By Donna Cornelius
Journal Features Writer
Chefs worth their gourmet sea salt have to be ready to make adjustments when a recipe isn’t working out.
Chef Beth Leon had to handle an even more drastic change. Instead of cooking up restaurant food, she’s now whipping up lesson plans.
Leon, a 25-year-old Pelham resident and John Carroll Catholic High School graduate, was happily working at Birmingham’s Little Savannah restaurant as the garde manger chef, in charge of appetizers and desserts. But a medical problem made it hard to keep up with the physical demands of her job.
“When I was in sixth grade, I dislocated my knee during a school dance,” Leon said. “I kept having problems with it, and I needed to get it fixed.”
In January 2012, Leon had knee surgery, which meant a lengthy recuperation period. Little Savannah’s owners, Clif and wife Maureen Holt, were “so understanding,” she said. “They even held my spot for me.”
But since chefs have to be on their feet for long hours, Leon decided to explore different options.
“I knew it was going to be hard to keep working in a restaurant with the long hours and physical toll,” she said.
Leon is a graduate of Jefferson State Community College’s Culinary and Hospitality Management program and contacted Chef Joseph Mitchell, the program director, and other instructors there for advice.
“They suggested teaching,” Leon said.
Leon found a job at Homewood High School. She started the school’s culinary arts program last year and will begin her second year of teaching at HHS when classes start on Aug. 19.
“I didn’t have any teaching experience,” she said. “I did all the lesson plans and do all the grocery shopping for the classes.”
The school’s culinary program is the result of student surveys, said Latta Johnson, assistant principal of curriculum and instruction.
“Through formal and informal surveys of the students, we ascertained that there was interest among students to start a culinary program,” Johnson said.
The decision proved to be a good one: The number of students that requested the course was large its first year and has grown during the second, the assistant principal said.
Since Leon is a working chef, that gives her “instant credibility” with her students, according to Johnson.
“It lets her stay abreast of current trends,” Johnson said. “It makes the content less theoretical and more practical.”
Leon also teaches at Sur La Table at The Summit. The Seattle-based retailer not only sells kitchenware but offers cooking classes ranging from courses like Grilling 101 to Coastal Italian Cuisine.
A culinary career became Leon’s goal when she was a high school sophomore, she said.
“I decided I didn’t want to do anything else,” she said. “I’m Italian, so food always surrounded everything I did. My mother and grandmother are both great cooks.”
Leon’s first job in the food service field was at Edgar’s Bakery in Birmingham. She started work there during her senior year at John Carroll.
“It was a good way to get into the industry,” she said.
She won a John Carroll scholarship to Jefferson State, she said, and earned a hospitality/food service degree and a pastry/baking certificate. As a Jefferson State student, she did internships at Imperial Catering in Hoover and at the college-run restaurant, Bistro proVare.
She credited Mitchell and her instructors there, Glenn Rinsky, Todd Jackson and Jason Bierley, with providing instruction and advice.
Leon also managed the café at Organic Harvest in Hoover, she said.
At Homewood High School, Leon teaches two classes to students in grades 10-12: a basic course and one that explores classic techniques like knife skills, sanitation and sauce, soup and salad-making.
“I’m trying to teach them what I learned in my first year of culinary school,” she said.
Her students range from foodies to football players, she said. And these days, you won’t find an uneven balance of the sexes in the school kitchen.
“Last year, one of my classes had more girls than boys, and the other had more boys than girls,” she said.
Her students’ knowledge about food varies greatly, too, she said.
“When we made ratatouille, I bought out the fresh vegetables,” Leon said. “Some of the kids didn’t know what some of the vegetables were. But then I also had a student who had been with her family to places like Highlands Bar and Grill and Chez Fonfon. She knew a lot about food.”
Leon has brought in guest speakers like the Holts, her former bosses at Little Savannah, and Carole Griffin, owner of Birmingham’s Continental Bakery, she said.
While she loves teaching at Homewood High, she’s also enjoyed her experiences at Sur La Table.
“I had looked at their website and saw jobs for a kitchen assistant and instructor,” Leon said. “I applied for the kitchen assistant position, but Nadia Ruiz, the resident chef there, told me to apply to be an instructor.”
Leon teaches one to two classes a week at Sur La Table. While some, like Steak Night and Four Classic Desserts Every Cook Should Know, are geared for adults, other classes are for younger would-be chefs. This summer, Leon taught the Science of Cooking for Kids and other classes that focused on foods from around the world.
“I love teaching at Sur La Table,” she said. “The people taking the classes are excited to be there, and the store makes it very easy for people to learn.”
Although she’s fully recovered from her knee surgery, Leon said she’s enjoying teaching so much that she’s now finishing up her bachelor’s degree in hospitality at the University of Alabama.
“Now that I know there’s another side to culinary, I want to teach for a long time,” she said.