Stories through food

A night at Leon Bistro learning about cooking and music history

Chef Ann Leon leads cooking classes regularly at her downtown Chico restaurant.

Chef Ann Leon leads cooking classes regularly at her downtown Chico restaurant.

Photo courtesy of leon bistro

Leon Bistro
For a schedule of cooking classes and to sign up—they do sell out!—go to

A few dozen people sat eagerly on one side of an L-shaped table on a recent Tuesday night in the back room of downtown Chico’s swanky Leon Bistro, a few of them dressed in flower child regalia. I’d donned my favorite tie-dyed dress for the occasion—a cooking class dedicated to the late, great Janis Joplin.

As chef Ann Leon introduced the theme of the class and read part of a biography of Joplin that was included in our recipe packet, her music played softly in the background. To infuse the food with essences of Joplin, Leon explained, she’d chosen the singer’s favorites, along with classics of the era or regions where Joplin lived. For example, the opening course was a thick, creamy San Francisco clam chowder packed with flavors of the port city where Joplin joined her first big-time band, Big Brother and the Holding Company.

As Leon began preparing the chowder at a demonstration table in front of the room, we were introduced to part one of the night’s treats: Laura Joplin, Janis’ sister who lives in Paradise, stood up to reminisce with the intimate group about growing up the sister of a famous rock singer.

I’ve long been a fan of Joplin—songs like “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Piece of My Heart” were essential to my college, coming-of-age years—but I haven’t taken that next step and read any of her biographies, one of which Laura wrote (Love, Janis). So hearing her speak about Janis’ early years—from her ostracization from school for her outspoken views on desegregation in their Southern Texas town to her love of the blues from a young age—was particularly insightful.

Laura stood up several times throughout the evening, answering questions from the group and smiling sweetly when remembering tender moments. The rest of the night, Leon took center stage. She shared her secrets for how to evoke true flavors of the sea in her clam chowder (hint: She makes her own clam soup stock), two different methods for frying Monte Cristo sandwiches and the recipe for the barbecue rub she uses to create amazingly flavorful ribs.

While I’m sure my boyfriend, Chuck, enjoyed the stories about Janis, as a chef himself, it was Leon’s instruction that I think piqued his interest most. Her explanations were perfectly natural and helpful for both professional and novice alike. For me, someone who has really just embraced my inner cook over the past year or so, the demos were both practical and cool to watch. But Chuck, too, walked out that night with some new culinary ideas.

Beyond the technical aspects of creating each dish—there were nine courses total, each served with wine—Leon told her own stories of growing up. The daughter of a chef in Philadelphia whose voice was always respected in the home (much like Janis, it was noted), Leon started working in professional kitchens at the age of 10. And since then, she’s developed a ton of different skills, most of them rooted in French cuisine. She also imparted her philosophies on the importance of fresh, local ingredients to creating good food. Don’t be afraid to spend a little more on the good stuff, she said, even when it comes to kitchen staples like salt and olive oil.

The star of the night, food-wise, was definitely the olive-oil poached salmon. Words can’t even describe how juicy and flaky and just plain perfect it was. Leon also whipped up her modern, upscale take on 1960s fave Chicken à la King and eggs Benedict, which Laura explained was one of Janis’ specialties.

Upon leaving Leon Bistro that night, with a doggie bag promising a delicious lunch for the next day, we were beaming. Leon’s teaching was eye-opening, Laura’s stories were colorful, the service was great and the food even better. Leon holds classes with varying themes regularly—we will most definitely be back.