’s right. Some of the things I wanted and expected of him. I guess there is a big solace for you. “I’m not going to be you. I’m not going to be some of the other guys that came in for the team, the Master Chef exam. Man, I’m going to be good because even if I retain half and push to what I feel is my comfortable limit, I know what’s out there. I know I’m still going to be successful because of how you taught me.”
That’s when I learned that everybody has what they believe.
It was a great honor last year when Golf Kitchen awarded me the Best Chef in Clubs. A great honor. But the biggest honor more than the award was the guy cooking the dinner, hosting the dinner, was Mike Ruggiero, one of my chefs from Westchester. How cool is that? You’re going to this great club. The dinner is being hosted by a person who worked for you, that you mentored who always put in his articles. Mike was another one. “I have a life. I want balance. I want kids. I want different things, Chef.” When he left, too, he used to tell people, “You had to know Chef Edward. Boom, boom, boom. You can do this. Do this.”
I’ve learned to accept that’s their comfort level. Their success is doing what they want to do, but having the other part to their lives that they want, and still being proud to put out their food. Still pushing. They took those pieces away, and that’s a great thing.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s a perfect response, this day and age as well. You’re meeting them where they are, but ultimately it’s up to them.
Edward Leonard: That started making me happy. I still know that I played a piece in it, and probably grew them to a limit that was a really a bit much. They can now pull it back and still be [great]. They all have it. That’s incredible. My podcast with Corey Siegel. “Cory, working with you. You worked for me at Westchester. Team USA. You worked for Rich Rosendale. When I found out you were going to Electrolux, that was one of those moments I said, ‘Really? What kind of decision is this?’”
I told him, “Not because I always pictured you as the perfect, good looking chef. He looked the part. Did the part. Great cook. I look at you as the guy at the Four Seasons at the Ritz Carlton, heading up the brigade. That’s where I pictured you. And here you are at this job.” But yet he’s done so well, and he’s gotten to travel the world. We talk about all the different opportunities that chefs get in our business today. He’s been working for an Italian company, too, so he’s gotten to see so many different things.
But it was one of those moments when I was like, “Man, why did he do that?” Then he said, “Okay.” That was great for him. He still represents. He still loves what he does. I went to Electrolux, watched him do a class together. We hung out. It’s great stuff.
I think the harder moments are the disappointments, because you get them. I’m not a generation guy. I don’t have to sum up today’s kids or yesterday’s, but we all know it is different. Right. The tired old man. Generation Z has no patience. When you see people that you put a lot into, and gave a lot, who just walk away with no pattern to it. I guess that’s the only thing I look at sometimes. You say, “Man, I did this. I did this.” People around you say, “That person would not be where they are right now if they didn’t work in your kitchen. I know that for a fact.” And yet, they walk away. It’s almost like you didn’t play that right.
I’ve learned. I’ve said the philosophical quotes and stuff. You’re going to have those, too. You’re going to have the people that appreciate what you did, and keep in touch with you. Still keeping that culinary passion, embracing it, going. Then you have the ones that maybe made the bad decision. Tell you where to go. You had that one rough patch they couldn’t get through, and they’re gone. You remember the times when you took them from where they were and how you helped them grow. It’s like your kid growing up and then never talking to you again.
You’re going to have a few of those, too.
Kirk Bachmann: Sure.
Edward Leonard: I think the more you can embrace where people want to be and play a part to help them get there at the level they want to do it, I think you get a lot more wins that way. I’ve always been proud. I’ll never forget that conversation with Matt, because that was when it was first brought to me.
I’ve done international stuff. One guy came in. I remember, “I want to be like you, Chef, cool one day.” Then when he left, he said, “I want to be nothing like you. No, thank you! I watched you this whole time, for hours. You’re here at five. You’re [not] leaving. No, thank you, Chef. Not for me.” I get it. There is a price you pay.
Kirk Bachmann: Sure. It’s all part of the legacy. Speaking of which, let’s continue with that. Obviously, you’re recognized and noted as being a major influence – we talked about this a little bit – in the elevation of private club cuisine. Specifically, your leadership and culinary pride program, which I believe originated at Westchester, the first private country club to be recognized for its restaurant, its events, its culinary program. Globally, as well as in the United States.
Again, we’re taking a walk down Memory Road here, because I think it’s really, really important. What did that mean to you? I ask because today, every chef has a different concept. Curtis Duffy is going to have a different take than Phillip Tessier and so on and so forth. We look at Michelin stars, we look at James Beard as benchmarks. You’ve proven in the culinary world for many years that there are many, many ways to make an impact. I’d love to get your take about working in that club environment. Club kitchens and how you found that as your space, and created so much incredible success in that specific space unlike anyone else did. Tough question and lots of memories, but I’d love your insight there.
Edward Leonard: I’m not sure there was ever a plan. I do sit back. Sincerely, most things that happened, there was no alternative angle for me. I love what I do. I do it how I do it no matter where you put me.
I remember going into Westchester. When I first pulled up, the hotel – Wow! Biltmore Hotel, 1929. Walked through that friggin’ door, looked at the ceilings, the painted ceilings. It was unbelievable. Then it had the modern side of the club. It was old. I remember when I went for the interviews. Another CMC who interviewed, we looked at each other across the way. “Hey, how you doing? Oh, you’re going to Westchester, aren’t you?”
“Good luck. Stay away from it. It’s a dump.”
“Yeah. No way. No way I’m working there. Forget about it.” We shook hands, and he left.
So I went, and the chef said, “You know so-and-so. Hmm. Yeah, okay, good.” I remember walking through the kitchens, and they were kitchens on the 29th floor. I remember when I rebuilt it. We started rebuilding and they found a hole in the floor. Luckily we didn’t hit it when we did, because the floor sunk up to as soon as we went in.
But I looked at the potential. “Man, there’s history here. There’s moderation. This is a place that was elegant.” Kirk, you went into silver room. The domes! The shades, silverware with the Westchester logo on it. In its day, the classical.
But you’re right. Club food. Chicken breasts. Prime rib. It didn’t have a great reputation. I remember, the executive director after we shook hands, there was a guy that was a chef. “You do realize this is a top culinary role?”
“Yeah. I hope there’s room for change, because it’s still going to be recognized as being top for me.” They just loved it.
That’s what I had, that attitude, that I wanted to change this place. Number one, I loved the place. It was more to restore Westchester. Here it is, this great hotel. The things I saw and read. I thought, “This place is special. It just needs it.”
I drove and pushed to just do things the way I believed they should be done to have great food. What that slowly involved, suddenly what’s going on at Westchester was happening at clubs. I always knew club cuisine was important. I did some clubs in my old days, banquets and hot boxes. The Italian banquet chef, whom I liked, left at three months because we stopped doing hot boxes. We went to two-by-two service, when you walk out with two plates in your hand. I remember Mark DiFilippo, big consultant in the New York area, said, “The stuff that was coming out of Westchester. People were talking about food. For me, it was unheard of, because it was coming out of a club. That’s what was coming out of Westchester. What the heck is going on at a club!?”
I did what I did. We hosted Team USA with our practice rounds. I remember the World Association of Chefs. We actually got to host. I got to host. What a thrill! It was kind of the off season. They all flew in: Ferdinand Metz, Ryan Holmes all of the greats we know. I remember Ryan Holmes leaving after the second dinner, walking with me back to the hotel. “I know Michelin stars don’t do private clubs in the US, but we all talked at dinner. You have Michelin stars. You’ve had at least two, maybe three, for this dinner.” That meant a lot to me, that a bunch of guys – Otto Weibel would –
Kirk Bachmann: Wow!
Edward Leonard: I had nervous dinners. Probably one of the dinners that we talk about, like cooking for the president or this movie star. But that bunch of chefs, my clubs, my hotel, eating, four days, three meals a day. When he walked away and said that, that meant the world to me.
I still never [got recognized] industry-wide, but when I was at the dinner last fall to get my award, the GM of the club got up. Mike Ruggerio the boss and started talking. They won some kind of wine award. When would a club, again, too. It’s got a beautiful wine cellar. It’s got a sommelier. How far clubs have come! Look at this, our club got recognized by Wine List with our sommelier.
He said, “Most people don’t realize, but we’re honored to have Ed Leonard sitting here.” I’m looking, and everybody turns. Unreal. “I don’t know if he realized what a trailblazer he was. Where most people sit today, and from their title to their pay to the type of food that is going on at clubs, the press that private club chefs are getting, they owe it to him. There was a time when nobody looked at them. He took Westchester to a place that none of us even thought of. Even me and the GM. I started here and saw the pictures, went to his seminars. That was the start of something special for our club.”
It was Charles Carroll. There were some great chefs that were working. Joe Furia, a good friend of mine at Bell Beach. Great Chefs. But I think I had the benefit of Westchester being what it was on the map at the time, hosting all we did, the huge gala events. Word just got out. Even the director of culinary. Salaries that are fairly nice for a lot of club chefs. If I played a part in that happening, it’s a nice thing.
But again, honestly, I used to call Westchester a culinary playground. Going in there every day was so exciting. The crews. I had a waitlist of people from the CIA, from Thibodaux, Louisiana, internationals come in. We never worried about getting staffed for a season. We just did so much teaching. What I liked about clubs in the time frame, a little restaurant is just a restaurant. Hotels were cutting back, outsourcing stuff. The hotel world was starting to change. Here was this one environment. I used to tell the students coming in, “You’re going to do everything. You’re going to do great a la carte food. We’re going to do wine dinners. We’re going to do the bar. We’re going to do the outside barbecue pit. I have $5000 for three hours right on the water. You’re going to look at the sound, and you’re going to be out there cooking and looking. We have the gun club, which serves the high-end seafood where people are sitting outside looking at the ocean. You get to experience so much.”
Pastry chefs are always in the basement. We had a three-room shop. The first room was chocolate work, cake, sugar, next room was pastries, the third room was breads. There wasn’t a thing we didn’t do there. It was unbelievable, and it excited us every day. Every day we just got to do [something new]. We got smokers in. We’d be smoking all night. We had a 38-degree charcuterie room next to my office. I’d be in that room late sometimes, doing stuff. Some guys would come. They’d pop in, “Chef, what are you doing?”
“And I’d be like – sleeping.”
“No, no you’re doing something, man. We saw the light on from the rooms.”
Honestly, all that and being able to host a team there. We had the hotel rooms. We had the facility. We had the support. It was really, truly out of a love of being able to do it. To put out great food, do so many things, try things, to have all these people learn. I never stepped back and said, “I’m going to be the guy that [puts Westchester on the map].
I didn’t realize it probably until Barbara Vladimir called me. I knew Barbara a lot. We’d talk.
She always used to say, “Chef, it’s a shame you’re in the private club world. I wish you were in a restaurant in the city. We’d cover you.” Then Daniel Boulud some, Alex Lee sous chef, and then he went to a club. Where I am. Then Alex Lee, who’s now in New Jersey in a club. We were featured. They wrote an article. It was the first non-restaurant. I still have those issues of “Food Arts.”
Kirk Bachmann: Featuring club chefs.
Edward Leonard: I was on the 18th hole. You open it up, there I am, the 18th hole with a big picture of me. It features the three of us. They talk about Westchester. Even for her, she said, “I can’t believe what I’m hearing. I know a person who went to a wedding that told me, ‘Barbara, this place puts out food that we all walked out and said, ‘This is wedding food?’ You need to find out what is going on. You’re in the ‘Food Arts.’”
She said, “It’s a private club. I don’t hear that. That’s how she called.
When that happened, then I said, “Now we’re making a mark.” What I felt good about was for all the other chefs. When you take this private space, you deny yourself the press. You deny yourself the Zagat rating. You do give up something. But you get to do so much.
Even here, the other Rat Pack’s coming. Here’s this menu I’m going to do. My guys, there’s no boredom. Even in some of the nicest restaurants, they’ll have the same menus for six months sometimes. It maybe changes for another six. I know places I travel to, it’s the same menu that happened when it was a year ago.
You get to do all this exciting stuff. You have a little more subsidy. I remember being with the CIA, “right. We’re going to recognize a club with chicken dinners, prime rib dinners.” That bothered me. It gave me the motivation. “No, that’s not what clubs do anymore. It’s not your grandfather’s club. Things are changing. You’re in an environment where there’s no excuse for that.”
Kirk Bachmann: It sounds like the next book is going to be called, “Legacy.” You and I will talk about that.
We have a little bit of time left here. This is really important to me to wrap this up with food. Over the years, I’ve heard you talking about how to achieve a certain level with food. I’ve heard you use words like passion and purpose and intention and love. But the one word that has always stuck with me is, how does one achieve meaning through their food? I’d love to hear as we wrap up. I do still have an Ultimate Dish question for you, but how does one achieve meaning through food?
Edward Leonard: I didn’t know it then, but I used those words. Now, when I teach – I’m getting ready to do my dev for ACF and my presentation – challenging times how to help when there is a labor shortage. That’s one of the things I put: There’s got to be a meaning. You’ve got to give your food meaning.
You’ve heard me talk about this, too. Passion is great. “Oh, I’ve got passion! I’ve been sitting down as an engineer for ten years, but I’ve got a passion for food.” Well, then why the hell were you an engineer for ten years? Where was this passion?
Passion is energy. I can get somebody who is excited. I see bubbly, I see this guy with great energy. But passion is only going to carry you so far. An employee can come in with that passion and energy and in two months, they fizzle out. They’re not excited about the job anymore. You see what happened. Look at all this passion. That’s what some chefs will do. You have to give them substance behind the passion. What’s your purpose? Why are we here? To deliver the box. I’m direct. We’re here to deliver this exceptional member experience in all we do through food. We’re here to do this, and this. Here’s our vision. That’s our purpose.
The meaning becomes the purpose, you’re the substance, to make the purpose. You’re going to deliver. Your meaning is becoming that cook you want to become, or if you want, being able to to become a garde manger or work in that part to put out salads. When they go through the pass, people go, “Wow!”
Meaning is just substance. It’s more substantial. It’s like innovation over creativity. I love all these kinds of words, but I try to focus more when I teach and talk with the philosophy of words with substance. Innovation, to me, is something that stays the course. If I innovate something, it stays on the menu and may never come off. If I do creativity for a men’s golf event I do, and it’s floats. What a cool idea. Dark Guinness beer. Vanilla bean ice cream from Haagen-Dazs. It all goes together. You have one of those. That’s creativity. It’s not going to stay on there. Even then, “Oh, yeah, that’s cool.” Some people walk away. that’s creativity. I think when you focus on innovation, you can keep talking about passion, but again, that’s your energy. That’s your excitement.
True meaning comes from in here. True meaning is your being fulfilled. Every day you’re doing what you’re doing. Every day you see the food goes out. My broiler guy on Friday night, putting out the tomahawks, all the steaks, he puts them out and they do not want to come back. That’s purpose. Know your tasks. Do your steak. It’s meaningful because nobody is sending their food back. They’re happy. You’re getting the look like, “Good job tonight.” The GM goes by. “Nothing came back tonight. Great job.” That’s what keeps loyalty. That’s what keeps people with you. That’s what keeps people in our business.
I think people need to spend more time building that. I look for substance. I got off that train wagon. You can be passionate about everything. I have passion for cars, but I’m not a race car driver. But I get excited when a car goes by. That comes and goes. If I can’t afford that certain car I’ve got a passion for, it’s gone. I don’t want people in here just because they are excited and in a month it fizzles out. How do you keep that going through? Having a purpose. Making them fulfilled. They come in here everyday.
I have a guy here. He’s half-Italian, he does five pastas. His pastas next to my Asian stir fry looks so good. He has the meaning to just do good food, different ethnic ways to learn. It makes him happy. That’s why he came back. He went to Florida, and said, “No, I want to come back and work with Chef. it’s not the same.” He would text the guys here, “What’s on the menu? Do a plate of it, Chef.” That’s what that is.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s meaning.
Edward Leonard: Everything coming from within. Making somebody feel fulfilled, that their purpose is being fulfilled. They have a meaning of being part of your team, and all the success that is going on.
Kirk Bachmann: Really well said. Thank you for that. I appreciate that.
That leads us into the ultimate question, and that is, Chef Ed, what is the Ultimate Dish? What is the ultimate dish? You’ve seen so many. You’ve prepared so many.
Edward Leonard: I will tell you. I know different ethnicities have it, but for me – and you can use it in so many cuisines – I know it comes from your heritage, too. Oxtail.
Kirk Bachmann: Ooh!
Edward Leonard: We have a dish, we’ll get the oxtails in. We marinade them. We high-roast them, to get the fat off of them. Braise them like a sudo. Braise them in our samatoura sauce, then we serve that over raw chieta with 24-month aged Parmesan. Man, let me tell you, you take a bite of that stuff, life just doesn’t get any better.
People light up. I’ve got some other things I would say about the dish, but I can’t on a podcast. I think it’s one of those things, and I know other nationalities have their versions of oxtail. When you cook oxtail right, all the flavors that come from what that thing is [it’s amazing].
From my Italian heritage, to braise that in tomato sauce. Have that meat come off. Toss it and it’s firm. It’s got the little cups. Honestly, any Parmesan, but mysteriously, the 24-plus aged. Grate it on top before it goes out, a little drizzle of olive oil.
Kirk Bachmann: I think that’s the longest chill I’ve had. That’s like a 34-second chill. That is the ultimate dish. That’s absolutely beautiful. Wow!
Chef – and those who know and love you simply call you Chef – this has been a delight. I don’t think we’re done. I’m going to have to say, I don’t think we’re done. I’ll bug you for part three. We’ll dig in even more. Thank you for taking time. Thank your crew, by the way. They were very, very respectful and quiet today.
Edward Leonard: They were behaved.
Kirk Bachmann: How about it, right? Bravo. As always, I love you. I wish you well. Good health. Don’t work too hard. Keep working, okay.
Edward Leonard:You too, buddy.
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.