Four Inane Questions with Chef Johnny Leach

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Chef Johnny Leach. // Courtesy photo

Chef Johnny Leach took Kansas City by storm three years ago when he became the buzzworthy executive chef of Hotel Kansas City. (And in the middle of a pandemic, no less!) The culinary pro started turning out inspired, upscale fare about .02 seconds after he arrived in the metro. 

Leach says he cut his teeth working at high-end restaurants in both NYC and Portland. He wanted to do the same at The Town Company, the hotel’s signature restaurant, “which features a highly seasonal menu fueled by a network of local producers,” says Leach. (His ever-evolving fare is also configured around using the hotel’s Missouri white oak burning hearth. Yes, the one smack dab in the middle of the restaurant.) 

It certainly doesn’t hurt that his wife, Helen Jo—who also has quite the culinary pedigree—works alongside him as the hotel’s executive pastry chef. Together they have an unstoppable one-two punch—Johnny with his savory offerings and Helen with her decadent desserts. He also oversees the hotel’s other outlets, including Nighthawk, a cellar bar and live music venue celebrating KC’s diverse music scene.

Leach—who mentions he’s a bonafide taco aficionado—was recently named as a semifinalist for the 2023 James Beard Award’s Outstanding Chef category for his work at The Town Company. (He’s in good company with KC’s own Michael Corvino, Nick Goellner, and Pam Liberda, who are all nominated in their respective Best Chef: Midwest category.)

We caught up with Leach right after his nomination to zing him with our lame list of questions. We may or may not have bribed him with tacos accordingly. 

The Pitch: You have to banish one spice off the island. What is it—and how will you cope with never using it again?

Johnny Leach: That’s an easy one! Caraway. It tastes like dirty, damp soap. I am sure there are many people who want to kill me for saying that, but I really struggle to find any redeeming quality about this spice.  

Back in the day, the seeds were placed in bowls in British pubs and used to disguise the foul breath of the heavy drinkers. This seems to be the best use of this putrid seed.  

Name a weird two-ingredient food pairing/combo we don’t know about but absolutely need to try. 

My experiences in my career have exposed me to some really far-out combos. When done properly there is a great connection between mackerel and foie gras. Most of the time, it is an aggrandizing chef flex, but with this combo that I first tasted from Laurent Gras, it was enlightening, to say the least.  

Another slightly different version would be Wylie Dufresne’s anchovy and foie gras dish from WD-50. It’s so fulfilling and enriching to have moments of discovery with food—be adventurous!

What’s a dish you hate to make but love to eat? 

I love cooking—it’s my life, really. There isn’t much of anything that I don’t like to cook or learn about within cooking. 

In the context of cooking at home, though, it’s a different story. We do a decent amount of cooking at the Leach household and over time, I have come to really dislike cooking anything that is going to leave a huge mess, splatter everywhere, or keep a lingering odor for days after. Light salads, braises, and rice-based dishes remain our go-to.

What’s been your worst cab ride/Uber ride ever? I need details. 

I was t-boned pretty badly one early morning while in a cab, racing down Park Avenue in NYC. It was schoolbook driver’s education class material. Our driver was going at least 65 while another taxi was racing to make a yellow light.  

The most traumatizing of the experience? My friend and co-worker who was with me was not strapped in and was leaning forward while we were in an intense conversation (probably about that night’s service). Let’s just say that he came out of it with fewer teeth.  

Bonus 5th Question: How many knives are too many knives for a chef to own?

I believe that as a serious cook, you should feel very comfortable about spending money on amassing an arsenal of knives and/or any other tool that you’re passionate about. It will keep you inspired and will connect you to the process that much more. 

That being said, I think there is an appropriate number of knives for the skill set at hand. If you’re just starting out cooking, just buy a couple of entry level knives and learn how to care for them (i.e., sharpen, store, and clean properly). As your skill set increases, move up in quality. (Remember how Link in the Zelda video game starts with one wooden sword? Yeah, kind of like that.)

Categories: Food & Drink