It’s not often one can give you the date they decided to change their life. Not so for Leonard Hollander, Executive Chef of Marion Street Cheese Market.
“November 2nd, 1999.”
Like reciting his birthday, Leonard rattles off what’s tantamount to a birthday of sorts, the date he decided to lose much of his too-close-to-400 pounds of weight.
“At the time I was a software tester,” reminisced Leonard. “I woke up one morning while away on a business trip, and I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t walk for the first twenty minutes of every day.”
Now a trim, lean form, Leonard tells the story of his beginnings as a chef with a mixture of detachment and incredulity, as if the shock is still working its way through his system. Images of someone who no longer exists flood the mind as a reel of that morning plays out. Stiff ankles, sore knees, and a jaundiced morning routine involving more than just a shower, shave, and coffee find traction.
Chef smiles. His eyes sparkle. As if adding the missing ingredient to a dish, he explains how his training as a software tester quickened his sense for inefficiencies. “I love to fix things.”
Leonard continued on spinning a story of numbers. From some explaining how his engineering background meant for him “a world of numbers with no real variability” to “process flow, diagrams, order of operations” to the simple yet sometimes dismissive reality of “calories in, calories out,” Leonard’s weight loss seemed inevitable.
It was then that he began to talk about how with food, there was more room for variability, as if food held for him a mysterious uncertainty measured by taste and smell. The possibility of it all held sway over Leonard as much as solving pi. For a man of numbers, then, creativity arose out of another simple calculus for Leonard: “Food doesn’t have to taste bad if it’s healthy.”
When not at work, Leonard started hanging out in the kitchen of a restaurant he enjoyed to just watch. No prepping and no cooking, just watching. Eventually he quit his lucrative job for a $9/hr job in a kitchen. “I told the chef that I didn’t really have any experience, but I will work my ass off and give you all I got. I didn’t really know he [Jackson, the executive chef who hired Leonard] had a plan for me until a year-and-a-half later when we left.”
Chef’s narrative continues with stories of dropping out of culinary school rather quickly after realizing that covering how many ounces go into a cup became too much to teaching cooking classes at Whole Foods and Wild Oats.
Jackson and Leonard went on to testing all the recipes for “The Arab Table,” one of the most popular cookbooks of Middle Eastern cuisine by May Bsisu. Eventually they both moved to LA. That’s when Leonard worked for Norman Van Aken. He is who Charlie Trotter was mentored by. “Insane and never letting them see you break,” Leonard explained. “It was the kind of job you cry on the phone with to your wife right before your shift.”
Leonard then moved to Chicago and opened De La Costa – Latin Seafood. “When I told them I worked for Norman Van Aken, they hired me immediately.” The iconic Ambria came next with a stint at Avenues at the Peninsula and then Executive Sous Chef at Graham Elliot restaurant. Lastly, Chef took a serving job at Trader Vic’s. Two chefs followed Leonard with this last move. “I was a server, and Eric and Nick called me Chef. The chef there couldn’t stand that,” Leonard recollects while laughing.
It’s been over a decade since that fateful morning Leonard got out of bed, took a look around, and decided to change his life with all the fanfare of 1 + 1 = 2…like one does. Except that it is a rare, courageous life that Chef is leading. Such people can get away with wearing capes. Although there are rumors of cape-wearing, Leonard is very down-to-earth with a calm demeanor suggesting a humility borne out of hard-fought wisdom and patience. Rumors about capes surrounded Bruce Wayne, too.