Chef Danielle Leoni: Global Sustainability Activist and Conduit for Change

“For my whole life, all I’ve wanted is to do good” ~ Chef Danielle Leoni

On a recent trip to Arizona, Executive Chef and Co-owner of The Breadfruit & Rum Bar, Danielle Leoni gave me the gift of her time, which happens to be in short supply these days.  We conversed about what launched her path as a chef activist and restaurant owner, as well as the innumerable innovative impacts that she has been making in the world of food.  In particular, her support of local agriculture, school nutrition issues, responsible sourcing of sustainable seafood and her newest business venture, Big Marble Organic Ginger Beer. She exemplifies what it means to have a full plate.  

Chef Leoni first came to my attention in January of 2019 when I signed up for a webinar titled Smart Catch: American Aquaculture, put on by the James Beard FoundationShe was on the panel in the role of a Smart Catch leader and spoke with eloquence and passion about the critical importance of sustainability within the seafood industry. 

“The Smart Catch program provides training and support to chefs so they can serve seafood fished or farmed in environmentally-responsible ways. By becoming a Smart Catch Leader and earning the Smart Catch seal, chefs give consumers a simple way to identify and support their restaurants”  – James Beard Foundation Website

The following April I had the opportunity to meet her in person at the National Women Chefs and Restaurateurs (WCR) Conference in Minneapolis.  This is an organization that promotes the advancement of women in the food and beverage industry through education, promotion, connection and inspiration.  

In addition to being a successful business owner, she is an undeniable force in the green dining movement in Phoenix and is heavily involved in the James Beard Foundation Impact programs, one of these being the Smart Catch Program. (She led their first seafood summit in Washington, D.C.).   

Chef Leoni is an alum of the JBF Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change and she has been a leader in the organization since 2016.  She travels the country talking about seafood sustainability.  At the end of February, she led her first culinary lab in Phoenix. This was a whole fish butchery tutorial with a zero waste emphasis in an auditorium at Scottsdale Community College. 

“When I consider the cost of an ingredient, I think about more than just the price tag.  I also weigh the impact that it has on our planet.  As chefs, we have the opportunity to make positive impacts through what we source and serve” ~ Chef Leoni

She is also  a member of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program and serves on the Blue Ribbon Task force.  

“Since 2012, we’ve invited leading chefs and culinarians from across the United States to Monterey, California, to share their challenges and ideas about seafood sustainability, the work of the Seafood Watch program and their role in insuring a future with a healthy ocean.  Members were selected for their leadership roles in their culinary fields—some are new acquaintances to the Seafood Watch program, while others are active spokespeople. We are grateful to these individuals for their time and value their commitment to sustainable, delicious seafood and a healthy, wild ocean”  ~ Monterey Bay Aquarium Website

Her involvement in the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch system is notable.  She made it a point to learn as much as she could about their programs and reached out to the decision makers within the organization to get involved. 

“The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch® program helps consumers and businesses choose seafood that’s fished or farmed in ways that support a healthy ocean, now and for future generations. Our recommendations indicate which seafood items are Best Choices or Good Alternatives, and which ones you should Avoid”.  The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Webpage (About Us)

The Blue Ribbon Task Force is the chef advocacy branch of the Seafood Watch organization.  It is made up of 65 culinarians from across the nation.  The chefs in this group are highly regarded and influential members of the culinary industry.  They are affecting change in tremendous ways.  Every year 20 chefs from this group travel to other regions to brainstorm about sustainable seafood issues.  She has been invited every time.  She will be heading to Vietnam soon with these individuals to learn about sustainable shrimp farms.  

“Since 2012, we’ve invited leading chefs and culinarians from across the United States to Monterey, California, to share their challenges and ideas about seafood sustainability, the work of the Seafood Watch program and their role in insuring a future with a healthy ocean. Members were selected for their leadership roles in their culinary fields—some are new acquaintances to the Seafood Watch program, while others are active spokespeople. We are grateful to these individuals for their time and value their commitment to sustainable, delicious seafood and a healthy, wild ocean” – Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch  

Chef Leoni is a 2020 James Beard Award semifinalist for Best Chef: Southwest

She shared that in those early restaurant days, she needed a goal, something intentional to work towards.   She was aware of the James Beard Foundation and her desire was to have a restaurant that offered the service, food and ambiance that would meet the high standards it takes to be recognized by the foundation. She scoured the JBF website and researched all of their awards, events and programs.  

Her partnerships with the James Beard Foundation and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Program have given her support, education and mentorship.   She explored all aspects of both organizations and sought her place at the collective table.  These are reciprocal relationships, where all parties are elevated by the connections.  Things that restaurateurs want to do well are made easier by these organizations.  They are reaching out to chefs to offer support and resources.

“Nobody invites me to do anything.  You just have to ask then prove that you are worthy of it.  That’s why I keep so busy.  You get what you want by doing more.  You have to tell people and the universe what you want” – Chef Leoni

The Early Years

In order to help me understand how she became who she is today, she shared some personal elements of her history.  Growing up, food was at the forefront for her in a much different way.  Danielle’s family utilized food assistance for a period of time.  She wants others to know that there should be no shame in this and that she was so grateful for that program.  That period of her life has led her to champion children’s food causes heavily today.  Her past experiences are drivers for educating others about the importance of the accessibility of proper nutrition.  She has a firm belief that food security should be attainable for everyone, not just those that can afford it.

“Give kids a chance, let them eat” ~ Chef Leoni

Her food advocacy started early on.  As a teen she worked at the local food bank during the day then went back to get provisions for her own family in the evening.  Recently she was asked to author a piece for the James Beard Foundation to help people understand the benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (Snap).  This is a full circle example of how our early experiences can positively shape who we become later in life.

Our mission is to increase food security and reduce hunger by providing children and low-income people access to food, a healthful diet and nutrition education in a way that supports American agriculture and inspires public confidence.

~ Snap Website

Chef Leoni talked about the history of her family’s need for nutritional assistance during a recent gathering of chefs, her statement empowered another person in the group to share a similar narrative.   The day after our conversation she was headed to the Arizona State Capitol with Slow Food Phoenix to help drive the effort for improvements in the school food system.  They handed out good food while advocating for modifications to improve our food system. They shared the progress that the Blue Watermelon Project is having in schools.  The Blue Watermelon Project is an initiative of  Slow Food Phoenix She and I discussed the profound difference that can be made in regards to childhood nutrition if we change what is served in our cafeterias.  

Blue Watermelon Project is a grassroots group of chefs, restaurateurs, farmers, and community food advocates that believe in good food, equal and fair access to it, and that a systemic food systems change starts from the ground up.  ~ Blue Watermelon Project

Slow Food is a global, grassroots organization, founded in 1989 to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from and how our food choices affect the world around us.  ~ Slow Food Phoenix website

The photo below: members of Slow Food Phoenix.  Photo used with permission from Danielle Leoni

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The Breadfruit 

When she and her co-owner (and husband) Dwayne Allen opened The Breadfruit restaurant 12 years ago, they were underfunded because they didn’t realize how much money would be necessary to start a food business of this magnitude.  They were both brand new to the industry.  Chef Leoni was running a yoga school at the time.  She worked for the city government prior to opening the yoga studio and at one time she thought her destiny would be to write foreign policy.  Dwayne, who moved here from Jamaica when he was 16 years old, told her he wanted to own a restaurant and asked for her help.  She didn’t hesitate, despite the fact that she had never worked in a kitchen. The two of them worked as a team, constructing the entire interior of the restaurant and later, the bar.  She had to learn countless elements of food preparation.  This included techniques regarding how to execute proper knife cuts and the basics of how to cook a chicken. “People used to walk out because I couldn’t cook a chicken breast, It was a mess, a disaster”

Customers currently visit The Breadfruit & Rum Bar because of who they are and what they do.  They know it is a place of integrity and trust.  There is wonderful clarity in how fully traceable the farm to table link is here.  No interrogation about the source of ingredients is required.  The staff welcomes inquiries about sustainability and where products are sourced from at The Breadfruit.  All of their local partners are clearly listed on the menu.  We dined there at the start of our trip to Phoenix and the server was extremely knowledgeable about all of the dishes and beverage choices.  She advised us on the meaningful and sustainable aspects of each meal.   With only 14 people on staff, Chef Leoni makes it a requirement that they believe in a proper food system and that they are able to communicate that information to guests.  

“We love to eat everything nature provides, but we are especially fond of what comes from the sea. Our passion for seafood brings with it the responsibility to do our part to ensure that those who come after us get to enjoy the bounty of their oceans, seas and rivers.”  ~ The Breadfruit & Rum Bar Website

Because they are a small restaurant, they can be very deliberate about who they source from.  “If we don’t find what we want (raised/processed/harvested) in the manner that we believe in, we just don’t use it” Nothing has to be on the menu.  It’s there because it tells a story,  for instance, why she obtains chickens and eggs from Dave Jordan at Two Wash Ranch.   She wants customers to feel a connection to the farmers that they source from.  At Two Wash Farms each bird is raised and processed in the most ethical manner.  Two Wash is a 5 acre poultry farm located in New River, AZ.  Dave has a small scale operation.  He raises chickens, ducks, geese and pea fowl in a cage free environment and only sells them to about 15 restaurants in the valley.  The ideal food chain includes farmers like Dave, that honor the animals and the products that they are raising and sourcing to the restaurateurs, the chefs and the diners.  She feels a responsibility to educate the community and bridge the gap between what we eat and where it comes from.

Her uncle gave her this advice when she was a vegan; “Danielle, if you want to save the chickens, you need to start eating the chickens”

So cook and eat chickens, she did.  The dish below is a beautiful combination of Two Wash Ranch  chicken backs that were brined, marinated, jerked, grilled and smoked over pimento wood.  Photo credit: Danielle Leoni

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The Breadfruit restaurant is not recognized nationally for redefining Jamaican food, they are known for sustainable seafood.  That was intentional, for years she tried to talk about Jamaican gastronomy and that wasn’t successful.  They re-invented themselves many times and are now experiencing great success. They had to revitalize their narrative to include stories of sustainability, and in particular seafood.  People can relate to seafood. The seafood sustainability makes sense to diners.  When guests enter their establishment, and they are in ever increasing numbers, it gives her and the staff a platform to champion the cause of sustainability.

There is a Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Southwest Consumer Guide attached to every menu at The Breadfruit Restaurant & Rum Bar.  Our dining choices matter and the Seafood Watch recommendations assist us in making responsible seafood decisions.  The customer response to this has been very positive.  More diners feel comfortable asking questions about sustainability.  These guides are available for almost every region and can be viewed online at seafoodwatch.org or via the Seafood Watch App.  I ordered several to have on hand for my region, they came via US mail at no charge.  I have been giving them to friends and family to use as resources when they dine out.

The Restaurant has 90 + awards/accolades and several impressive certifications.

A few of the awards and certifications include:

  • Best Seafood – Arizona Foothills Magazine
  • Best Date Spot -Arizona Foothills Magazine
  • Best Cocktails – Arizona Foothills Magazine
  • 6 Gold Medals – Devoured Phoenix
  • James Beard Foundation Smart Catch Leader Certification
  • Chef Leoni is a Phoenix Green Business Leader
  • Chef Leoni is a James Beard Foundation Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership Fellow
  • Today’s Top Bars: They have been named one of the Best Bars in Phoenix in the ALL TIME BEST Category by Thrillist.com  

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The dish above: Arizona dessert sweet shrimp sautéed in cayenne habanero sauce.  Photo credit: Danielle Leoni

The Rum Bar

“Premium aged rums are sophisticated rums intended to be enjoyed neat, on the rocks or with a splash of filtered water. Our collection includes over 150 award winning rums in every style from around the globe”  ~The Breadfruit Restaurant & Rum Bar Website

Photos above are of bar and some of the wall of marvelous rums and one of the rum drinks.  The lights were made from actual Red Strip Beer bottles (the beer from those bottles were consumed during the building of the bar).

Photo credit for the outdoor shot and the rum flights goes to chef Leoni.

Big Marble – “A Tiny Bubbles Revolution”

Big Marble is a carbonated beverage company located in Phoenix, not far from the restaurant.  Chef Leoni is a self-professed bubble enthusiast and wanted to create a beverage that was spicy and uncorrupted in every way.  The ginger that she sources for this product is organic.  All 5 ingredients are non-gmo, fair trade, vegan and fairly sourced.  This business allows her and Dwayne to affect change on a higher level.  The opportunity to support a good food system with the large scale ingredient purchases that are necessary for a venture of this size is thrilling for them.  The bottling, production and distribution are done by them in Phoenix.  I look forward to visiting Big Marble for an official tour on my next trip to Arizona.

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“We’re going to continue to delve deeply into what it means to exist” ~ Chef Leoni

I am wholeheartedly looking forward to following along on chef Leoni’s ever evolving journey to do good and to make this world a better place.  She is a genuine innovator in the fight for a better food system.

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Photo Credit: Dwayne Allen

Feature image at the top: Hawaiian Kanpachi Crudo, photo credit goes to Chef Leoni

“Farm to Table…Ocean to Fork…and Vineyard to Glass.  We cast our votes in favor of the planet one bite, one sip at a time” ~ Lisa Patrin

Related sustainability blog posts:

Farm to Fork Sustainability: The Story of Skuna Bay Salmon

Farm to Fork Stories: Meet Your Farmer, Tony Root

The Tiny Diner Permaculture Garden: A Sustainable Urban Oasis in Minneapolis

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