Dennis Leaf-Smith of 112 Eatery: Chef Chat, Part 1

The 112 Eatery turns seven years old this month. So in its honor, we're sitting down with chef de cuisine Dennis Leaf-Smith who was there on opening day.

Leaf-Smith is a local, growing up in Minnetonka. And although we know his work from 112 and Café/Bar Lurcat, he actually got his start cranking out burgers and fries under a red and white awning in the burbs.

First things first, do you go by Dennis or Denny? Denny. The only one who calls me Dennis is my mom, and that's usually when I'm in trouble. [Grins]

Let's go back to the beginning. How did you start cooking? Was it always part of your life? I cooked with my dad when I was growing up. My father cooked professionally years ago. He was a sous chef at a restaurant in Golden Valley called Patty's.

What was cooking with your dad like? He did most of the actual cooking. But my sister Katee [who now works at Bar La Grassa] and I did prep work, chopped, basically helped out where we could.

So you were sous chefs? Exactly. We were his little sous chefs.

What was your dad's best dish? He used to make a spinach soup.

Spinach soup? Yeah, it was spinach, potatoes, onions, and garlic all pureed up. At the time, I couldn't really fathom it. Looking back at it now, it was really good. But Katee and I were maybe 7, 8 years old then, and the idea of eating spinach was "no thanks."

So, how did you get into the restaurant business? I actually started at Snuffy's Malt Shop in Minnetonka when I was 15. I was a dishwasher at first. And once I became old enough (when I turned 16), I started cooking. I'd had a couple of jobs before that--I worked at Frank's Nursery & Crafts as an outdoor stock boy. But I really liked being in the kitchen. The fast pace and camaraderie really appealed to me. I knew college wasn't for me, but I didn't know what I wanted to do. And when I started cooking at Snuffy's, I realized it was something I might be interested in.

And then you went to culinary school? No--I never went to culinary school.

What? After I graduated from high school, I enrolled in Hennepin Tech and applied to their chef program. And at the same time, I started working in a hotel called the Northland Inn. For me, it was much easier to learn in the kitchen than the classroom--it was more hands on. So after about two months at Hennepin Tech, I dropped out. I realized I was getting paid to learn, rather than paying to learn. And at age 18, 19, that a huge step for me.

Do you remember the first time you were amazed by food. A wow-this-is-really-good moment? At Snuffy's Malt Shop, it was just quick-serve burgers and fries. But the first time I saw really interesting food was at the hotel. Everyone who worked there was about 10 to 20 years older than I was, and they were all professional line cooks. So I was going from Snuffy's and 15- to 16-year-olds to this mature kitchen. And I thought, "Wow, this is something I could actually do as a career."

Making the jump from the malt shop to Northland must have been quite a shock. But you probably learned a ton. Yeah, I was young and relatively inexperienced, so I just tried to learn as much as I possibly could--see everything, ask lots of questions--but also stay out of the way. I put my head down, focused, worked hard, and went with the flow. Basically, tried not to get yelled at.

That's a good strategy. [Chuckles] I worked at the Northland Inn for probably two years, maybe three. And then my aunt invited me to move out to San Francisco, where she was living at the time, to try to find a job there. So I took her up on it.

Where did you end up working? I was in a couple of kitchens around San Francisco. One of them was the Lark Creek Inn in Larkspur, a little bit north of San Francisco.

That's up in Thomas Keller territory. Not a bad place to be. Not at all. I was in my early 20s--20, 21 years old. And I realized if you stick with cooking long enough, you can do quite well. I really learned a lot in Larkspur. I was working with seasoned cooks, and it was a higher-end restaurant.

White tablecloths and the whole works? Yeah, very proper. But when we'd go out, all the line cooks and myself, we'd meet at this little dirty dive bar pub where they served really great food. There were a lot of industry people who worked there and went there. It was kind of like 112, but not nearly as refined.

You must have been eating a lot of incredible food. Yeah, the produce was terrific, and there were so many different cuisines. Great noodle shops--I've never had so many noodles in my life--and Vietnamese restaurants.

The Slanted Door in San Francisco is one of our favorite places on the planet. Food envy. I wanted to stay, but after a while the cost of living just started to mount up.

And you were living with your aunt, which is kind of like living with your mom... [Laughs] Kind of. When I was living here in Minnesota, I had my own apartment and a roommate. So when I moved out to San Fran, it was like going from borderline freedom to, well, living with my aunt.

Check out tomorrow's post to find out what happened when Leaf-Smith returned to Minneapolis--and how he met his current boss, Isaac Becker.

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