In our ongoing op-ed series, we’re featuring voices from the culinary community to weigh in and express their personal positions on the food-system issues they’re most passionate about.
Our latest piece comes from Danielle Leoni, chef and co-owner of the Breadfruit & Rum Bar in Phoenix. Below, the Smart Catch leader, Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change alum, and Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership program fellow shares her journey from wallflower to outspoken good food advocate, and how building a restaurant from the ground up taught her the value of her voice on the plate and in her community.
Would you lie about your grandfather’s death to avoid public speaking?
What I remember most about my youth was an elaborate effort to remain innocuous. Before I spoke up, I would think about what I was going to say over and over again until, often, the moment was lost. One day after class, I found myself standing in front of my teacher, spinning a tall tale of my grandfather passing away that morning, complete with Oscar-worthy tears and sobs. Avoidance led to creativity: I earned myself a pass on presenting my final and an A in the class.
For the record, my grandfather was alive and well, despite my using his death as an excuse. It took a long time, but eventually I realized that I can be in control of my circumstances, and that, oddly enough, the more time I spend in front of an audience, the more often things go my way.
Even knowing this, mustering up the will to voice my opinion was a task I had to practice for years. I forced myself to run for president of high school clubs, sold cosmetics in a MLM, sold yoga, worked for city government, and then finally, at 25, I put it all to the test. I decided to open a restaurant.
Enter the Breadfruit & Rum Bar—a restaurant serving food nobody in Phoenix wakes up craving, dedicated to a spirit that conjures bad memories of adolescent hangovers. This bootstrapped business began with the swing of a sledgehammer, kicking off a decade-long journey that transformed an old real estate office into a place that challenged and expanded the city’s perception of Jamaican food and culture.
Opening a restaurant proved arduous from the very first minute. It shattered how I’d come to define myself, and required a daily practice of personal transformation. I taught myself how to use a chef’s knife, organize a kitchen, lead a team, develop systems, manage finances, and be my own PR rep and marketer.
Hundreds of days in the kitchen prepping, cooking, and scrubbing the floor at the end of the night taught me one thing: you have the power to redefine a situation at each decision point. Change became my comfort zone, and led me to see that the Breadfruit & Rum Bar is only what I decide it is. That means I can control my experience and relationship with the restaurant if I can see what I’m doing from a new perspective.
A decade of people flowing through our doors has made downtown Phoenix feel like home. The community guides our neighborhood, and I feel compelled to contribute to its well being. I quickly realized that my personal success was always tied to the welfare of the people I impact—our suppliers, staff, and guests. I strive to foster a good work environment, buy local, and support responsible farmers and fishers.
This realization is what compels me to speak up, put in the work, and love the life I lead. Whether or not you are actively trying, every day you are enacting change. The important question is, what change will you be a part of tomorrow? As a chef, my close relationship with ingredients makes the imbalance within our food system part of my daily considerations.
Cooking Jamaican food in the desert while trying to do what’s best for our environment and food system creates a unique challenge. Because I live hundreds of miles away from the sea, I’ve become an ardent advocate for sustainable seafood. My decisions have global consequences. With each good food purchase I make, I inspire others to do the same, and (I hope) help to make a better world. I make a point to acknowledge the people who grow and harvest every ingredient I buy, so it’s almost instinctive to want to honor their hard labor by diligently using every bit we receive.
Being a chef and an advocate happens when you share with others what you believe about food. My restaurant is my platform. It allows me to raise awareness and stimulate conversation by turning a meal into a physical representation of my emotions and beliefs. I feel a responsibility to speak my mind and use my voice daily by transforming food and persuading others to see what they cook and eat from a new perspective.
This is how we create systematic change. It might seem provocative or radical to only buy sustainable seafood, to not to waste food, or to believe that Jamaican food and culture deserve acclaim, even in the arid heat of Arizona. But it's all part of my mission, even if it’s not the norm, even if people don’t yet believe in it.
These days, I don’t maneuver to get out of the room. I stand tall, raise my hand, speak out on what I believe, and remind myself that conceding to doubt jeopardizes the future of too many. Today’s problems came from yesterday’s solutions, and the people who made this reality are not the future—we are. And that means we have to take charge of the conversation.
Danielle Leoni is chef and co-owner of the Breadfruit & Rum Bar in Phoenix, and holds a degree from the Arizona State University executive masters of sustainability leadership program. Learn more at thebreadfruit.com.