In many ways the exterior of The Breadfruit -- tucked away on a quiet street and so unassuming that even walking right by, it could still go overlooked -- reflects the amiable persona of its unpretentious chef.
We met with Chef Danielle Leoni this week to get to know the woman churning out some of the Valley's best Caribbean cuisine. Although she was born in Illinois and comes from a "traditional, large Italian family," Leoni's heart (and food!) exudes the charm and ease of a lazy Jamaican afternoon.
She and partner Dwayne Allen, a Jamaica native, bring a piece of island oasis to the heart of the desert with their award-winning food and impressive selection of over a hundred rums.
"If you can't eat the food you cook, you shouldn't be cooking it. If you don't love it, you don't have any business asking somebody else to love it. It doesn't make any sense" Leoni says.
How did a girl from an Italian family in Illinois find herself serving jerk chicken and crispy mango fish rolls? We've got the story, after the jump.
"If you don't cook the food, how are you going to eat?"
I don't have any formal education in the culinary world. I come from a very traditional large Italian family. So my whole life as a little girl, my grandma always had me doing something in the kitchen. It was like instead of church on Sunday we spent time in the kitchen together. There was always a giant stock pot of gravy cooking and we were making meatballs and making sausage and shucking peas... I remember when I was a little girl I have a cousin who's the same age [as me,] and he was always complaining about being in the kitchen. She always said my grandma was like, "Danielle doesn't complain!" Absolutely not. It was like, "If you don't cook the food, how are you going to eat?" I remember as a little girl being very cross at him about that. And I've always loved to cook ever since then.
Coming together over food
My partner and co-owner Dwayne Allen, he's born and raised in Jamaica and we met a long time ago. We used to work together downtown; we both worked for the City of Phoenix. We became good friends and really, what our friendship came together over, was food. But we always felt like we never had a place to go and eat and be comfortable and relax because we're very conscious about what we eat and what goes into it. We both always say we'd much rather not eat, than eat something that's not on par.
"I struggle if I have to eat things that are of the ordinary"
So we would always cook around each other and for friends and I always loved his cuisine so much because it's so rich in flavor and vibrant and when I eat it, it just tickles my palate and it feels so good. It's a fun experience. It's actually engaging. Life is so mundane and I struggle if I have to eat things that are of the ordinary. I love how I feel after too. I feel like I'm full, but I feel really light and clean. It's the flavors. The intense flavors do it for me.
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"If you don't do something intentionally, you didn't have any business doing it anyways"
Some of my mentors are people that are downtown that are tucked away, that if you didn't go there on purpose you wouldn't find it. I say, if you don't do something intentionally, you didn't have any business doing it anyways. We've been here about four years now and we've done well enough to expand and build the Rum Bar. It's been very well embraced. Downtown has always been near and dear to our hearts. If you want to be close to your community and actually know your neighbors, if you want to know your famers, if you really want to be connected with the public market and a burgeoning city--almost up and coming in a sense--be a part of the new growth, it's the palace to be for us. Dwayne and I don't have any experience in the restaurant industry and it's the perfect place for us.
Tomorrow we'll have the second part of our chat with Chef Leoni. She'll share her menu for the Winter Chef Series and talk about the difficulties of making authentic Caribbean in the middle of the desert.