|Chef Todd Leonard at ACF's National Chef of the Year competition.|
When I called chef Todd Leonard about his upcoming National Chef of the Year competition, he was somewhere in the mountains around Heber and Jordanelle Dam, cooking food for an LDS stake pioneer trek. The Utah Valley University culinary instructor spent two days preparing food for about 250 hungry "pioneers."
Then he hopped on a plane for Dallas, arriving in time for the “Iron Chef” type showdown among four of the country’s top chefs during the American Culinary Federation’s annual conference July 22-26.
Leonard won the ACF’s Western Region Chef of the Year title in May for a spot in the competition, but he realized the timing was bad, with both the trek and the competition in the same week.
“I had already committed to do the trek before I won the regional title,” he said. “So I went back and told them I couldn’t do the trek, because I wouldn’t have time to prepare for nationals. But I felt terrible about it. So I called them back and said I’d do it. I had to get all my gear for the competition packed before I went to trek, so the night before, I was up until 2:30 in the morning.”
He spent two days on the trek, then left the last day in the hands of a capable committee to go on to Dallas where his competition team was awaiting him.
“It’s been hectic, but I am so glad I made the right decision,” he said in a phone interview while on the trek, somewhere in the mountains around Heber and Jordanelle Dam. “I would have regretted it forever not doing trek. If I win or not, I know the Lord will bless me.”
Although he didn’t end up winning the national title (which went to Todd Kelly, of the Cincinnati Hilton Plaza) he has no regrets.
“We got edged out, but we feel great about what we did,” he told me after the winners were announced. “Just to be able to compete as one of the top four chefs in the country was an awesome experience.”
The chefs had just one hour to cook four different dishes using a “mystery” ingredient that turned out to be red snapper. He did a pan-seared red snapper with stewed leeks and saffron broth; a poached snapper summer salad with snapper ceviche; an “snapper three ways” entree that included a tempura, lobster-snapper roulade, and snapper sous vide with blood orange. Sous vide is a technique of encasing the food in a plastic pouch, and cooking it at a low temperature while submerged in water.
Leonard is equally at home with fancy high-end cooking and campsite cuisine. A direct descendant of Brigham Young, his culinary interest was first kindled with Boy Scout campouts, and he has won the International Dutch Oven Society’s annual chefs cook-off several times. He also loves to plan and cook for big events.
In addition to teaching at UVU, Leonard was executive chef for The Blue Lemon restaurants in Provo and downtown Salt Lake City. Leonard said that as of Aug. 1, he will not be involved as much in the restaurants’ kitchens, but will continue teaching cooking classes and helping with menu development.
Leonard grew up in Cottonwood Heights, and had worked at Royce’s Restaurant, Carl’s Cafe and the Provo Park Marriott before serving an LDS mission in Columbus, Ohio. he completed an associate degree in culinary arts from Salt Lake Community College, and worked at Oakridge Country Club in Farmington and was executive chef of the Garden Restaurant and Nauvoo Cafe on Temple Square.
When he first got started, his profession wasn’t considered glamorous. It just meant a lot of long hours in hot kitchens.
“The kitchen is still hot,” Leonard acknowledged. “But food has becoming exciting for people. The science and art of it has become more of a hobby, and the Food Network has shaped our industry into a prestigious job.”
He pointed out that it takes a lot of work and experience to become a competent chef. “You can’t just come up with a pasta dish and say, ‘I’m Bobby Flay.’ Until you have done a party for 500 successfully, how can you call yourself a chef? It is a great honor to be part of this profession.”