Why There is No Place Like Home

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I always enjoy the walk down Coosa street up to Central. I enjoy that coming home feeling I get as I look up and see the restaurant signage. I am fortunate and blessed to be afforded the opportunity to represent Central, myself and Montgomery in events across the country. I am truly humbled and honored when I am asked to go and participate in these events.

When Chef Julio Delgado of The Chateau Elan called and asked if I was interested in showcasing Central and Alabama in a dinner in the Resort's vineyard, I was floored and excited to say the least. To say the resort is beautiful and elegant is an understatement! I could draft a 1000+ page essay of everything that was incredible about the place and still leave much unsaid. It is truly a remarkable place. The staff is first class, second to none, and truly exemplify the spirit of hospitality. Chef Julio also happens to be a mentee of my mentor and having the opportunity to work along side him was one I could not turn down! The man can cook and is an amazing leader..in industry terms...he is a BEAST!

I was asked to highlight the best of Central, Montgomery and to showcase Alabama, no pressure right?! I wanted to write an approachable simple menu that highlighted the amazing bounties that are currently in season in Alabama. Dinner would be in the vineyard at sunset and paired with their wines. I gave this a lot of thought and decided to present the following:

  • Bread service - corn pudding muffins, fresh Alabama berries and EAT South lemon thyme creme fraiche
  • The canapes - Alabama watermelon, gulf crab, smoked salt, feta, white balsamic and honey
  • 1st Course - Chilled Sapello Farms Clams in an EAT South Chimichurri
  • 2nd Course - South East Farms Alabama Porchetta, Bern Farms heirlooms, curb market field peas and buttermilk lime vinaigrette
  • 3rd Course - Joyce Farms Hickory smoked whole ducks, poblano Alabama white bbq, arugula and citrus supremes
  • Dessert - Chef Delgado's Mississippi mud cake, house made caramel ice cream, maldon salt and port braised figs

It's funny, every time I am asked to participate in an event, I travel with my own produce!

I place a call to my favorite farmers at Bern Farms and EAT South then make my trip to the Curb Market to buy everything that I can possibly buy there. As I know it's the best, the freshest and the prettiest! It always makes for a hilarious check-in at whatever hotel when my wife and I roll up with luggage, shoe bags, bins of vegetables and fruits. It's a funny scene. I bet the bellmen are always thinking.."Oh Lord what are these hillbillies doing?!"

The dinner was perfect, as only a dinner al fresco, in a vineyard, at sunset could be! One of the most beautiful events I've been a part of and simply breathtaking. I enjoy the "show" or as my mentor called it "the dog and pony show." I enjoy the walking to the table and talking to the guests, explaining the courses and stimulating conversation. I ask where they are from, crack jokes and get to know them. I make them feel at ease and really work to make them feel comfortable. I ask about the food and their thoughts and experiences.

I give these events 150% of my effort and I work my tail off. I make sure that I am showcasing the very best of my skills and abilities because I know what's coming. At every event, it never fails, I get asked a series of particular questions...it ALWAYS happens.

I get the same reaction, and to be honest, I look forward to it. I play this fun game in my head, where I try to judge the feel of the crowd and time how long it will take for these questions to pop up. It starts with the regular niceties - food is great, where are you from? Where did you go to school? Where did you learn to cook? Where have you worked? and then.........

"Why Alabama, chef? Why Montgomery? Surely you can and should do this somewhere else! Then I smile! I knew it was coming!

I tell you why Alabama, and specifically why Montgomery.

I love the feel of being a part of something new, something that's growing, something special. Montgomery is full of history, some great some not, but the culinary scene here is just starting. Chef's like Frank Stitt and Chris Hastings elevated the bar for the whole state and gave us something to strive for. Then they did the fantastic thing of teaching and training more chefs and letting them loose on the state. They elevated the scene in Birmingham and showed the country that we have talent here as well. Then come chefs like True and McDaniel, who have both received nods from the James Beard Foundation, and the many many, many more young guns that are working to make it better, to elevate the craft. There is a sense of overwhelming pride, a sense of ownership and desire to grow into something more, something fierce, something amazing. It's there and you can feel it. There is an ever growing number of people working at spreading this gospel, the ideas, the dreams and it's vibrant!!

I often find myself having this conversation with the the locals, and they seem to need convincing too! Years of being jaded and cynical take their toll and you have to work to change mindsets. This is a great challenge, it lets us all know there is much more work to do, much more.

I remember a conversation I had years ago with a chef, THE Chef for the company I was working with at the time. It was a conversation that started after I once again voiced my non-interest in transferring within the company to another state, country or property. He said,

"You will never be an Executive Chef here, you've simply not traveled enough, no Europe or France, no Italy or Asia. You've only experienced Alabama, what good is it to become a big fish in a little pond? You must leave to become somebody in this field!"

I never quite considered myself a fish or any other type of sea life in a pond or anything related. I really and truly had, and still have, a desire to immerse myself in the things that surround me and learn from them. There is much to learn here and a lot of work to do. Those words have been a driver for me through the years, I've been fortunate enough to travel and see and experience new things. I have also been fortunate enough to take Alabama with me whenever and wherever I go. I have much, much more to accomplish, more ground to cover and things to learn, but I can tell you, it's always with a tremendous sense of pride that I know I can do it all here.

--Chef Leo

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