The Flaky Foodie’s Black History Month series includes information about a historical African-American food pioneer and a conversation with a modern-day culinary trailblazer.
This is the fourth and final installment in the 2022 series. For the past, we’ll learn about two enslaved and immensely talented chefs: Hercules Posey/Washington and James Hemings. Then we will talk with Chef Leon C. Brunson, who will open his first restaurant later in 2022.
Chef Leon C. Brunson
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Please bear in mind that the following transcript is computer generated and may contain grammatical errors.
Hi it’s Jess and you’re listening to the flaky foodie podcast, the only podcast where the discussion is delicious, and there’s chatter to chew on. T oday’s episode is the last installment in our black history past and present series where we talk to an African American historic food pioneer. And then we jump into the present to talk with someone who’s making a splash in the culinary industry today. And boy, are we ending this series with a bang. We’ll talk about two food pioneers, both of whom have fascinating stories. And then we’ll talk with Leon C. Bronson is an emerging restaurant tour and a very talented young chef, you won’t want to miss it, stay tuned.
So let’s get right into it. We’re going to talk about two food pioneers today. That’s right, plural, two pioneers. The first is Hercules and the second is Hemings or James Hemings. That is, and it was not my original idea to put these two together into the kind of one body of work. There’s an excellent, fascinating article written by NPR, about the two of these phenomenal chefs, and kind of how their stories are similar. On the one hand, you have Hercules, who cooked for the first American president. And on the other hand, you have James Hemings, who cooked for President Thomas Jefferson before he was President Thomas Jefferson. And while we’ll touch more on their similarities in a minute, let’s start by telling the story of Hercules. Now we don’t know much about Hercules early life, you won’t find out who his parents are, you won’t find out how many siblings he have. All that we know is that he was enslaved by President Washington back then he was General Washington’s neighbor, John Posey. Now you might want to remember that name, because it’s definitely going to come back up. So he was a slave by John Posey, but John Posey could not pay his mortgage. And so his kind of payment for the loan, Washington sees some of his assets, regrettably, that included enslaved people. And Hercules was one of those enslaved persons who were taken on as kind of a loan payment by George Washington, which also implies that Washington was John Posies landlord, but the article didn’t get too much into that. One of the earliest mentions that we have of Hercules and Washington’s papers and his documents is in this list of tithables, which is basically property that Washington was able to list that he could be taxed for, because it was common practice for enslaved people to be first mentioned on this type of document when they turn 16. So they were able to figure out that he was probably born in 1754. During the 1770s, when Hercules was probably in his 20s he married Alice another enslaved a woman, and they had three children together, Richmond Eavy and Delia. Now from the articles I read, historians don’t really know when or the circumstances behind when Hercules became part of the cooking staff at Washington State. All we do know is that his former job before he was in his slaved under Washington that his job under Posey was being a ferryman managing a ferry service that crossed the Potomac once was that I read mentioned that they found records that he trained under another enslaved person who didn’t even have a name recorded in history. She’s just simply known as old doll. And either ways slightly we don’t know. We don’t know when he took over the kitchen. But in the 1786 Mount Vernon slave senses Hercules is listed as the cook at the mansion house in Mount Vernon. So we’ll never know quite how the journey when from Hercules being an apprentice cook in the kitchen, to being the head chef. But we definitely know that His food was very much beloved by both George Washington and his entire family in 1791. Hercules was probably in his late 30s, early 40s. He was sent to go be the head chef in the President’s kitchen. He went to Philadelphia to serve in what was the president’s house at the time. What I find really interesting and a little funny is that Washington tried to go the route that people were probably expecting him to go To choose a white, professionally trained head chef, and he tried to do this twice. Now the article doesn’t necessarily say that he wasn’t pleased with the performance of these two wise chefs. But nevertheless, he ended up kind of kicking them to the curb, and Hercules was the head chef of the kitchen, or the one that ruled the kitchen instead of these two white chefs. And I believe I may be misinterpreting the article. But one of these wise chefs actually ended up just doing plating in Hercules kitchen, while Hercules ruled the roost. And remember, earlier I said that Hercules was admired by not only Washington, but his whole family. A lot of the accounts of Hercules life, especially the life that he’d lead as the president’s head chef in Philadelphia is kind of documented or recounted by Washington step grandson, and he paints a picture of Hercules being this man of culinary excellence, of fashionable decadence, of just having a presence about him that commanded attention and ultimately respect. Now, thanks to Gordon Ramsay and Hell’s Kitchen, we kind of have this mental picture of a restaurant atmosphere, at least in the back of the house, kind of being like frenetic and almost like having a drill sergeant with the head chef kind of breathing down your throat in order to get everything correct. And make sure that dishes are high quality and that the restaurant itself is spotless. And from George Washington, Parke Custis, the step grandson who recorded this account, he kind of described Hercules as kind of being this Gordon Ramsay type in the kitchen, and a barking out orders and making sure that the kitchen is absolutely spotless, and that every dish was cooked perfectly, and that the whole operation was running as it should, some historians kind of wonder if that was Hercules true personality, or if it was something that was born out of necessity, working in the kitchens, and that time, even today, it is a very physically demanding job. And at that time, of course, you know, there was no smooth flat top range or, and no microwaves or air fryers, to make your job easier. You had to pretty much have like a balancing act over of a roaring fire, you know, the same way that you have a grill, and you kind of put food items at different locations and kind of elevations on the grill to get the perfect temperature, you kind of had to do that on a much larger scale over an open fire. So it’s very dangerous, you pretty much standing in this heat box with the fire in front of you balancing all these dishes as they are cooked. And now none of the historian said this. But I wonder you know, the amount the sheer amount of people coming through the president’s house, there’s no video conferencing, if you want to see or have an audience with the President, you go to his house, if you want a good relationship with the this new president of this new country, you go to his house. So I wonder the amount of kind of demanding requests from these guests. You know, how much liberty did they have? Were they treating this like room service and waking Hercules’ up in the middle of the night to make sure they had whatever dish of the moment that they had to have? Or did one of the dignitaries come in at midnight it felt a little peckish and you know, they would wake him up in order to cook. This big meal is such short notice Turkey Lee’s kind of commanding drill sergeant Gordon Ramsay approaching the kitchen, was it from that pressure to provide these meals, you know, as an enslaved person, or one historian said it might have been George Washington’s personality itself rubbing off on him. Washington was known for having a temper, especially in his younger years. So maybe, you know, seeing George Washington and the way he kind of interacted with his underlings kind of made Hercules be that kind of commanding presence in the kitchen himself. Or that might have just been the man’s personality, we don’t know, is one of those things where unless we were to meet him, we just would have no idea no matter the attitude or the atmosphere that might have been going on in Hercules kitchen. One thing that we can kind of infer is that the full coming out of it must have been absolutely delicious. Now historians say that it’s kind of weird or kind of interesting, that there are kind of no records of recipes or no real records of people talking about the food that they ate at the president’s house. And when we talk about James Hemings, you’ll see how not keeping a record of recipes is is very kind of strange and different, but we know that Hercules was definitely a very popular chef because he was just able to make money off of his table scraps, they said that he was able to sell table scraps and make what equates to about $5,000 per year, just being able to sell table scraps from cooking. And they also say that only the top chefs would actually be able to do that to be able to sell their leftovers like that. Now, this was considered a luxury or a freedom for an enslaved person at the time to even be able to do this. And he was also able to attend circuses, and go to events without having George Washington or his quote, Master there, which was also kind of seen as a big a big liberty for an enslaved person again, at the time. Now, you may be wondering what Hercules did with the money that he was able to earn from selling those kind of kitchen scraps and leftovers to other people? And the answer is he probably spent it on his fly wardrobe. George Washington step grandson went on to say that the man was immaculately dressed that he said very tall and very, extremely muscular. And he would have on these expensive fabrics and walked around with a gold tipped cane. And he will go to what was considered, you know, like, kind of like, I guess probably probably the biggest comparison would probably be like a Rodeo Drive or some sort, where all the fashionable people just gathered and would just promenade up and down the streets. And you know, you have places where he can also do some of his market shopping for his kitchen as well. And they said he would just kind of stroll up and down the streets and be this kind of commanding figure that everyone would kind of take notice of. And he would just do that until it was time to go back into the kitchen. Now some of the articles that I read seems to kind of imply that because Hercules could do more than average enslaved person, that his life was kind of cushy, or he had a good life. Well, as was mentioned earlier, working in the kitchen was hard, you have this very high standard that you had to meet with every dish you made. And you couldn’t even give yourself the benefit of being able to have an off day in the kitchen due to physical or mental issues. Because your day was not decided for you. You didn’t call the shots on your own day. And not only that, George Washington, technically, Hercules could have been free in Philadelphia for a very long time. The rules were since Pennsylvania was basically a free state, that if a slave bent time in Pennsylvania for six months, you could be considered free. Now, you may wonder how the President of the United States with kind of eyes on him was able to kind of circumvent this rule, what he would basically do was, you know, hey, I guess he would look at the calendar or the clock and be like, hey, they’ve been here for six months, let’s shuttle them off somewhere else, so that the count never stops ending and that they never get to claim their freedom. so severe, slightly off course, when that was a still stay on topic. In 1795. There was a Thanksgiving celebration at the president’s house. So this is one of the first times that Thanksgiving was celebrated as a legitimate on the books national holiday. So by this time, this was George Washington second declaration that thanksgiving be made a national holiday. And so he wanted this to be a kind of a day of religious thankfulness. And at the time, they were very thankful for the Constitution, which was a promise of liberty and equality for all. So you have a bunch of people in this room celebrating being thankful for liberty, while the person who is feeding them the food that they’re eating, has been made by a person who is not free could be free, but the President is keeping them essentially hostage legally, but cat of illegally at the same time. Now, can you imagine living like that with everyone talking about freedom and liberty. But at the same time, you are so close to freedom that you can almost touch it, but it keeps being outside of your grasp. I wonder how filled on the last week of month five, where you’re just like if he keeps me here, just a few more days, I’ll be free. Do they ever even get that close? So even if you’re familiar with the story, the next turn of events should come as no shock to you. Just based on the situation that Hercules was in Hercules took freedom and his destiny into his own hands and ran away or escape now rather than being just going hit with the fact that people just don’t want to be enslaved. A lot of historians have kind of tried to look into the reason why he decided to run away and why he decided to escape, especially since he left his children and family behind. There is an account of events that Hercules tried to run before that his plan was thwarted, or Washington was kind of in on his plan, he sent Hercules back to Mount Vernon, but he wasn’t a head chef anymore. They decided to make him do at breaking physical labor instead. And it makes perfect sense that this would be the catalyst for him running away. He took advantage of George Washington, kind of celebrating his birthday at the President’s House in Philadelphia, rather than being at Mount Vernon, where Hercules was sent. And while he was enjoying these festivities, the President that is Hercules made a run for it, of course, losing his star chef, the celebrity chef, the one that he chose over professionally trained chefs, and also the man that he kept shuffling around every six months to keep from freeing him. When Washington heard about this, of course, he used his resources to try to find Hercules, you can tell the Washington was going to look for and pursue Hercules because he signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law, basically saying that if slaves escape, make it to the northern states, if they are caught in those northern states, they can be extradited back to the southern states, and then made to kind of face the slave owner they escaped from. And so I don’t know how deep the search for Hercules went by Washington. If he does, if he deploy dogs, if he deploy trackers and bounty hunters, what did he do to try to find Hercules? Whatever Washington use the spy his efforts, he was never able to capture, Hercules. As a matter of fact, Hercules was so good and laying low. There was no record, no history of him was able to be found by historians for nearly 200 years. And then one day one historian got the bright idea of, hey, remember, he was owned, or enslaved, I should say, rather, by that Posey guy, less check under Posey. And so they looked up Hercules Posey rather than Hercules Washington. And they were able to find the paper trail that ultimately led to researchers finding his grave. And so they discovered that he died of consumption at the age, which consumption is tuberculosis, by the way, at the age of 64. And before that, he lived out his free days doing what he knew best, which was cooking at a restaurant. And so that’s the life of Hercules, America’s first celebrity chef and also the head chef, to America’s very first president. So now let’s talk about our second African American food pioneer, James Hemings. James Hemings was enslaved by Thomas Jefferson. He and a bunch of his family members were actually left to Jefferson by way of an inheritance. His wife’s parents had these enslaved people, these people that they were enslaving, and bequeath them down to Thomas Jefferson. When James became a teenager, he and his brother Robert, uh, served as personal attendants to Thomas Jefferson after he was named wartime governor of Virginia. This was during the Revolutionary War, and once British troops threatened to invade Virginia, Richard and James were kind of tasked with ushering out the women and children to safety. So Thomas Jefferson went from being a wartime governor to being an American minister to the French court. And so Jefferson decided that James will go with him to Paris to learn what he called the art of cookery 1884. They traveled to Paris from Philadelphia, and once they arrived in Paris, James education in the Art of French Cooking began, Jane spent three years studying first with a restaurant tour and caterer. And then he moved on to learning the fine arts of pastries. Once he completed his training. He was installed as head chef at Jefferson’s residence in Paris, which was kind of functioning as the American Embassy at the time. So you can imagine these high profile international guests, you had aristocrats and politicians and authors and scientists all coming through here and eating some of James Hemings food while in Paris James was paid he received a salary but a Fortunately, it was half the price of what Jefferson was paying his previous chef cuisiner or his previous head chef while in Paris. Many historians believe that he became fluent in French because he used the money that he earned from catering to hire a tutor to teach him the French language. He also worked with an all French staff in his kitchen, who probably spoke the language with him daily. After a few years in Paris, it was time to return back home, arrived first in New York, where James set up his first American kitchen at 57 Maiden Lane. They didn’t stay there very long because the seat of government moved to Philadelphia in March 1790. They didn’t stay there for very long because the seat of government moved from New York to Philadelphia in December of 1790. To keep track, they arrived in New York in March of 1790. So they were in New York very long at all. And so here’s where I began to wonder if Hemmings and Hercules stories kind of overlap, or if they knew each other well enough to maybe even call themselves friends. as head chef for the Secretary of State. Hemmings often serve food to the President, and I’m sure Hercules probably served lots of dinners to the Secretary of State Jefferson. Now, if you’re a Hamilton fan, one interesting fact about James Hemings is that he was actually in the room where it happened. While Jefferson was Secretary of State and things were a little rocky and everybody kind of had a difference of opinion into where this new country would go. Thomas Jefferson, called James Madison and Alexander Hamilton into his office to kind of hash out some some details and some issues that they needed to work through. And so at this kind of super secret meeting with apparently had a lot of French food and French wine all served by Hemmings, they were able to make a bunch of decisions that kind of influenced the way that this country operates, including putting the Capitol, you know, it was in New York, then it was in Philadelphia, and through this meeting with Madison and Hamilton, Jefferson agreed to move it to what is now Washington DC. So now if you go and rewatch Hamilton, and you watch Aaron Burr seen that he wants to be in the room when it happens, have imagined James hemming sticking his head out and then offering to give him a plate of macaroni and cheese to go since he can’t be in there. Now you may have seen like a four word or meme, saying that James Hemmings and Vinod macaroni and cheese. Well, you can’t exactly say that he invented macaroni and cheese because it already existed in Europe at the time. He definitely brought it to the US and made Americans aware of it. Other dishes that he helped to popularize, and kind of bring to different American homes includes hard ice cream. Apparently, ice cream in America was soft before. From that mentioned in the article, creme brulee. He brought back French fried potatoes, which if he popularized fried potatoes, and maybe this was before the timeline, if you remember my very first black history month installment, where we talked about George Crumb who may or may not have created the potato chip, we’ve mentioned that at the time of the potato chip creation, French fried potatoes were already like really popular in the US already. I wonder if that is based off of Hemings work. I was just thinking about how other than maybe the crimper lay everything that James Hemings the dishes that he brought back from France and popularize it are pretty much what we think of. We think of American food. We think of things like french fries on the side of a burger. We think about macaroni and cheese as being one of those core kind of American dishes. And that was brought over to us by James hemming. So after Thomas Jefferson’s stints as Secretary of State, he was prepared to kind of retire to Monticello at the time. And before he did that he drafted up some papers in order to set Hemmings free. Now the agreement that Jefferson pinned, basically said now Hemmings will have to train someone to cook the way he cooks, before receiving his freedom. So once they went back to Monticello, James kept up his part of the agreement and train his brother to take the helm as head chef, Thomas Jefferson kept his word and freed Hemmings. Now this is where I just as a casual reader truly believe that Hemings and Hercules stories kind of connect because the same year that Jefferson wrote up freedom papers for Hemmings was this same year that Hercules escape Maybe he saw his friend and fellow chef, being finally set free and realizing that will never happen for him, so he had to take matters into his own hands. After James was granted his freedom, Thomas Jefferson rose to the ranks to be the next president. He reached out to James Hemi, who was at that point, of course, a free man and hemming told him. No, he wasn’t going to do that. Which leads me to believe I believe he knew Hercules’ and that he wanted no parts of that job. But then again, that’s just me. No historian said that whatever happened while he was free, or whatever he was up to while he was free, he didn’t get a chance to do it long. Just two months after Jefferson asked him to be the Presidential head chef. James has died allegedly by his own hand, but it may also have been alcohol related. We don’t know. So that was our final African American food pioneers for the week, I had so much fun learning about these unsung chefs who kind of shaped America’s culinary history. And there will be more black history related shirts being put in my shop. I believe the new design will probably drop Friday. So please go to my merch store. That’s the flaky foodee Th e FL aka YFOD ie slash merch. And check those out starting Friday, just to kind of commemorate the end of this series for this year. So now let’s jump into the present. We come back from the break we’ll talk with Chef Leon see Bronson and emerging restaurants who are in a very passionate young chef who I believe is going places. And so after the break, stay tuned for Chef Leon see Bronson. February may be the shortest month of the year but boy is it jam packed with events. You have Valentine’s Day, the Super Bowl, Black History Month. 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Welcome back. Today we have Chef Leon C. Brunson, owner of Leon’s in Tallahassee, welcome to the show.
Chef Leon 28:29
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
So congratulations on opening your new restaurant, Leon’s in Tallahassee. How would you describe this new endeavor? How’s it different from like a normal dining experience?
Chef Leon 28:41
So a couple of things have changed with what I’m doing. I have, I’ve taken a look at what’s happened in the restaurant hospitality industry over the past two years and put that into what I’m doing going forward. So the restaurants not open yet. Because right now we’re in the beginning stages of finding out exactly how we want to hit this right, yeah, and making sure that it’s unique. It’s not something that I’m just copying and pasting. And it’s going to be a little different from traditional restaurants, in the sense that we’ll we’ll have our normal counter service or lunch service, where you’ll be able to dine on a Tuesday through Sunday, and have you know, great, delicious food. But we’ll also be doing cooking classes and private wine dinners. So these wine dinners will be, you know, five to six courses, and they’ll specialize in specific flavors that we’re looking for or that we want to get or that we’re inspired by and putting that into one evening to be paired with wine. And those will be our really our chef’s highlights dinners. And we’re so much more than just a restaurant because the restaurant gets involved with the city. You know, we’re doing things with nonprofits and just making sure that we have a good footprint on Tallahassee and that we’re not just doing counter service, you know, we don’t want to just be serving food we also do Want to be integrated into the community that that were a part of?
So tell me about this food? How would you describe the food that you create, especially in your dinner service and how it may differ from, you know, your dinners that you’ve scheduled?
Unknown Speaker 30:14
I interesting, I’d say interesting for sure. So my dad would say he would I tell him about the food I cook. And, you know, he grew up in a small town in Florida called Blundstone. So Oh, wow, he knows very much. So just southern southern. But that’s where my heart set my heart is in southern food. My heart is in the food that we can have that we have access to in Florida, with our seafood and the fact that we have such a strong Hispanic influence, you know, when you get southern Florida, but we’re also very southern here in Florida, I really enjoy how much we have to appreciate in this state in terms of our culinary repertoire. That being said, I also really enjoy international cuisine. So this restaurant, is taking the love of both of those things and putting them together. So they’re going to be Florida and southern flavors that you’re familiar with, or dishes that you’re familiar with. But it’ll be strongly influenced and inspired by a lot of the techniques and ingredients and recipes that I read about from countries like Morocco, or Korea, Japan, Mexico, India, Italy, Spain, and so on, so forth. So it’s kind of a little, I don’t like to use the word fusion, but it is the more palatable word for the, for the situation.
So far, what has been a popular dish
Unknown Speaker 31:35
to the she crab soup, which is a a deviation of a recipe that I learned from my very first chef has been the biggest, biggest item I think I have done,
you know, this, people know this. So interesting. I was watching a documentary on Edna Lewis and that was one of the dishes that she was creating was the she crab soup,
Unknown Speaker 32:00
it’s delicious stuff. I mean, it’s it’s the recipe that I have is it comes from Charleston, the original recipe is a deviation of a very Charleston recipe. Recipe. But the best part about cooking to me is you can kind of change things and do them how you’re inspired to pay homage to where they came from.
So what else inspires you to cook,
Unknown Speaker 32:22
I really enjoy the fact that I’m I’ll tell you, what it really inspires me to cook is the fact that I’m able to connect with people in me almost immediately, because I’m cooking. So the more that I cook, the more relatable I am to anybody and everybody, right? And I feel like even if I went to Mexico, and I were to talk to people in strangers, if I knew how to cook, or if I knew you know how to make tortillas from hand, or if I knew how to, you know, crease obeys, or that kind of thing. I now have friends because we’re in the kitchen together. And what motivates me honestly, is the fact that the more I learned, the more I can talk to people about cooking, whether it be smoking, barbecue, fine dining, casual food, you know, everyone relates with food.
So tell me a little bit about what kind of led you here to kind of preparing to open your first restaurant. I was understand social media had a big part to play in it. Can you describe that a little bit more?
Unknown Speaker 33:15
Absolutely. Social media, I cannot believe how great social media has, how much good social media has done for me, I have had to pay $0 in marketing. Now I have not had to put an ad out I have not had to chase business I have had all my business come to me because of word of mouth. And I cannot say how much I am thankful for that. If it were not for word of mouth, social media in the City of Tallahassee, I would I mean, I would not have had such a successful start to my business. I am very thankful. And I recognize that it’s not that way for a lot of businesses, a lot of businesses have to, you know, put a lot of money into making sure their story can be sold, making sure that their product is also backed by that and that it comes at a decent price that can make a living. This came to me the model came to me so I mean, it was social media did so much for me and it was able to give me my own lane to create my own restaurant. Like if it weren’t for social media. I wouldn’t have thought there were people that wanted private dinners in Tallahassee, I would not have thought that I could offer something like that. To find out I am one of the few that do
so How How did you use social media to kind of create this community?
Unknown Speaker 34:26
I will say it was it was a multi it was it was it was a huge approach from different platforms, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram all played independent roles in the success that I had since I’ve started my business. Twitter I have a strong community following on there from a video game I play called Dance Dance Revolution. So I was able to get a lot of feedback and a lot of support supports and shares through 1000s of people online who have known me for 15 plus years. Then on Facebook, we have a local Tallahassee group called Tallahassee foodies. Tallahassee foodies had a lot of support for me. And when people would finish booking dinners with me, they would go to Tallahassee foodies and post it. So people would go back to my business page, they would go to my website, or they would go and check out my Facebook page. And it was incredible. It was just unreal. Because it was like, wow, these people are coming and checking you out and booking me and now I’ve got now I’m booked all month. Now I’m booked for two months down the road. And it kind of came a little faster than I anticipated.
You have a very interesting kind of background for a chef. So I thought we kind of go step by step kind of through what led you here. And you have a background in neuroscience. So how did you go from being in that field? I read that your first chef job was at a waffle house. So kind of how did you go from being having a degree in neuroscience to being kind of at a Waffle House cooking?
Unknown Speaker 35:55
Yeah, so it’s it has had it’s been an interesting journey. Waffle House was where it started at all. I had to have a job to pay for my gas. And my I mean, Waffle House was a job that called me back. I had never worked in a restaurant before. And I got in there and I was lost. I mean, everything was fast paced, everything was loud. These things were hot, don’t touch that. I was never more uncomfortable than my first day at Waffle House. It was off. Oh my gosh, it was awful. But I recognize that was not good at the job I recognized immediately. This job is hard. I remember my dad coming back into my room telling me he was like, you know, son, you can always quit a job. If you don’t like a job, you can quit a job. I remember him telling me that early on when I started. And I was obviously this I’m gonna see this through. And then that’s exactly what happened. I fell in love with the job. And I fell in love with cooking at Waffle House. And that’s what happened was when it came down to high school, I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was in band, I had some scholarship offers that I turned down it. It didn’t make too much sense to me. I didn’t know what I liked. But I knew I loved the the feeling that I got from Waffle House. I didn’t cook at home. I didn’t I never cooked at home. I just liked what was going on at Waffle House. I felt like I was having a lot of fun there. And from that point, I started working in kitchens around Panama City, Rosemary beach, and just really getting my name out. I’m sorry, not even getting my name out. But getting that experience and just working under different shifts and kind of learning the layouts of kitchens and everything. And then my dad had a brain aneurysm in 2014. Now he had a full recovery. So it’s not that we know we’re thinking about him every day. And you know, we he’s very healthy. And we spent so long in neurological ICU is across all of Florida, Jacksonville, Gainesville, Tallahassee, Panama City. And I’m spending so much time in these neurological units that actually became a little bit interested in what neuroscience had to offer. So I decided to go and pursue neuroscience as a bachelor’s. So it could be a backup, in case I really wanted to not stop cooking. I wanted to stop cooking. So I could go into neuroscience. So I wouldn’t have to go into the restaurant industry. So yeah, and that’s that’s kind of that’s how that’s what happened. So I ended up going to Florida State. And I got my degree from Florida State. And the second I walked the state I recognized that my heart was in cooking, like I just, I was in these labs, and I was doing all this stuff. And it was not nearly as fun as the job that I had on a nightly basis where I worked in a kitchen. And it was open. I was slinging pans I was grilling steaks are perfectly mid rare. You know, you’d be prepping things in the morning. You’d be you make the perfect batch of refried beans, you’d be so proud. You know, nothing in that lab felt like when you would just finish a perfectly good season striped bass, you know, it was just nothing compared to
it. So was it that the actual just act of cooking was it just the environment? That kind of intrigued you?
Unknown Speaker 38:56
It was it was everything about it? It was it was the people it was the co workers especially it was how fast paced it was. A lot of times I didn’t even have to think about what time it was. I wasn’t I was like, ah, you know, another half hour. We didn’t get a lunch break. I never got a lunch break. You work straight. I mean, every single job there was no lunch break. I’ve never in my life had a lunch break. And I take that back in the side gigs I’ve done you know I’ve had a lunch break but in restaurants that’s not a thing. So it was a combination of that. And it was a combination of the work I just loved the work I loved standing on my feet I loved it till I you know I would work 17 hours shifts at Waffle House and so I couldn’t feel my feet and I’d be like that’s awesome a kick my feet up and I get home, I’d rest and go back to work and do it again. And every single day it made me a stronger cook. Then I fell in love with food. Like I love the work first. But then I fell in love with food. And once I fell in love with food, I was like I want to stress my life like I love food. I love the work that mean I love it all. There’s nothing I don’t I hate about this. I mean the hours suck and like I can’t make any money and That’s why went to neuroscience
so many people local to the Tallahassee area know you from being a chef I hear at a very popular eatery. Cool beans. So how did you get started there? And how has the transition been from being a chef at this local fixture to kind of breaking out on your own?
Unknown Speaker 40:18
So Cool beans was the best thing that ever happened to me in my life. 100% Without a question asked, that was the best thing to happen to me in my life, other than my dad’s life being saved, I would say getting my job at Cool beans, I could not have asked for anything more. I got that job in 2016. I saw an ad on Craigslist. I actually had I don’t want to talk about this often. But I had worked at Murray Livingston for about a month. That actually my first time publicly saying that ever. But I worked at Murray Livingston for about a month. And she was not the greatest employer. So I ended up leaving there. And I worked at the Edison for one day. And I didn’t really care for the Edison. And I was I felt like trapped. I was like, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I don’t know what restaurants in town I want to work at. I called Sage. I called SAGE multiple times. And they did not answer the phone gave me the runaround. And I found Cool beans. It was like number one on TripAdvisor. So all right, let me get this weird spot a shot. I mean, there are many looks interesting. I don’t really know what half the stuff is, but whatever. So I found the job of Craigslist. And they hired me. And that was my home for four years. That restaurant taught me how to cook and taught me about food. Because it had a menu that changed every day. And that menu that changed, it would present new cultures, it would present new ideas, new flavor combinations, it was funky. It was interesting, as my dad would say, and it just was all over the place. And it was fun. It was an open kitchen. So it reminded me of my waffle house days. So it was like I was cooking for a crowd. But people would just come at the bar and watch you work. And it was awesome. It was incredible. I felt like a rockstar going
from that experience that place that gave you your your start to starting out on your own as it been a different change in the energy or how does it differ? Or how does it compare?
Unknown Speaker 42:10
The second I went in started my own business and there was no defining day, that transition actually was thankfully a lot of it I give to my boss at Cool beans cafe. He actually pulled me aside one day and was like, you’re going to be very busy one of these days. He says, I already see you’re ambitious, you’re driven. Like, you know, you’re starting to do things on the side, you should think about filing for your own LLC, and you know, doing your own business. And I’m like, I’ve never thought about that. There’s no way I could ever succeed doing that. There’s not If not, no one here knows me know that that’s not a thing. And then when the pandemic hit, I started doing online cooking classes. So to answer the question, it was very difficult, but it’s not to get long winded. But going from just being a line cook where you had to walk in, clock in, see what was on the list. You did your job, and then you left and you went home, you didn’t take your work home with you. That was it, you’re done. Eight hours of work might have been six hours of work, I go home, I do whatever else I want in my in my day to day life, I can go mess around with my friends, I can go travel. I mean, it was great. Now, my work is every single second of my day. And I didn’t anticipate that I did not. So organization hit me very hard. I was not as prepared as I wanted to. Now I’m now I’m like a triple headed octopus, like I have got my hands on everything. And I’m doing it well. So it was a tough transition for sure. I mean, and and nowadays you’re a little bit less of a chef and a little bit more of a plumber. Now you’re now you’re also an electrician Now you’re also a server now you’re also you know what I mean? Like you have so much other things that you’ve got to that you’ve got to experience on a day to day that cooking is like the last thing you get to do. And it’s a little sad sometimes so that that transition was also pretty hard. But it’s for a bigger purpose.
A lot of people think about when they think about chefs, especially chefs will own their own restaurant. We think a lot about the food we don’t think a lot about the maintenance of the building and all of the other things that come along with it.
Unknown Speaker 44:16
Absolutely. Yeah, I today for example, I was supposed to be in the kitchen today and prep for a wedding which I ended up getting to do but much after I installed a pre rinse after I organized the kitchen I moved the fridge I did you know like you’re a lot more than just a chef This is very little in the kitchen. Now. The difference between a good chef and a great chef is a chef who can leave his restaurant and the meals still be excellent. That means he is he has delegated and communicated enough to his staff to where they’re still able to execute under a level of excellence during his his or her absence. To me that’s what makes a chef Great. That’s one of the big factors I think people don’t think about when they think about, you know, factors to oh, you know, the food was good, or you know, his creativity. That’s a big one can can the restaurant can his staff function while he’s gone? Or is it just chef reliant?
Yes. So right now, you’re kind of a one man operation right now.
Unknown Speaker 45:19
Sort of kinda, I mean, I have people help me out. And I have some servers who helped me out to people who help me on a consistent basis. I really enjoy them. And I’ve also got some people who, who will come and help me out for the cooking. They’re actually two chefs I used to work with. And so they actually helped me out quite often. And it’s just been absolutely incredible. So when I need a hand I’ve never been without, but for the most time when it comes to my business and organization, answering emails, doing social media planning my all that kind of stuff. Yes, I am a one man show.
So what is your overall goal as a chef? Is? Is this it? Or do you want to franchise but what is your overall goals? What are your overall? Oh, gosh,
Unknown Speaker 46:02
in order to kind of give you context on how I can’t answer that question, I can, but let me explain to you, I thought everything that’s happening to me right now would happen to me when I was like, 3540, maybe, you know, I didn’t anticipate this happening when I was 26. So it was all it was all very interesting, because my, my path to success just got expedited by 10 years. So I’m like, I own a restaurant. And I’m 26. Like, I thought I would be working under Chefs for years to come. But now the discipline is on myself, like immediately, I am having to do a lot of research, I’m having to do a lot of reading a lot more than I would have done if I was just a line cook, or sous chef or, you know, a chef under somebody else. So it is been that being said, my goals for the future. I don’t know this, I mean, like the sky’s the limit, I truly don’t know what could come like what could come next, the restaurant I happened at a necessity didn’t happen because I chased it, I had to have a commercial kitchen to do my private dinners out of and now that I’ve got this restaurant, I’m putting my all into it. And I don’t know what’s gonna come of it. But my idea is this restaurant in the branding behind it, and everything that I’m doing that’s related to the restaurant, or Leon, Charles Bronson is going to have like a great backing to it, they’re going to look at that. And they’re gonna associate that with a quality product with a quality person, like, that’s, that’s Leon’s restaurant in Leon is this person who does x, y, z. And that’s kind of my goal of the restaurant, but I don’t know, like, my overall goal, I don’t know, I don’t know what the limit is, I don’t know, if I’m gonna be on, you know, cooking shows, I don’t know, if I’m gonna, you know, I don’t know, I have no idea of my future, I have so many paths that I could take and thankful for that. But in terms of like my overall goal, I could tell you what my goal is next year, and then six months down the road that could be gone. Now it can be done already. So I don’t know,
you have plenty of time to figure it out. So the COVID might seem had a really big impact on the restaurant industry. You kind of mentioned that earlier. So how have you had to pivot in these times?
Unknown Speaker 48:16
Oh, my gosh. So here is what I did. When I went home after the pandemic, after the pandemic started, you know, restaurants were open. I set up a little production studio in my kitchen, like my home kitchen, I set up like three webcams, and a little condenser mic, and I started doing online, live cooking classes. And they’d have multiple angles, you’d have a live chat, so you could talk to me while I did them. And I would talk to all my friends. And I’d be like, hey, like, who wants to cook we’re doing a grilled cheese and tomato bisque. Here’s how I do it. And people just tune in watch me, they throw me on their TV and, and they would watch me and they would support they’d send me money or they’d send me you know, kitchen equipment. And I did that for a while and I got to the newspaper. And then I upgraded my kitchen set up, I started getting more cameras, more lights, I was gonna turn that into my profession. I was about to be a full time food content producer. And that was my pivot was like, if I’m not going to be a restaurant, I’ll just cook at home and then record it and just get the media from that and get the pictures from it and get the recipes and then just do that. That was my big pivot. But then the private chef industry took off. And I haven’t had a chance to go back to that. So I’m really interested to touch base back on all the production gear that I’ve I’ve rented or not rented, but I’ve bought but use it to highlight this new part of my career.
That is awesome and amazing story. So how did you end up acquiring the restaurant?
Unknown Speaker 49:49
Oh, gosh, the restaurant story is actually it’s a very good story. So here is the cosh this is this one hurts still So I worked at Cool beans cafe. And the gentleman his name was, uh, he was he was had the restaurant. So he had this restaurant, and it was going to be called KB kitchen. And we were all like, okay, when’s the restaurant opening restaurant, but he did these renovations on the inside, and then decided that because of life and because of other things, that he was not going to open it. And I’m back, I’m back in the kitchen, washing dishes doing something and he comes back. And it’s like, do you want to buy a restaurant we talked about and he kind of said it just in passing, you know, that was his introduction to the room, you know, kind of like, Oh, you got to buy a restaurant. And I was like, what’s going on? He’s again, I’m not gonna open KB kitchen. It’s very interesting. What’s like, why did you decide not to open it? He was like, you know, I just stuff my mom and I just a lot of family things. So I think that’s crazy. So I go about the day and I kind of whispered to my co workers, I’m like, Whoa, he’s not opening KB kitchen. And at that point, they were kind of egging me on to like, you know, go ask him how much he wants for it, you know, just Glasgow. And so I go ask him in the mind, gentlemen, I’m pointing to the line cook. I don’t know nothing about nothing. So I don’t know what a good number is. I don’t know what a bad number is. But I do remember that he told me that that location was great, and that the rent was amazing, better than any restaurant rent that’s existing. And I was like, I’m gonna go for it. So over the next nine days, I Googled business plans, I got books, I read about the books. I went to the Small Business Development Center at FAMU, I called all my friends, I did a Go Fund Me and somebody, God bless her soul. Did a he was going to give an angel investment at the lowest AFR and give me a break and help me out. And I had everything together. I had the concept it was going to be called Omnia. I was like, Oh my God. Wow. I was like, I would not call my restaurant that nowadays, but that was what I had in the original. And the original sketches was Omnia. I’m like, oh my god, I hate that name now, but I go to him, I presented to him. I say I want to buy a restaurant. He says I just sold it yesterday. Remember, he’s got the smile on his face. He said it just sold yesterday, man. Are you kidding me? And I was heartbroken because I had sold my soul myself on the idea that I would be at the restaurant. And that was my future. But since I lost out on it, I decided I was gonna move to Seattle. I you know, I had a job lined up there at a restaurant called June baby. And I was like, you know, tell us if it’s done. I thank you for four years, but I gotta find something bigger. Well, the next day the pandemic happened. And you know, that’s when the cooking classes started and all that. And then once the private chef stuff started kind of taking off, I called him up, Jose at saw the restaurant is I do. So we met inside the restaurant, we talked about it. I talked to the gentleman who was kind enough to you know, give me that investment, and brought it back. I bought it. So I have my second chance. And I’m so thankful. I mean, I got a chance to really expand my brand and learn my learn about business before buying the restaurants and I’ve got it.
So tell me a little bit more about kind of your heritage, your Afro Latino, how does that heritage influence the food that you make? So really, a lot of
Unknown Speaker 53:21
it is Southern based. And I’d say a lot of the food that I make is Southern based. And that was really like how we grew up eating. That’s the food that we grew up eating my dad when we went to my grandma’s house, and it’s kind of stuff he loves fried pork chops, hot sauce, like collard greens, catfish, you know, my dad loves that kind of stuff. My mom, she’s Mexican, she comes from Texas, you know, who’s you know, more Mexican cuisine tortillas or datas. She like spices, peppers, onions, you know. So they had an interesting clash. But my mom was a person cooking so she just made whatever my dad wanted. And that video was very limited. Well, looking at it now. I talked to my mom a lot about what she likes to eat or what she grew up eating. And I talked to my dad about the same thing. And I’m on a quest now to really get back to those roots those Mexican roots and you know, dive a little bit deeper into what my family ate or what you know what my grandma’s region of Mexico was like So grandma and grandpa, but it is honestly it’s a more it’s it’s not the the focal front of my cooking. Like a lot more the focal front of my cooking is international as a whole to get closer to the global scene of culinary. But it is something that I do focus on and think about and like to like to like to put into my restaurants menu.
So let’s talk a little bit about global flavors. was like one ingredient that you’ve discovered maybe in the last year, maybe the past five years to where you want to use it on everything. Do you have an ingredient like that or sauce or?
Unknown Speaker 54:56
Yeah, I’m really bad about Togarashi. So Togarashi is a Japanese spice but it’s a blend and the blend varies on region but overall it’s got like seaweed, ginger, poppy seeds, sesame seeds, orange peel, and then chili flakes. And so while it is spicy, it’s got some interesting flavors to it, you know the nuttiness of the of the sesame, along with that seaweed flakes. Togarashi. I love Togarashi. Now that has probably been like my go to, I wish I used cayenne. Most times I use I go to reach for Cayenne, I reach for Takahashi. Now it’s completely different. Anyone listening who like cooks professionally is going to hear that they’re going to be like those are not interchangeable. Well, to me. Those are absolute. I will want 100% Add Togarashi as opposed to now the the only thing about that is sesame allergies. You gotta be careful, you know, but other than that, I Togarashi seasoning has been a very big one.
So what is like a dish that Michael young chef Leon would not have liked that you’ve kind of learned to love through your years of cooking
Chef Leon 56:05
Oh,collard greens. 100% I would have hated collard greens as a kid I collard greens are disgusting. I mean, no way would I’ve ever touched collard greens, but I don’t know, I make the best collard greens.
Okay, you have to sell me cuz I’m not a huge fan myself.
Chef Leon 56:19
I could — I could convert you, I could convert you.
Jess Hodge 56:22
What was the first dish that you learned to make?
Unknown Speaker 56:25
That’s a great question. I don’t know if I know that one. Um, first dish I learned to make. That’s tough. I would have to dig deep on that one. But I think it would be sushi based because I was I was in the fry room at sushi for a while. So probably like a fried devil’s advocate role or at a mum a miso soup. So I don’t know. I don’t know.
So what is one like time saving or space saving tip that you’ve learned from working in different kitchens?
Unknown Speaker 57:03
Clean as you go is just pretty good. general advice. Yeah, I say clean as you go.
Okay, and what’s the best dish that you’ve eaten so far? This year, this year? Ah, it’s only been a couple of months.
Unknown Speaker 57:16
So let’s see the best dish I’ve had wherever I went this year. Let me look at my calendar because that usually determines what I if I ate something exotic. The best dish I ate this year. That’s tough. Yeah, I don’t know if there’s a standout this year. I can probably think oh, oh, I would say I did. I did go to Seaside. And I had a dish that was grits and braised beef. And I wish I could remember what it was called. It was which restaurant it was. I don’t even remember the restaurant. But I would say that that was for sure. Okay, grits and braised beef.
What is on your kitchen? Like your kitchen playlist? What do you like to listen to in terms of music while you cook? Or do you like it to be kind of complete silence or just the the ambient sounds in the room? No.
Unknown Speaker 58:18
I have to have music playing gotta have music playing and music. It depends on the mood. There is no like I’m not a rock guy. And I have rock clean. The kitchen thing is a little heavy love people like rock in the kitchen. I think that’s just like, if for me rocking the kitchen. Me personally, I’m not That’s not me. I like a lot more smooth stuff, r&b pop a lot more upbeat things even 90s a lot of soul. I like that kind of music cook too. I think it’s a little bit more inviting. I think everyone can kind of listen to that. I grew up in kitchens where all we had was rock and no one listened to anything else that was it that’s always listen to you know, it was weird to listen to r&b They had no idea who these artists were things like that. And I think that’s a that’s a pretty important vibe. That could change between genres. I might do Latin r&b, I might go into my favorite Venezuelan artists. I might do you know, contemporary r&b, I might do indie I really enjoy India as well truly loved indie genre. So it’s it’s a little over the place, but nice vibes in general.
So we kind of talked about art, different art forms taught about music and food. So you mentioned Dance Dance Revolution as being one of your hobbies. Can you tell me a little bit more about that? Like how did that start? And do you still have time to do it? Yeah,
Unknown Speaker 59:43
so um, it started I mean, that one started by playing the the home version game at home with my friend. And we started going to arcades and started to see that there was a bit of a culture there and itself. I mean, people were just hanging out at the arcade and they They were they would go to the mall, just play Dance Dance Revolution. So we started playing with them. And we started to get really serious about it and attend tournaments, not only in Florida, but also you know, in North Carolina and it was over the course of, I’d say about five years. So we played for quite some time for the game for a while. And then kind of just stopped and then got back into it. 2018 and I played I play occasionally. I mean, I qualified 20/28 in the world, six in the US, and then in 2021, a qualified third nationally, we’re getting ready to launch national ces next month. So ideally, I’d like to go for first or second, but it depends on time. If I don’t have enough time to play or get conditioned, or, you know, get to it. I’m just not gonna I’m just not gonna be able to perform to what I performed with when I had the time.
Do you feel like Dance Dance Revolution? You feel like it’s any China transferable skills to your time in the kitchen?
Unknown Speaker 1:01:03
Not especially? I mean, like it? Yeah, nothing. Nothing in the kitchen is it makes me quick. I mean, what’s up?
I was I was going to ask or is it just kind of an escape, you know, something different at the
Unknown Speaker 1:01:15
time, it helps me stay in shape, you know, can burn me an exuberant amount of calories very shortly. So I mean, I like to stay in shape as a chef, and I am not someone who’s like, ooh, don’t trust a skinny chef. Rather the chef be in shape. You know, I think I think that’s very important because it demonstrates health and it demonstrates that’s what that’s what DDR has done for me. MdDS has allowed me to have an outlet that I enjoy that I’m able to stay and play consistently and stay in shape.
So what’s your guilty pleasure food?
Unknown Speaker 1:01:50
Oh, spaghetti. Use that it out? No question.
That some visual you know, you’ve come home from making a very five star gourmet dinner. You get home for Canada spaghetti. Oh,
Unknown Speaker 1:02:03
it’s so good. It’s so, so good. But yeah, Spaghettios for sure.
What’s your favorite snack?
Unknown Speaker 1:02:09
Yeah, favorite snack? I mean, I really enjoyed ships. I think chips are probably my favorite snacks in general. I really enjoyed ships like potato chips.
So would you say you’re more of like, a savory person?
Unknown Speaker 1:02:24
That is pretty much all the questions that I have. Thank you so much for being here and being a part of the episode. Absolutely. So how would the people find you on social media?
Unknown Speaker 1:02:38
Yeah, it’s gonna be Leon C. Brunson, Elio, and C. Be Are you in so in?
Alrighty. And are the is there anything kind of upcoming that we should be on the lookout for?
Unknown Speaker 1:02:50
I’ve got something big coming out who next? In two months? Can’t say anything. But I’ve got something big come. So
where should we watch? If we want to be the first person to know about this secret?
Unknown Speaker 1:03:05
There will be there will be a newsletter that you’ll be able to subscribe to on my website. And that’s how you’re going to have to stay up with it.
Okay, well, definitely make sure to check that out already. Thank you so much. Chef Leon. See Bronson for being a part of the flaky foodie podcast. Absolutely.
Unknown Speaker 1:03:25
Thank you for having me. Yes.
So I want to extend a special thank you to my listeners. Thank you so much for being here, especially if you stuck around for the entire series. Words can’t express how much that means to me. Thank you so much to every guest that appeared on the show. Thank you so much. Every guest who has been on the show, I really appreciate you taking the time to sit down and talk with me. Have a great week, everybody and remember, treat this show like gossip or the gospel and tell somebody about it. Have a great week and eat something delicious.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai