In the small, often overlooked Minneapolis neighborhood of Bryn Mawr, one petite Italian restaurant has been delighting diners with wood-oven-centric cuisine since 2012. At the helm is head chef Drew Ledo, who has spent the majority of his life immersed in the food service industry and will be taking his first leap into competitive cooking with this year's Iron Fork.
We had a chance to sit and talk with chef Ledo about his background, what it was that motivated him into a serious cooking career, and the life advice he received from celebrity chef/travel guru Anthony Bourdain, which had a lasting effect on his own culinary adventure.
Hot Dish: How did you manage to get yourself into the whole cooking racket?
Drew Ledo: I've been cooking since I was 15 years old. I grew up in Stillwater working at little mom-and-pop restaurants and a little mom-and-pop grocery store. I learned how to butcher when I was about 16 or 17, which was kind of illegal, but fortunately I had somebody that was willing to teach me. So I started with butchery, but then I got into working in restaurants as a wait assist and stuff like that. Then eventually I decided that I liked the kitchen more.
So would you say that it started as a high school job then and kind of escalated from there?
Yeah, I mean, I loved it right away. Also, my whole family are pretty good cooks, so it's kind of in the blood.
At what point did you really start to get serious about cooking?
Actually, a major inspiration for me was when my wife got pregnant. I was a line cook at the time and I wasn't really focused. Having a pregnant wife and a kid on the way definitely got me moving in the right direction. I started focusing more of my energy on creating dishes and learning to make sauces and stuff like that.
So you'd say that you're mostly self-taught or did you learn on the job?
I didn't really go to school. I went to AI [The Art Institutes] for about three months. Actually, what happened was, I was working at the Independent at the time, I was the sous chef there and I went to a book signing with Anthony Bourdain at the Triple Rock, where I used to work and I actually got a chance to ask him -- the Independent had offered me a head chef position there, but I was still going to school at the time -- so I asked him what I should do because I had been offered the head chef position and he told me to quit school and he said that I was already there. I had already been in kitchens for 10 years at that point, so he said just quit school and go for it and I've been a head chef ever since.
How long were you at the Independent?
I was there for a little over five years. I actually left about eight months before they closed. After that, I had never worked in a corporate kitchen, so I wanted to give it a shot and I went over to Good Earth. It turned out to not really be a good fit for me and I decided pretty quickly that I wanted to go back to the smaller, more independent kitchens. Then I interviewed with John [Hunt] and I 've been here ever since.
Have you ever competed in a culinary competition?
I've never done anything like it. I've only done small competitions with my family and that's it.
Most of the people that we've talked to so far for this year's Iron Fork haven't done much in the way of competition cooking. Do you think that helps to create a more even playing field?
Oh yeah. I mean, I guess, really it's an honor to be asked to do this. I'd be willing to go up against somebody that has 10 years of competition experience just to be able to do it.
Is there anything that you don't want to see show up in your basket of ingredients?
Well, I can tell you one ingredient that I'd never want to have in my basket is water chestnuts. I cannot stand water chestnuts. I think they're flavorless and it's a lot like chewing on a styrofoam cup, so I might have to throw in the towel at that point.
Anything that you'd really love to see?
I'm not exactly sure on the structure, whether it's going to be a vegetable or a protein. I mean, I would love it if they were to throw some pork belly at me. I'll do all sorts of things with that. There's nothing that I'd be particularly psyched about, I'm psyched about cooking in general, so just give me a good ingredient, something that I can work with, and I'll be happy.
So if you were to get a nice big slab of pork belly you think you could actually pull something off in an hour?
You know, that actually is a tough one for pork belly, but I'm sure that I could figure something out. I supposed that's part of the challenge.
Have you done anything to get yourself prepped for battle?
No, I've just kind of been scouring the internet for blogs and stuff on competitions. I'm trying to learn the structure. I think for a newcomer, that's one of the main things is learning how it's all structured. The cooking is the easy part.
Are there any competitors you're looking forward to going one-on-one with?
I am excited to cook up against Erick Harcey, but only because he interviewed me for a head chef job about five years ago, but I never got a call back so I kind of want to throw it in his face a bit, but I am excited to go up against the other chefs, too.
So you're going in looking for a little blood then?
A little bit. But then, you know, Don Saunders, I love his work, I love his food. You know, I've never really met any of these chefs and I'm just really looking forward to meeting them all.
Have you got any final fighting words for your competitors before the competition?
I know that I'm somewhat of a dark horse in this competition, but watch out, because I'm coming for you.
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