Helen Jo Leach talks baking, community work, and the food scene in The Pitch Questionnaire

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Helen, Johnny, and Perri.// Courtesy Bonjwing Lee.

Helen Jo Leach has been baking and creating for 16 years now. In that time she was part of the opening crew at The Milk Bar in New York City and the pastry chef at restaurants like Le Pigeon and Chalino in Portland.

While her career took her all around the U.S., it also led her to her husband, Johnny Leach. The pair met in New York and have been cooking and baking together since. Leach has always used her pastries for good and often partners with local organizations to raise funds for the community through her baking.

You may have seen her selling her Gachi Cookies alongside Cafe Cà Phê to benefit #doughsomething, her most recent community collaboration. You’ll often find Leach at The Town Company, where she is the executive pastry chef and stays busy creating edible works of art. Leach shares her love of baking, community, and the local food scene in The Pitch questionnaire. 

Social handles: @helenjomama, @joleachfam

Hometown: Chi-Town!

Current Neighborhood: Hyde Park, KC MO

What’s your go-to drink?: Daily: soda water with a lime! Aside from that, right now I like a dirty martini—I’m loving salty, briny drinks.

What’s your go-to place for dinner?: Nguyen Pho & Grill. A small, nice, family-owned spot that serves tasty solid pho with a smile.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever been given?: Take care of yourself first, so you can take care of others.

What is your soapbox?: I believe in mental health and the importance of sorting out all the things going on in your head. Finding constructive outlets to help keep balance in one’s life and seeking therapy/counseling should be more common. It is something everyone regardless of race, ethnicity, economic status, is affected by.

What does a perfect day in Kansas City look like to you?: Sleeping in, have a nice cup of coffee with Johnny, and making breakfast for the fam. Walking down to the Nelson Atkin’s Sculpture garden. 

What does Kansas City need more of?: Hard to say right now, as we moved here last March and are still exploring the city! Off the top of my head: more fast-casual healthy food spots.

What made you decide to move to Kansas City?: A job opportunity with my husband Johnny, to help open/run The Town Company and other food outlets in Hotel Kansas City.

How do working and living here differ from the other cities you’ve lived and worked in?: There is definite affordability here. After moving from Portland, we are ready for the next step of home-owning. Johnny and I met and lived in NYC for 9 years and knew we wanted to have a family and more space than we did, so we moved to Portland. Life moved fast there and 6 years flew by! We worked a ton, and our daughter Perri was born there. 

How long have you been baking?: About 16 years!

Your pastries are art. What is it like using your creativity to make such beautiful (and tasty) art?: Hehe! It’s pretty fun (but can also be at times difficult)! I usually start with seasonal ingredients I want to use—flavor profiles, herbs, spices, inspirations like an event or cause to help me generate ideas, and then I figure out a visual plate up. My plate-ups are very rustic and simple.

You often combine your pastry work with community outreach like #doughsomething, Advancing Justice Chicago, and No Kid Hungry. Why do you think it’s important to use your skills for good?: My baking is my voice! I know that a lot of new businesses or foundations need money to help keep going/support their cause so donating is the best way to help support and it gets the public interested and involved. Basically, I love that it brings the community together.

What’s been your favorite thing to bake recently?: I love making cookies. the Gachi Cookie for #doughsomething came together pretty quickly, using things already in my pantry (chocolate chips, rice cereal, miso—love salty-sweet treats), are easy and quick to make and everyone is always willing to help taste test a cookie!

What was it like being part of the original Milk Bar crew when it opened in 2008?: I made a lot of lasting friendships through Milk Bar. Opening a place like Milk Bar, which grew exponentially in a short span of time was a lot of long hours and coffee, lots of troubleshooting and figuring things out, meanwhile trying to keep it all fun—it was a full-on workout! I think it made me a stronger person now as I know I am capable of a lot. I know my OG friends who have moved on from Milk Bar are doing some incredible things and it’s always good to see their success and new endeavors!

What is your favorite part of working for The Town Company and Hotel Kansas City? I love working with our team. We have a crew that wants to create a genuine fun memorable experience, from the food (using local, farmers, vendors, utilizing the hearth oven to its best), warm greetings and interactions, knowledge about the dishes and beverages, attention to detail in the dining room. So far, we have a lot of repeat guests so that is a good sign!

You and Johnny are a veritable culinary super duo. What is it like to run The Town Company with your husband? It is fun to work on dishes with Johnny. I know I can always be honest with him about anything regarding the menu or plate ups (and him with me) and know that I won’t hurt his feelings. we can just focus on the goal of making good food. We are lucky that our daughter Perri is a regular part of our restaurant life. Often she comes and hangs out in the kitchen with us on the weekends and has her little nook and activities. I hope she has a lot of fond memories of cooking/baking with Mom and Dad!

Anything else?: The food community here is so impressively friendly and supportive. We have made some great friends so far: Yoli Tortilleria, Antler Room, Cafe Cà Phê, Happy Gillis—to name a few—who have been so kind with their patronage, sharing their advice and introducing us to others in the KC community. 

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Helen and Johnny.// Courtesy Pilsen Photo Coop.

Categories: Questionnaire