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Darin Leonardson is an amazing chef. He has helmed the kitchens at gourmet restaurants in Seattle, ran the kitchens in 5 different buildings across Google’s campus, and now works as a consultant and menu designer for seniors.

And he loves to serve. He gets so much joy by feeding people. And I got to receive this blessing as he cooked for me at his house and talked about his background and his fath.

Darin’s website is


This is computer generated. Expect a few errors.

An Interview with Chef Darin Leonardson – S01E05

Speaker  Transcript
Rob Summer is upon us. Listen to this.
Rob That is the sound of meat on a grill. And today’s guest is Chef Darren Leonard. In an episode five of the story that writes us when I first talked to Chef Darren Leonard since about being on this podcast, we were trying to just figure out the logistics of it. Seeing if he could find time to come in little studio space that I have set up at the church and just see if he’d be able to sit down and record with me.
Rob And he made a fantastic suggestion. He said, Why don’t you just come over to my house and I’ll just cook as a meal and we can just talk while I cook. And friends, he has a pro tip for you. If a gourmet chef ever offers to just throw something together for you, the answer is always yes. Darren grew up around food and found joy in mixing ingredients together to produce perfect meals.
Darin He was the executive chef at a number of restaurants in Seattle, and he even worked for a time at Google. But he wasn’t designing software. He managed more than 60 employees and ran the kitchens in five different buildings across Google’s campus in Kirkland, Washington. The Seattle Times, in writing about one of the great perks afforded to Google employees, wrote The chef harvested watercress, goat cheese, strawberry and toasted almond salad at Google’s Kirkland Cafeteria was spectacular.
Rob I couldn’t resist the roasted lamb with BlackBerry sauce or the garlic lover’s soup with Beecher’s white cheddar. That’s what Google employees had available to them. Any time they wanted to go get it. And that’s what Google used to lure great engineers in the early days of the company. We started our time together, not in his kitchen, but in Darren’s backyard.
Rob A pergola provides perfect shade over his green egg grill. I can hear the birds chirping, and it’s just so peaceful.
Darin So, so peaceful. This reminds like, just so I think it reminds me of my parents, how they were very much, you know, where where I grew up, the I call it the garden of Eden, like, because everyone’s like, what inspires you about cooking? And it just reminds me of where I grew up in Washington. And we lived on two and a half acres.
Darin And my dad when we first moved there, he planted 40 fruit trees. So everything from plums to apples to pears to cherries. So when most kids would be selling lemonade on the street corner, I was selling my dad’s Japanese pears for like a buck, a pop. And so, like, just growing up with that and being around nature and food just was so inspiring.
Darin So we we had they had an English garden that was, you know, it was probably twice the size of this patio here. So, you know, probably like 30 by 50 feet. And in the center, it had a fountain and everything was like automatic watered. But my mom would go out and we would pick radishes for a fresh salad or fresh herbs, you know, and add it to like a vinaigrette dressing.
Darin And so like, for me, like always wanting to be in that moment and back to that, just like because those were just such wonderful, great moments that like just gives me chills on my arm. Like when you have goose is it means it’s true.
Rob And so I can acknowledge for those who are listening, I see chill bumps on your arms as you as you talk about this. It’s like a return to Eden. Almost.
Darin It is. Yeah. And and when I say the Garden of Eden, too, like so not only do plant all that and we had an English garden, but I helped them build a greenhouse. So it was a 30 by 40 foot greenhouse. And in the center of the greenhouse was a grape tree that the I mean, the vine was like, I don’t know, like, as thick as my body and the, the vine wrapped around the whole greenhouse.
Darin And every year we would harvest two garbage cans full of, of these wonderful green grapes. And so we had that. And then my mom would start all the baby plants and everything but then on the, the property, we had amazing view of the Cascade Mountain range that was really beautiful. But there was wild mushrooms. So like morel mushrooms literally grew in our forest up just in that last little quarter of an acre.
Darin Then there were blackberries, like crazy blackberries. There were these blackberries that the there’s two types. There’s the Himalayan and the evergreen. But those actually came from Japan. So they’re prolific in Washington now. They’ve really taken over. But there’s a natural berry that is called the Dewberry, and it’s a really small, tiny little BlackBerry that’s indigenous to that area.
Darin And it grows on the ground. And you have to really kind of search it and try to find it and, you know, just a bowl of those. And it just sort of brings me back. I used to put that over my cereal in the morning and it was just incredible. Like the flavor was so intense. And then they had these black cap raspberries.
Darin It was a raspberry. It was a wild raspberry and just intense raspberry flavor in this form of the little raspberry. So just that’s what we I grew up with, like all around that. And so, like, my dad, he was an engineer so he wanted me to go to school and almost follow in his footsteps to be an electrical engineer or something, something analytical or something like that.
Darin And so I think he didn’t necessarily understand what being a chef was. I think he associated it with back in the day, you’re just a cook. And so to for him, for me to kind of go through that transition of becoming a cook to becoming a chef, it was challenging from him. But then when he started to eat the food and experience the experience of food, he really he really started to appreciate it and love it.
Darin So.
Rob Can’t you just tell that this is a guy who absolutely loves food and everything about it? So as we waited for the big green egg to get to the proper cooking temperature, he walked me around to the side of his house, to his garden.
Darin When I moved here ten years ago, I knew how to grow grow food in Texas or in Washington, but not here. Like it’s a completely different environment. Just it gets so hot. So I tried to grow vegetables and fruits in the ground and I just could never succeed in it. And so finally I’m like, I’m getting raised beds and I’m going to have set up the the watering system and it sort of brought me back to my parents again.
Darin Right. This is what they did when I’m pan searing steak, I’ll come in and harvest this fresh time. You know, it’s great as you can come sniff this and you see like Gordon Ramsay shows that simple way of doing a pan seared steak where you get your pan hot, you sear it really nice on one side and you flip it, you have a tab of butter, then you add fresh thyme like a bunch of it, not just a sprig, like a whole bunch of it.
Darin So you get the flavor and then garlic, and then you start basting the steak, you know, and it just creates this wonderful aroma and flavor. So I love that I can just come out to the garden and do that. Now we’re going to snip some because we’ll brush some of our steak that we’re going to grill. So I just harvest that I mean, that’s just smells so good.
Darin You can’t beat that. Oh, wow. And then tastic. Then we’re going to make a citrus basil chili vinaigrette dressing to go over our steak salad.
Rob You guys, I’ve even stepped away from you, and I can still smell it with the fresh.
Darin Cutting will that smell the basil?
Rob Oh, that’s heavenly.
Darin They’re amazing. Now, come over here. I’ve got I’ve got these Cherokee purple tomatoes that are ready. And here’s something so cool. Like, when I see this in nature, I know they can’t see it on the screen, but you see this tomatoes got this other little piece of. To me, it looks like a nose, and it’s made of it’s an heirloom Cherokee cherry tomato, but it actually has incredible flavor.
Darin So these here’s some Cherokee purple tomatoes that are ready to go.
Rob I have never seen purple. Dark purple.
Darin Too. Yeah, this this looks like an eggplant.
Rob That’s it.
Darin There’s a couple of it here, but I’m excited about this. We got squash.
Rob See some strawberry.
Darin Cucumbers. It just makes me happy to have vegetables. There’s peppermint to chewing on. Peppermint is just so cool. Yeah.
Rob Oh, it is. Yeah.
Darin It’s just to me, I mean, that is so intense, so. All right, let’s go. Let’s do some cooking, cooking and talking. It’s so fun. Come on, Frisco. My dog needs to get out of the garden. So our grill is, like, perfect to see the nice coals yeah. It’s like, this is, like, the best way to cook meat right now, so this sizzle is going to be amazing.
Darin So I got.
Rob Darren, walked me through all the steps to grilling the steaks. It would go on top of a remarkable salad, and honestly, was kind of enthralling when you’re with someone who’s a master of their craft, just watching them work and hearing them explain things, it makes you realize how little you know that I appreciated so much dad’s attention not only to the to the flavors that he was mixing in, but also just to the to the look of it and adding some things just for color and making sure the salad was even the right height.
Rob His attention to every little detail of the dining experience is what makes him a really great chef.
Darin Food. It’s it’s the temperature, it’s the sear, the how do you marinated it, how you presented it? How quickly did the diner get the food and cut into it? So you see those wonderful grill marks already.
Rob You see those wonderful grandma art. So I’m going to photograph.
Darin Is that the other key here hold hold this bowl for me. We’re going to go in and build our little salad.
Rob Nice.
Darin Doesn’t it smell amazing? But me, brother.
Rob So we moved on to phase two, which was making this salad. And Darren showed me how to make a balsamic vinaigrette from scratch with the freshest ingredients. And the fun thing about doing this is, you know, he just talks the whole time. He loves food, loves everything about it, and explained every ingredient, why it was being added, what it does to the overall taste in the dining experience.
Rob It was quite a treat. But eventually, once the food is made it’s time to eat.
Darin And then the last thing is the fresh ground pepper over the top. And now we get to eat together. My gosh. And continue to.
Rob I’m about to leap. I mean, this is this is beautiful.
Darin We need to say grace over this meal. So dear Heavenly Father, thank you so much for this incredible experience. Thanks for the glory of this beautiful, sunny day. Thank you for reconnecting with Rob and this awesome opportunity to be on his podcast. Lord I just asked anybody that’s on this podcast, Lord, that you touch them if they’re hurting in any way they need, you give them the courage and the confidence to reach out maybe go to church, try something new, connect, ask, just reach out to you, Lord, and ask and wait and be willing to be patient and try something new.
Darin But I also encourage people to to cook, to cook more, to go back to their roots and bring out their passion and try the foods that are indigenous around their area. Go to farmer’s markets, be inspired to make different things and share it with people. And Lord, we just ask this food to be blessed in Jesus name. Amen.
Rob Amen. What a great prayer. These guys have been sighted.
Darin In this nice little napkin. Do you have your water?
Rob I have my water.
Darin See? And then what’s great about a composed salad is like you can say, Oh, where do I want to start? Right. Yeah, this is a toss out is just kind of like my thought on that is like, you’re just feeding your body, right? It feels good. But here it’s like you’re like, Oh, I can try this steak that was grilled.
Darin Let me just put one of those little pieces.
Rob Yeah, this is a five course meal here instead of one dish. Almost. Exactly. I’m going for the steak first as well. Now, if you’re the kind of person listening who doesn’t like chewing sounds, I apologize in advance because the rest of this podcast.
Darin Is going to be extra. Oh.
Rob Oh, you’re right. This little bit of caramelization.
Darin On the steak.
Rob On the steak.
Rob That’s heavenly.
Darin Try it with the avocado.
Darin So. So for you to, like, say, I want to ask me about food or, you know, why did you why were you thinking that you want to just like me to be on your podcast, what were some thoughts.
Rob I came over to your house one time. I was I was doing some photography for your website and we wanted to you said, Hey, let me just cook a meal and come back in half an hour and we’ll get some photos. So you lived across the street from me, and I was I was going back to my house and you peeled out of the driveway so quick and your wife came out and looked at me like, What is going on?
Rob And then she kind of had this knowing look and she goes, He’s going to cook, isn’t he? And I said, Yeah, he’s running to the grocery store. And she said, He loves to feed people and he is like a kid in a candy store right now. He is so excited to go cook for you. And that her comment when she saw you peeling out of the driveway, she knew he’s excited because he’s going to cook for somebody.
Rob And and that just has stuck with me for years. I did that and I’m like, this is a man who who knows food, loves food and loves blessing people with food and and I know about your faith and and so it’s all an extension of of that. So that’s why I was like, man, this is the kind of person I care about.
Rob This is about how we use whoever we are, whatever skills it is that we have to to be a part of the story of God in our lives and of his is reshaping us.
Darin Funny you say that because it’s so we’re doing my son is having an eighth grade party because he’s going to be, you know, graduating middle school. And so we’re having a bunch of boys over and stuff like that. And so my wife’s always like, how about maybe you don’t cook this time, right? Let’s just, you know, I need you to help focus on these, you know, these boys that are going to be here and she’s that.
Darin So we’re going to go we were going to go to Chewy’s and get some good Mexican food. But what’s funny is that they sent out the text, you know, to all the mothers and the kids and everything. And we didn’t say anything about, you know, the food. And everyone just kept saying, what is he cooking there?
Rob Well, then they wouldn’t really let him. And I love Chewy’s, but an opportunity to experience.
Darin What is a great gig. And so my wife’s like, you know, I think we need to rethink that. You might need to cook something. And I was like, Oh, darn.
Rob I knew you were thrilled.
Darin I always love that. I oftentimes go to the afterlife thinking about what you know, life is hard here on earth. You know, it’s it’s meant to be hard. We’re sinners. It’s a fallen world. Things are not easy. And that’s why we get stressed out. There’s know we we need to lean on on Christ, and he can help us through those challenging times.
Darin I think that’s what makes it a lot better. But I think about too, like, historically, like, even just Jesus, how he leveraged food, you know, how he he knew the power of food. And how that can change lives. Just even thinking the greatest example of where he turns the fish into a basket, you know, and how amazing that must have been.
Darin Like, I would have loved to be there and help kindle the fires right after they all got their fish in line because they were probably roasting on the fire. And I was like, marshmallows or something. And just thinking about that, embedded was the best tasting fish ever. And then I often think about when he turned water into wine and like, I go, I wonder what age that was and like which vineyard and which grape.
Darin You know, I bet it was the best grape and wine that ever existed. It’s probably like the most expensive Napa Valley wine. And so that is so exciting and cool to like think about that. And then I often think about too, like how can I how can I serve the kingdom through food, you know, and and, you know, I’m God has blessed me with such a cool opportunity where I get to change the food for the seniors.
Darin You know, it’s like the last stage of life when really all you have is you know, your body’s sort of not working the way it used to. You have conversation and people a lot of times these people are just sitting, you know, in their room, in their bed, and they can’t necessarily move but they get three meals a day.
Darin And and so if I have the opportunity to bless them through making food extraordinary, just every little bite rather than slop on the plate, that’s like awesome to me. Like knowing that I’m like helping people at the last stage of life sort of connect back to food.
Rob So so just to explain it and that’s what that’s what you’re doing professionally. You’ve run restaurants, you’ve done all these various things, but now you work really with senior living facilities. Is that right in you design? Yeah. And using kitchens.
Darin And. Yeah, and actually, I’m glad. Let’s just talk about that. Right. So my, my beginning grew up in Washington, was inspired by my parents, Garden of Eden. My first job was McDonald’s. I always tell people that. And what’s cool about McDonald’s is at 15, it taught me how how to clean. It taught me about time management. They taught us how to wear uniform correctly.
Darin In fact, they were second to the military with their uniform standards. So to get that at a young age and even though it was burgers and stuff, I created a lot of efficiencies and we learned how to sweep and clean. And so then I got into pizzerias and really started to understand how things cook in an oven, right?
Darin And like cooking on some of these Italian stone ovens and learning like, oh, wow, you don’t have to. It can be like we can make a calzone or a stromboli or I can roast chicken in here and like, so.
Rob Wait, wait. This is when you’re like a teenager. So most kids get a job at a pizza joint and they just like, I just want my paycheck at the end of the day to stick the pizza in the oven and you’re sitting there analyzing what’s going on with the food. How is the heat changing the properties of this?
Rob That’s where your mind is as much.
Darin Yeah, that is where my mind was going that’s interesting. And so that’s when, you know, I met my wife and she was like, you really should go to culinary school. So I drove. I just went full force into it. And so then after that, I got involved in all kinds of restaurants in Seattle, from steakhouses to high end hotels.
Darin I was a Google chef for four years while it was growing there in the backyard of Microsoft and then got involved in senior living and recognized that it’s an industry that desperately needs chefs and better food and better menus and nutrition. And so I’ve sort of just flourished from that, from from moving to Texas to you helped me with a consulting company.
Darin You helped develop my website, and that’s where those wonderful pictures were that you took of the food last time. And so you know, because of that, you were I was able to experience a lot of blessing and and job opportunities that I would have never had. I didn’t know that I would be passionate or become a great cook.
Darin I think I just do it so much that I’m like, I, I can find passion and creativity in this. And you just it’s there. You just kind of have to do it. And then it just forms it forms right in your mind, like, wow. Sometimes I think it’s not me coming up with it, that it’s actually God that inspires us and, and has the idea because it happens all the time where I may like when I was in the kitchen and maybe I’d be stressed out about something and I need to, like, do something fast with food or create a meal.
Darin And I would just, like, lean on God, like, hey, get me through this next 5 minutes. Like, you know, like, we’ve got to really, like, sometimes Bill Gates would come in like some high end people would come into the restaurants and I would need a burst of creativity and inspiration to get through like a rush, like, where it’s like really busy and you’re reading like 50 tickets and you just need the innovation and creativity to push through that moment, you know?
Darin And he would like and then I would recognize, like, if I didn’t ask for help on that, I wonder what would have happened. Like, it might have been a train wreck, but I think that I oftentimes do that. Like, I’m, I’ll be when I’m cooking I’m like, I lean on God on the simplest things like, Lord, I’m going to make food for six people here and I don’t want to go to the store and I need some help about being creative and innovative.
Darin And then I just kind of, I’ll see something go, Oh, yeah, I could make I can cook that or roast that and do this and then, oh, there’s some nuts in there. I could make a cool like macadamia nut butter to go over that fish. And so I, I oftentimes think that God gives us those inspirations in the creativity, and he designed us like, you know what I mean?
Darin And so, like, it’s all there. Like, you just got to tap into it.
Rob Well, and we’re, we’re made in the image of God and because God creates, we create. I mean, that’s just, that’s just what it means in my mind, you know, to be created in His image. That’s why we’re creative, because God is the original author of all creativity. Right? It absolutely, absolutely comes from him. It all comes from all of our creativity comes from him because he’s the primary creator.
Rob We get to be like God when we create. And I think you feel his pleasure. Yeah. It’s like in the movie Chariots of Fire. I watched that recently. Oh, yeah. Well, when Eric Little says God made me for a purpose, but he also made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure. Hmm. And I think for you, when you cook, that’s exactly when you cook, you feel his pleasure.
Rob God made you to be creative. And this is this is your expression of that creativity. I imagine if you were to walk into any pantry, you’d be excited if you came over to my house right now because. Because, like, OK, what do I get to do with this? As bare and awful as my pantry is probably compared to yours, you would probably look at it.
Rob Then you say, OK, we’ve got a good challenge here. What can we do with this? And how do I make something incredible happen?
Darin It’s just so true. Like, actually, if one of my favorite things like we used to love doing dinner parties, we would be invited over. And I mean, it was always hard for people, but sometimes I would get them to do it do not buy anything. We’re going to make an incredible meal out of your freezer and your can.
Darin Dry storage. I’ve done it a couple of times and it’s so fun. Like, I don’t know what I’m walking into and like just to go in there, make it happen and it’s all they have some protein and we got stuff in there. I mean, you can make I mean, you can make you can take Cheerios, right? And pulverize them in a blender and make a crust on top of fish or pork.
Darin Like there’s you know, you can make breading out of anything so what so we talked a lot about what do you like about food?
Rob Oh, man. I was just thinking what a what a blessing good food is, you know, God we can pray to God. We can ask him for for sustenance. And he provides for us what we need. And then every now and then, he provides beyond what we need. And we don’t need amazing tasting food. So every time I have a good meal, I’m just reminded this is evidence of God’s goodness and his blessing that we get to enjoy some really, really good food.
Darin Yeah, that’s so true. And so it’s amazing, too, like when I think of, like, the Garden of Eden and like, what fruits and like every fruit and vegetable that we are eating right now was growing in that garden in some capacity. Right? It might have morphed into something else, you know, but it like when I think of that beginning stage and God creating that in that flavor, like amazing and like, well, effort that took.
Rob And it’s interesting too. You look at that garden and then it Jesus resurrection gospel of John says that he was initially mistaken for the gardener. And I don’t know if that’s literal because none of the other gospels recorded or if John was making the connection to the garden is being restored. And then you see in Revelation this picture at the very end of revelation of this river to begin with you have a city that has a river running through it, which is bizarre.
Rob Cities were built on the tops of mountains so that you could defend them. And it was always a challenge. How do I get down from this city to get my water? And so this picture in revelation of a city with a river running right through the middle of it, the idea is it’s safe. You can build your city right on the water and God’s going to provide for it.
Rob And then it says that the fruit trees are growing all along the banks and they’re providing fruit 12 months out of the year. They’re not even like seasonal fruit trees. Like, again, it’s this picture of God’s provision that you’ve got everything you want. We don’t even need sunlight. The glory of God is shining so brightly here. We don’t even need sunlight.
Rob We have everything. We have safety, we have provision, we have food, we have light. Everything is taken care of in God’s heavenly kingdom. And so you see this restoration of the Garden of Eden. And so you see this theme throughout Scripture. It’s an incredible image that runs throughout all of Scripture from beginning to end. So when you’re talking about growing up in Seattle, surrounded by these berries that you just go out and pick in 40 different types of fruit trees.
Rob Yeah. I mean, and you said it feels like the Garden of Eden. And so I love that for you. You, you grew up surrounded by provision and beauty. Yeah. And I’ve continued to I mean, that shaped who you are, that shaped who you’ve become that shaped what you do. Now, you know, if you if you grew up in Milwaukee, you’d probably be brewing micro beers, who knows?
Rob But no bushes. But you grew but you grew up there and because that was your palate to work with, that, that shaped everything who you are now as a, as a Christian man and as someone who is who is creative with food because you were surrounded by all that. And I think it’s a beautiful thing to see what God has done in you and does through you and your love for for serving people.
Rob The excitement that you get, you know, it’s just such an extension of who you are and how you spread the love of God. I think I think it’s the coolest thing.
Darin Yeah. And I appreciate it and thanks for painting it in that that it’s funny how different perspectives can give you different insights and like for you to say speak that to me is, is, is really is cool. It’s like God’s reminder of, of, hey, this is what I’ve gifted you with and you’ve, you know, through the creativity and innovation, it’s come to life.
Rob Well, I will finish up this last little day.
Darin This was good, right?
Rob I’m getting some heat right now, and it’s wonderful. It’s not too much. Yeah, I don’t like a ton. I don’t like stuff that’s going to make my eyes water, but it’s like, man, that’s perfect.
Darin As far as that fresh cayenne.
Rob Partly because the food was good, but the conversation was so good. This is probably the best salad I’ve ever had.
Darin Yeah, I agree. It was a great time in session and made me think about things, you know, differently, too.
Rob Thanks for being on the podcast.
Darin Yeah, you’re welcome. Thanks for having me. I hope there’s enjoy it.
Rob I think they will. Thanks for listening to the podcast. And next week I’m going to sit down with a friend of mine who used to be a clown with the greatest show on Earth. That’s right. Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus. He went to the clown college, got to spend a year riding the train from town to town, being a clown.
Rob And that has forever shaped him and his story and even impacted what he does now. He’s hilarious. I absolutely love Steve Hug. It’s going to be a great time, so I hope you’ll join me on the podcast again next week. The story that writes us is part of the Adult Discipleship Ministry at Custer Road United Methodist Church in Plano, Texas.
Rob If you’re in the area, we’d love to have you drop by. You can go to to get all the details on that. And you can always go to for show notes and photographs of whatever it is we’re talking about that day. Thanks for listening.