November 29, 2004
It's almost showtime, and Jacques "Jack" Leonardi (B '89, '92) paces the small bar area of his restaurant like it's the deck of a ship. He's master, commander and chef all rolled into one as he gets in a quick staff meeting before this evening's diners are seated. Dressed in baggy, printed blue shorts and a T-shirt, and sporting a neatly trimmed beard and mussed hair, Leonardi is a study in contrast-- intense and relaxed at once.
"I got some different ideas on how to do things in different ways. Okay? Don't think that just 'cause we've always done it that way that it will stay that way. Okay?"
Yeah, they're all friends here, but no one doubts who's boss as Leonardi shares his new ideas. Funny thing is, he has to do so above the chatter of patrons who have already entered the restaurant, ordered drinks and, for all intents and purposes, are sitting in the meeting. In a minute, the guests will be escorted through the frenzied kitchen on their way to the dining room, no doubt better educated on the inner workings of a New Orleans restaurant. And not just any restaurant.
In the last few years Jacques-Imo's Cafe has become one of the hottest food tickets in town, known for its eclectic mix of New Orleans cooking, reasonable prices and its irrepressible ownerchef, Leonardi, who holds court each night dressed in an (often stained) white chef's jacket, shorts and Birkenstock clogs. Located in uptown New Orleans on a section of Oak Street that its presence helped to rejuvenate, Jacques-Imo's embraces and interprets the New Orleans funky psyche in a way that is fetching to both tourists and locals alike.
The place is decorated like a kaleidoscopic dream of Southeast Louisiana: a blue marlin arches over the entrance and a boar's head noshes on a Barbie Doll while Mardi Gras beads and Christmas lights glisten from the overhead light fixtures. A poster from "Southpark" here, a picture of the "Blessed Mother" there and, everywhere, paintings of local musicians.
As for the food, it's kind of a rock 'n' roll tour of New Orleans cooking, from hall-offame numbers such as barbecue shrimp and blackened redfish to psychedelic spins on traditional flavors that include roasted acorn squash filled with mussels in a curry cream sauce and fried oysters topped with a tangy plum and sesame dressing. Leonardi, who calls all the shots, has an intuition that only a native should possess, so go figure that he hails from upstate New York.
Leonardi's Coast Guard Academy education led him to a New Orleans' tour of duty in the '80s. That's when he took to haunting the city's finest restaurants, and he enrolled in the MBA program at Tulane's A. B. Freeman School of Business. He convinced Paul Prudhomme, the mastermind behind K-Paul's Louisiana Kitchen and culinary icon, to hire him for his first job in a professional kitchen.
Soon, he was chopping vegetables a couple of nights each week and quickly moved through the ranks to become a fry cook before leaving to work in a number of kitchens around town. Meanwhile, a Coast Guard buddy approached him about opening the Warehouse Cafe, a nightclub and bar underneath the Crescent City Connection bridge spanning the Mississippi River. With a shoestring budget (Leonardi spent three years dividing his time between a day job managing a West Bank eatery and nights and weekends at the Warehouse Cafe), Leonardi made work seem like play.
Stories circulated of Leonardi dancing on top of the bar, pouring free tequila into patrons' mouths. In 1996, Leonardi and his wife, Amelia, seized the chance to open a restaurant on Oak Street. Leonardi has since become his own landlord, buying the Jacques-Imo's building and other surrounding structures. In 2002, Leonardi opened Crabby Jack's, a po'boy joint located on Jefferson Highway. Last spring, he extended his culinary reach to the Big Apple with a Jacques-Imo's on the Upper West Side.
It's all part of a sizzling, wildfire success fueled on equal measures of good food and good vibes. The food he attributes to his attention to the genius of traditional New Orleans cooking and a brief but productive collaboration with legendary New Orleans chef Austin Leslie. The vibes, he says, are part of the business. "People go out to have a good time, to escape their problems, have a different experience than they would at home. Your job is to entertain them, and make sure they have that experience."
Amid the bustle, clatter and clamor, he spins a peculiar and irresistible magic as ringmaster, entrepreneur, CEO and rock 'n' roller. "This is a great business. You can do everything from accounting to marketing to management-- all with artistic freedom," he says, and off he goes again, confusing work and play, handing out free drinks and laughs to the gang waiting to be seated. You can barely hear him above the racket of good times.
Favorite comfort food?
Macaroni and cheese.
New Orleans chef and former partner, Austin Leslie, and bestselling cookbook author James Beard.
Greatest food fear?
Who would you like to walk through the door of your restaurant?
Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000 firstname.lastname@example.org