When Chef Todd Leonard was serving his mission in Ohio, his go-to evening meal was out-of-the-box macaroni and cheese mixed with boiling water and salsa — hold the butter and the milk.
“That was my dinner for probably half of my mission. … I was just trying to survive and get the Lord’s work done,” he said, laughing.
None of then-Elder Leonard’s companions would have ever guessed they were serving with a future national cooking champ.
Last summer, the lifelong member was named the 2018 National Chef of the Year at the American Culinary Federation national convention in New Orleans. He is believed to be the first Latter-day Saint to claim the national cooking title.
“To me, it’s the most prestigious award in our country for chefs; it’s a big honor,” he told the Church News.
So how did a guy raised far from international food hubs such as New York City or San Francisco — he’s a proud native of Cottonwood Heights, Utah — end up as one of America’s premier chefs?
It all started with Scouting.
“I was working on my cooking merit badge as an 11-year-old Scout,” he said. “I was on a campout with my parents and had to make a breakfast with a mess kit.”
His scrambled eggs were a hit and his cooking career began to take hold. Leonard’s first job was working as a busboy in a Salt Lake-area restaurant. A couple years later he was promoted to the kitchen. He cooked at several restaurants prior to his mission, learning the ins and outs of chef’s knives, spatulas and strainers.
Still, as his missionary mac-and-cheese diet attests, he set his cooking ambitions aside for missionary work in Ohio. He cooked a few times for investigators and occasionally helped out at ward parties.
“But I was there to baptize people,” he said.
When he returned from his mission, it was back to the kitchen, completing his culinary education at Salt Lake Community College. He also started a family. He and his wife, Michelle, are the parents of four children. They belong to the River View 9th Ward, Draper Utah River View Stake.
His professional career and testimony guided him to a chef’s position at the Joseph Smith Memorial Building. For eight years his duties included overseeing the Garden Restaurant and opening the Nauvoo Café.
“I loved working for the Church in that capacity. I fed a lot of good people,” he said.
A frequent and high honor he had was preparing a meal or perhaps a specialty milkshake for a General Authority.
One beloved Church leader once stopped by his kitchen to personally thank the chef.
“He told me, ‘That was a noble piece of prime rib.’ — I cut his piece a little thicker, of course.”
Twelve years ago he accepted a teaching job at Utah Valley University, where he now chairs the culinary arts department.
Leonard enjoys sharing his professional know-how with his students — but he admits to a competitive streak. Several years ago he witnessed the National Chef of the Year contest as a spectator and knew that he wanted to make a run at the title.
His first shot at the event came seven years ago after claiming the western regional top chef’s title. But his preparation, he says good-naturedly, was interrupted by a stake pioneer trek.
Prior to qualifying for the national competition, he accepted a call to cook for the stake trek. He initially asked to be released from the assignment so he could focus on the competition, but his heart told him he belonged on the trek. So even as his competitors were making final preparations for nationals, Leonard was whipping up meals for hundreds of hungry, trail-worn youth. (And, undoubtedly, setting an impossibly high menu standard for all future pioneer treks.)
“We weren’t eating Johnnycakes,” he said.
Leonard traveled directly from trek to the airport and on to the national competition. He lost but left determined to one day return and claim the top chef title.
His opportunity arrived earlier this year when he again won the western regional championship, securing a spot for the New Orleans convention.
Leonard and his four competitors, all regional champions, each had 90 minutes to prepare a four-course meal to be judged by fellow master chefs on taste, presentation and sanitation. Two student apprentices, AnnaLis Nielsen and Lydia Harris, assisted him.
“Working with Chef Todd has been one of the best experiences of my life,” said Harris, who will soon trade her “toque blanche” (that’s kitchen-speak for chef’s hat) for a missionary name tag in the Washington Vancouver Mission. “He is such a good mentor, and I appreciate the knowledge I have gained as a chef. He has helped me understand the importance of cooking with your heart and truly finding joy in it.”
Using three required proteins — pork cheek, oysters and red fish — the chef developed a menu consisting of 23 ingredients. The first course alone included southern braised pork cheek with dauphine potatoes, sautéed mustard greens, red pepper purée and Cajun fried shallots and peppers.
“We practiced 16 run-throughs before the competition — we had everything memorized, so there was no guessing,” he said.
His father’s pre-event priesthood blessing provided him welcome spiritual peace. His two apprentices offered skilled assistance. And his wife, Michelle, was at his side when he was announced the winning chef.
“I’m 42-years-old, and I finally got it accomplished,” he said. “It was super fun.”
Preparing food for others can also be uplifting and edifying experience, he said. Emotions fill the chef whenever he reads the sacred accounts of Christ serving the Last Supper or feeding His disciples.
“Cooking is awesome,” he said. “Food remains a tradition that can bring families together and make a difference in our lives.”