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3-Course Interview: Anne Leonhard 

A Food Network cooking champ talks about making New Orleans holiday meals

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A kindergarten teacher turned tour guide turned culinary instructor, Anne Leonhard, 72, recently won the "Clash of the Grandmas" and a $10,000 prize on a Food Network cooking competition. The show featured four grandmothers in a series of challenges culminating in a Thanksgiving Day throwdown, which Leonhard won with her apple brioche bread pudding with Calvados. Leonhard spoke to Gambit about learning to cook and holiday meals.

How did you go from being a schoolteacher to a culinary instructor?

Leonhard: My whole family — they were all good cooks on both sides of the family, but my mother never encouraged us to come into the kitchen. Teenagers are messy, and she didn't want any of that in there. So (when) I was about to get married, I still didn't know how to cook. The day before I got married, I went to my grandmother's house with a notebook and pen and she just talked me through it all while I wrote it down. Unfortunately, I lost that notebook during (Hurricane) Katrina, but (the information) stayed with me.

  I taught school for 20 years and then when I retired, I started working as a tour guide. I'd always take my groups by the (New Orleans School of Cooking) and realized one day ... that I could do this. It's a lot like being a tour guide, just in the kitchen. They call us chefs, but we're not really chefs — we're just really good cooks. I've always been good at public speaking; it's always come natural to me. That was 13 years ago.

How was the competition?

L: I've been on the Steve Harvey Show a lot... but the competitive thing? Let me tell you, that was something else. It was a real experience. I had no idea what to expect. I don't watch food television shows — I guess I should have, maybe then I would have been more prepared. I didn't really enjoy the competition part, but I did enjoy the experience. I was the oldest in the group and up against some (women) who had professional experience. One of them had been a private chef for 15 years. Honest to God, when I saw what I was up against, I never, ever, ever thought I'd end up winning. I just said, "Don't make a fool of yourself and don't get kicked out." That would have been so embarrassing.

What's special to you about New Orleans holiday food?

L: I've never lived anywhere else, but I think because we're surrounded by seafood here in Louisiana, (many) people have that as a part of their holiday meals. I think that's something really unique about us. In my family, there's always oyster soup and oyster patties ... maybe a type of oyster dressing. And we love gravy, dark gravy. In our family, gravy is considered a beverage.

  We're also not afraid to use seasoning in New Orleans. (On the show) they'd watch me season things and gasp. (At the New Orleans School of Cooking), we get a lot of elderly who say, right away, "We don't like spicy food." But it's not spicy; it's just well-seasoned.

  They think it's going to be so complicated, but it's really very basic. We teach them how to make gumbo, jambalaya, shrimp Creole, crawfish etouffee, pralines. It's fun watching people who don't have a clue how to cook realize it can be so easy.

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