Edina has a robust restaurant scene, with talented chefs creating delicious food every day. We recently talked with two local chefs about how they got into the culinary world, what they like to cook at home, what their favorite food memories are—and what they’re tired of cooking. Their backgrounds and perspectives may vary, but they share one important trait: They’re very passionate about food and cooking.
Pittsburgh Blue’s executive chef got his start in the pizza business at age 15, working at Davanni’s. He worked there throughout his high school years. “I caught the food bug,” he says. He studied culinary arts at the Art Institutes International and was able to get in the door at Lucia’s Restaurant afterward. He absorbed everything he could learn there, then ran a pop-up restaurant in Madison, Wis., before returning to Minnesota. After working at the now-closed Via Café in Edina, Leonhardi connected with Parasole Restaurant Holdings, first as the executive chef at the St. Paul Salut before crossing the river to the company’s Edina location.
His home cooking these days has a lot to do with what his 2-year-old will eat. “Asian, Mexican, more ethnic foods, more stir-fries, things that are more pedestrian than what I cook at Pittsburgh Blue,” he says. “It’s simpler than people would think for a chef. We get a CSA share in the summer, and whatever we get, we work in. I got used to that at Lucia’s.”
Food memories are abundant for Leonhardi. “Eating at Alinea in Chicago, that was amazing,” he says. “And for my 30th birthday, we went out to Napa Valley and ate for a week straight.” But he also has memories with less gourmet roots. “Growing up, my grandmas and my mom threw down for all the holidays,” he says. “Waffles at the cabin, fish fries, all the good stuff. We had no Instagram, no iPads. We all joined in.” He carried that homemade approach through to his own son, making all the baby food from scratch. “Whatever we put in front of him, he eats,” says Leonhardi. “No junk food in the house, it’s all healthy and whole.”
Leonhardi has difficulty identifying one thing that he’s tired of cooking. “The thing is, you can try to always keep things fresh,” he says. “Sure, Caesar salad, it’s everywhere, but you can still improve it. I guess my approach is, if I’m tired of it, then I need to question it. Why am I still doing it? What can I do differently? Maybe use different ingredients, different techniques, find new suppliers. It becomes more of a challenge rather than being bored.”
Jones is the executive chef at Salut Bar Américain on 50th and France. Jones didn’t have culinary school aspirations during high school. “I worked as a dishwasher for six months in high school,” he says. “But back then, there was no Food Network, no big draw. I had a couple of friends who were going to culinary school, so I went with them. I ended up staying, they didn’t.” Originally from Providence, R.I., Jones first worked as a chef in Boston before moving to Columbus, Ohio.
Why Columbus? An unusual opportunity. “I worked at a high-end new country club,” he says. “It was privately owned by a billionaire. There was no budget. We could do whatever we wanted.” It was a wonderful time to be a chef, but when 9/11 came along, followed by a recession, reins were tightened.
It was in Boston where Jones met his wife, who grew up in Eden Prairie. “We always joke that the East Coast guys, we end up in Minnesota because we follow our wives,” Jones says, with a laugh. The first thing the couple did upon arrival in Minnesota was buy a 20-acre farm. Unfortunately, the farm couldn’t sustain them financially, so Jones went to work at Good Earth before working his way up to Salut.
When it comes to cooking at home, his kids have some say in the matter. “My 12-year-old daughter loves to bake, so we make lots of cakes, muffins and pancakes,” he says. “For meals, we do a lot of one-pot meals, like soups and stews.”
His food memories are rooted in discovery. “My mother didn’t cook with fresh ingredients other than things like basil,” he says. “The first amazing food memory I have is of working with fresh ginger for the first time. I grated it, got it on my hands, kept smelling it, wondering, ‘How does this work?’ It just kept going from there, all the Asian flavors, all the new ingredients, things like lemongrass.” The endless discovery strengthened his work: “Things that don’t look like what they end up tasting like, that pushed me.”
As for what he’s tired of, he says it’s not a specific item, but an attitude. “I just wish people would eat in moderation, eat and be happy. Eat what they want. Skip all the trendy stuff. Just enjoy.”
(Chef Stephen & Christina at home with Sophia (12), Isabella (7), Cecilia (3).)