Keeping it fresh
A Q&A with Ann Leon, chef, owner and namesake of Leon Bistro
Chef Ann Leon’s dream of having her own restaurant came true on Mother’s Day, 2008, with the opening of Leon Bistro. She studied at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco, and was deeply influenced working with revolutionary chef Alice Waters at the famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Leon has worked as a chef in many hotels and restaurants, including Rolling Hills Casino. Leon, 45, was voted Best Chef in the Chico News & Review’s 2011 Best of Chico reader’s poll, and is working to become a contestant on TV’s Iron Chef.
What is your culinary specialty?
I’m classically French trained, and Mediterranean is my area of expertise. It’s a fusion, with Vietnamese, Thai and Indian. That was my youth, growing up in the Bay Area. I learned to reach out and get those ethnic flavors, so there aren’t a lot of fats in what you’re eating. With French, you have butter in everything. But my thing here, the point of my plate, is each corner of the plate has a different entity, but it all comes together in balance. Each bite from a plate will have different flavors. The flavors have a separate identity, and all come together.
Where do you look for inspiration for new recipes?
I always have to keep creating to keep my passion, my fire, going. I try to keep some of the food here real old-school, for people who like that, and let the ingredients speak for themselves. My influences come from my farmers. What comes in on a delivery at 4 in the afternoon will be on your plate that night. If we’ve already produced our menu and some golden raspberries, or something fabulous comes in, we’ll change it.
What dish would you like to include on your menu, but worry that it might be too exotic for Chico?
Foie gras. I’ve been criticized for that. People go to Wikipedia or their smart phone and read that it’s bad because of the way it’s produced, but it’s come a long way. It’s sustainable now. People don’t understand it’s done in a humane way. Also sweetbreads, and I’m pushing a lot behind the scenes so people will try them. Then the next thing you know, they come back seeking it. I love sweetbreads.
We already have boar and bison, and I bring in fish that people don’t see a lot of. So I challenge people.
What won’t you eat?
Nothing. I won’t even tell you some of the things I’ve eaten. I’ve had Rocky Mountain Oysters [bull testicles] and they’re very tasty. I like to throw some head cheese out there and get people to try it.
What is the ingredient you can’t live without?
Fresh herbs and sweet Thai chili sauce. And, I’m addicted to coconut milk. That’s a principal ingredient here, since it’s non-dairy. So I would say all condiments.
At home, what three things are always in your fridge?
I don’t keep a lot there. There’s always something citrus, and I use it for everything. I have a variety of different vinegars at all times. Some we make ourselves. Probably a demi-glace. Again, condiments!
As a pro, what mistakes do you see novices make most often?
One thing I’ve noticed in the younger set is putting olive oil in the pan, and not letting it get hot enough before they start cooking things in it. No one wants to wait for it to get hot!
Also, confidence. See, I think a recipe is just a series of someone else’s mistakes. You have to be willing to do some trial and error, then you turn it around and make something of it. You learn from it. So really, just go for it, and we’ll work on it from there. I like to help cooks gain confidence.
What’s the most underrated ingredient, in your opinion?
Vegetables, from the agricultural community here. People are intimidated by things they don’t know, like different greens and beets. It’s probably because they had bad childhood experiences. I love to do sauces that enhance the different flavors of vegetables.
What’s the strangest ingredient you’ve ever used in a dish?
I don’t think of it as strange. A lot of the intestinal stuff you have to work on people to try, like the stomach linings that are used in sausage casing. In my sausage classes, a few people get a little freaked out.
Where do you like to eat out of town?
I seek out food from ethnic hole-in-the-wall places, especially when I’m in Berkeley. Bahn mi are Vietnamese sandwiches, and that’s a fun thing to have. I look for places that might be dive-y to others, but if you know the inside scoop, you can find out which are the best.
What’s the most outrageous thing that’s happened in a kitchen where you’ve worked?
I had a bat fly at me at a restaurant where I worked. It came into the dining room and kitchen area. It dived down on me and barely grazed my head. Trying to avoid it, I smacked my head on a barstool. Yes, the most unusual thing was the bat.
What’s your death-row meal?
My childhood favorite was a dish my mom used to make: chicken livers seared in a cast-iron skillet. The sauce was a light marsala reduction with caramelized onion, served over basmati rice. When I was 9 or 10 years old my mom asked what I wanted served at my birthday party, and I picked that. She didn’t think it would go over that well … But it just melts in your mouth. It’s incredible.
Describe the restaurant you would create if cost and demographics were not an issue (your fantasy restaurant).
It would have an open kitchen, with a wood-burning oven and a coal-burning oven. And I’ve got to have a wok. I like an exhibition kitchen, because I’m always on the line, and I want to stay there as long as I can. I have contact with each and every plate that comes out. I like to come out and talk with the guests, to feel them out and see what they like, find out what they want.
And I would love for my restaurant to be in Greece, because I just love that place.
Who was the biggest cooking influence in your life?
Definitely Alice Waters, and my mom and grandmother. And each and every chef I’ve worked under has given me a lot. You take something from every chef who teaches you. It creates your personality.
Growing up, we never had canned vegetables in our house. We were all about community, and getting people together and involved. At 4:30 in the morning, my mom and I would go to the farmers’ market to get the freshest foods, then sell them at wholesale from our front porch to our neighbors. That was Alice’s philosophy, too, to get people involved from the soil to the plate, so people can understand it. That’s why I’m really passionate about my job.