Thomas Leonard readily admits he is not your typical foodie. He did not grow up on or near a farm. His family was not food-oriented. "It was not a foodie atmosphere," he said. "This was before the wave of Food Network chefs. Our food was home-style Midwest cooking."
Though cooking was not on his mind, he enrolled in culinary school only because one of his friends did. "My friend went to one and loved it," he said. "Being a chef is really not the typical 9-to-5 job."
But once Leonard started classes at the Pennsylvania Culinary Institute -- which merged with Pittsburgh's Le Cordon Bleu Institute of Culinary Arts while he was there -- his perspective and life goals changed. "I went to two different programs in one," he explained. "Afterwards, I spent three months in an intern/extern program at Baricelli in Cleveland with Paul Minnillo, a good chef."
|If you go|
|BlackSalt Fish Market & Restaurant|
|Where: 4883 MacArthur Blvd.|
|Hours: Lunch 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Monday to Saturday, brunch 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday, dinner 5:30pm to 9:30 p.m. Monday to Thursday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Friday, 5 to 11 p.m. Saturday, 5 to 9 p.m. Sunday|
When he moved to Florida with his mother, Leonard took the big step that primed him for his current job as executive chef at BlackSalt Fish Market & Restaurant, one of D.C.'s prime seafood destinations with its own retail fish market in the front. In Florida, Leonard was hired by Real Seafood Co., a restaurant that showcased many fish dishes on its menu. "I learned all there is to know about seafood," he said. "I became the sous chef after one and a half years."
But about six years ago, Leonard decided to move north to D.C. Looking for the right job, he studied various websites and found Black Market Bistro, one of the restaurants in the Black Restaurant Group, which owns BlackSalt. "Their menu really appealed to me," he said. "It was smaller, homey, and the menu offered dishes I'd never heard of. ... I was moving from a large restaurant to one much smaller, and it seemed like a perfect fit."
So when Leonard arrived in D.C., the group hired him as a line cook for Black Market Bistro. Once in the company, Leonard moved around in its various restaurants before landing the sous chef job at BlackSalt 2 1/2 years ago.
Fortunately, he could draw upon his store of seafood knowledge, understanding just how to handle the very delicate ingredients. "You also have to pair the right food with each piece of fish," he said. "It must be lighter and is not drowned in a heavy cream sauce. This involves more talent and more finesse. And here [at BlackSalt], the variety of seafood is immense." That includes working with both wild-caught and farm-raised varieties, which may require differing cooking techniques.
But, he says, his signature dish -- and one of his all-time favorites -- is the pan-seared tuna with pork belly adobo, seasoned with soy sauce and rice wine and with a pickled carrot salad. Sounds rather good.
What is your comfort food?
My mom's favorite dish, lasagna. This is one of her best dishes, and I still call her and ask what she does. It is so memorable.
What is your must-have ingredient?
Salt. But it also depends on the season and what is local. And then to build a kitchen, it would be olive oil and butter. Butter is one of my favorite ingredients.
What's in your fridge?
I work all the time and I live in a group home. But there are eggs, butter, water, wine, half-loaf of bread. So what is there is really day-to-day.
Which is your favorite restaurant?
I am a huge fan of Estadio. Then 2 Amys with small plates so I am getting a large sample of what's there.
What is your luckiest moment?
I would have to say walking into Black Market Bistro and getting the job. My D.C. career would have been so different.
Parmesan-Crusted Lemon Sole with Lemon-Caper Butter Sauce
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
4 eggs, beaten
1/4 cup milk
2 cups panko breadcrumbs
2 cups freshly grated Parmesan (large holes on a box grater)
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 (5-ounce) lemon sole fillets, any sole, fluke, or flounder
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 shallots, coarsely chopped
4 garlic cloves, crushed
1 cup lemon juice
1 cup white wine
4 thyme sprigs
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon black peppercorn
1 pound cold butter, whole, unsalted
1 tablespoon capers, very coarsely chopped
To make the breaded crust, add 1 cup flour and salt to one bowl. In a second bowl, whisk together the eggs and milk. In a third bowl, add the remaining flour, panko crumbs and the Parmesan cheese; stir well. Coat the fish with the flour-salt mixture, dip into the egg-milk mixture, and then cover with the panko-flour mixture. Repeat for the remaining fillets. Set aside.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. To make the sauce, heat the olive oil in a large saucepan, and sweat the shallot and garlic over medium heat. Stir in the lemon juice, wine, thyme, bay leaves, and peppercorns. Once the mixture starts to simmer, reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to cook until only about 1/4 cup liquid remains. Remove from the heat and set aside.
Heat a large nonstick, ovenproof skillet over medium heat. Add the 4 tablespoons olive oil, and when it is hot, add all the fish at once. Cook on one side until the crust begins to turn golden. Turn the pieces over, and put the skillet into the oven. Cook the fish for 8 to 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, finish the sauce by whisking in the butter, a few pieces at a time, over very low heat. Continue to slowly add the butter till all of it is incorporated; keep the sauce warm (sauce cannot simmer or get to hot or it will break). Next strain the sauce into another pot and add chopped capers. Pull the fish out of the oven. You are now ready to plate. Place a piece of fish on a plate and pour a little of the sauce on the fish and around the plate.