Chef Dominique Leach: “You can’t make everybody happy”

The key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about is technique, personality, and butter! As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dominique Leach of Lexington Betty SmokeHouse. Raised In Chicago, Dominique spent most of her childhood playing basketball and baking peanut butter cookies. […]

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The key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about is technique, personality, and butter!

As part of our series about the lessons from influential ‘TasteMakers’, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dominique Leach of Lexington Betty SmokeHouse.

Raised In Chicago, Dominique spent most of her childhood playing basketball and baking peanut butter cookies. She comes from a large family that loves to cook big meals and spend time together.

Leach Attended the Illinois Institute Of Art Chicago and attained her associates degree in Culinary Arts in 2006. That October Leach joined the team at The Renaissance Hotel Chicago.

She began as the grill line cook and worked her way up to become the kitchen supervisor in 2007.

In December 2008 Leach joined Bon Appetite’s banquet team at The Art Institute Museum, helmed by a young Chef from Florida Brian Williams. Leach started as a prep cook which afforded her the opportunity to learn about food and culture from different regions. There she worked with Award Winning Author and Chef Raghavan Iyer who taught her all about Indian culture and cuisine.

Over the next years, Leach’s growing knowledge of food gained her the respect of her peers and managers. She eventually outgrew her prep position and was promoted to Sous Chef. After her promotion she worked with Spiaggia Chef/partner Tony Mantuano who had just opened a new restaurant in the museum. Fortunately the banquet team handled all of the restaurants large events so Leach worked side by side with Mantuano. Leach’s skills around the kitchen were so apparent he invited her to New York to assist with WINE BAR FOOD pop up restaurant at the U.S. Open Tennis Championship. While there, Leach was offered a role in banquets at Spiaggia.

In 2011, Leach was hired as Sous Chef at a Chicago off premise catering company. A year later she left to receive her first Executive Chef Job at Zelda’s Kosher Catering. After establishing the entire catering concept at Zeldas, Leach decided she wanted to use all of her knowledge gained throughout her career to start her own catering company. in search of less responsibility and more time to develop her ideas Leach left Zeldas to become a line cook at the Four Seasons Hotel. She vowed that the Four Seasons would be her last job.

In 2016 along with her wife Tanisha, Leach founded her very own catering company “Cater To You Events & Drop Offs”. Her ambition and consistency helped her to achieve her goal. Leach has since added a Food truck to her repertoire. Lexington Betty SmokeHouse, Named after her Granny Betty King from Lexington Mississippi! After being invited to the WGN studios to do a live cooking demo Lexington Betty’s smoked meats were in high demand.

In September of 2019 Leach opened her first restaurant in Chicago’s Galewood neighborhood. Just three months later she announced a second Lexington Betty SmokeHouse to open in February at the One Eleven Food Hall in Chicago’s historic Pullman neighborhood!

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?

I was inspired to be a chef the day I watched my grandmother make a pot of oxtail stew. First, she seared the oxtail, and the aromas coming from the pot was like nothing I’ve ever smelled before. She used what seemed like every bag of frozen vegetables from the freezer — corn, green beans, peas, and lima beans — threw in a can of stewed tomatoes, some stock, and let it cook for what seemed like an eternity. When I finally ate the stew, the flavors blew me away. I remember wondering if I was capable of making something so delicious.

Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?

My main focus is on BBQ and the smoking technique. I’ve been barbecuing since i was a kid. My family always gathered for cookouts for the summer holidays.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?

I can’t recall any funny stories in my career, but I can definitely recall some lessons learned. All of which I’ve carried with me throughout the years.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?

I started my journey in culinary school. To my surprise, my classes were filled with adults who were exploring second careers. Our Chef instructor separated us into groups of 5. This would be our group for the duration of the quarter. Every one of them seemed familiar with different restaurant concepts and dining out. I was far from experienced and always had a lot of questions pertaining to recipes and cooking methods. For whatever reason my group was not as forthcoming as I would’ve liked. The term “weakest link” comes to mind. I worked hard independently, got stronger, and became more organized. Eventually, I had confidence in my skills and even had younger classmates that depended on me. I promised myself to never ignore someone when they are asking for help. I want us all to win!

In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?

The key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about is technique, personality, and butter!

Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?

The perfect meal for me is one that I don’t have to cook myself! But seriously, my perfect meal is an Italian tasting menu with charcuterie, an arugula salad, pasta course, polipo, focaccia, wine, and sorbetti. Italian cuisine is my favorite.

Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?

I’m inspired by so many things. I love bringing people together and feeding them delicious food. I guess I’m inspired by people’s reactions.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?

My newest project is the opening Lexington Betty’s third restaurant location, which opened on August 3 in Chicago’s former Cook County Hospital. It has been revamped into a Hyatt Hotel and it’s in the lobby of Dr. Murphy’s Food Hall. I think opening a third location in 10 months will speak volumes to the food industry. We are setting the bar for Chicago-style BBQ.

What advice would you give to other chefs or restaurateurs to thrive and avoid burnout?

I think to thrive as a chef, you have to cook with love. To avoid burnout, wear compression socks and hire a sous chef.

Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Restauranteur or Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.

The 5 things i wish someone would’ve told me is:

  1. You can’t make everybody happy — Sometimes, no matter what hoops you’ve jumped through to please a customer, some people are just set in their ways.
  2. Don’t take your food truck home — In 2017, my food truck was set on fire right in front of my home.
  3. You won’t be able to get a business loan — Despite having a credit score of 720, without collateral, no bank would give me a loan.
  4. Turnover is inevitable — People will eventually leave but it’s never personal.
  5. When you start your own business, your chef friends will not come to work for you — I know so many chefs and cooks that I thought would love to come work for the company — but boy was I wrong.

What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?

If you come to Lexington Betty SmokeHouse, you have to try the rib tips and the macaroni & cheese.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I’ve always wanted to host cooking classes for kids. It’s important to me to be a positive role model to them. Kids should be taught that every option is open for them. Food teaches life lessons, money management, and the true value of a dollar. Kids need these skills and they need to be taught positive examples by living proof.

Thank you so much for these insights. This was very inspirational!

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