Southern Comfort Food Goes Way South
How does a Panamanian-born chef with Italian roots end up in Alabama cooking southern comfort food? Chef Leo Maurelli, III has found himself with a mix of ethnicities that sound somewhat like a bad joke. So a Panamanian, an Italian and a Southern Alabaman walk into a bar…
Chef Leo, the child of a Panamanian mother and Italian father, grew up in the Republic of Panama where the family traditions of these two heritages converged. “If you think about it, the two cultures are really quite similar,” according to Chef Leo. “Everything revolves around food and family, and the kitchen is the central part of any gathering.” Today, as the renowned executive chef of Montgomery’s Central, Chef Leo easily relates to the people and traditions of the southern United States.
He has vivid memories of growing up in Panama in this clash of cultures. On Sundays, his mother would prepare an early lunch of rice, plantains and roasted meat, and a few hours later, the family would cross the street (literally) for a traditional Italian dinner of pasta, polenta and more roasted meats. According to Chef Leo, cooking is in his DNA. He began cooking with his mother, his aunts and his grandmother at an early age. Breakfast of sausage, hominy fritters and fried yucca was his specialty.
Moving to Alabama at the age of 11 only strengthened his love for culinary adventure, from grits to fried chicken to fresh tomatoes. “I grew up on comfort foods,” said Chef Leo. “The south is no different — it’s really all about foods that make you feel good, foods that feel like home.” Chef Leo knew that food would always be a constant in his life but it wasn’t until a culinary student visited his high school that the light bulb sparked. He could actually get paid to do what he loved to do every day. So he soon began working in local restaurants, working his way from dishwasher to prep cook to running a small kitchen at the age of 16.
After a brief stint as an architectural major at Auburn University, his passion for food soon gave way to pursuing a degree in hotel management. He worked his way through school, and through a number of restaurants over the years. By the age of 25, he was an executive chef at a popular local café. With no formal training, Chef Leo obtained his culinary chops the old-fashioned way, by doing. After a brief hiatus (a.k.a. “burnout”), Chef Leo moved to Montgomery and jumped on the craft brewery bandwagon. But beer and burgers weren’t his style.
Then, he received the call from Central, one of Montgomery’s trendiest new restaurants in the revitalized downtown district, The Alley. His first year at Central, Chef Leo focused on giving his customers what they wanted — down-home, southern foods. He wanted to first gain their trust and respect before infusing his own style and flavors into the meal. “Once my customers learned to trust me, I knew they’d trust me enough to try new things,” he said.
He recently began hosting “Leo’s Table”, which offers a tasting menu to gradually ease his southern clientele into the flavors he grew up with. He’s mindful to always maintain the feel of southern classic, while infusing a slight latin flair — like roasted duck, seared with sweet potato and chorizo, poblano, molasses and bourbon. It’s part Panama, part Alabama. “I’m not a fusion chef,” says Chef Leo. “This is just me. This is what I know.”
For the more adventurous, his menu offers a traditional Panamanian appetizer, “Delta” Soft Tamal, made with wood-roasted chicken, capers, raisin tamal, cooked in sofrito. The southern classic, shrimp and grits, gets a Panamanian kick by being poached in sofrito. And what Southerner can resist rice and black-eyed peas? But Chef Leo takes it up a notch with Carolina Gold rice cooked in coconut milk served with cornmeal dusted pan-fried trout. His Italian heritage is not lost in his creations, as his menu also features buttermilk ricotta dumplings with pea pesto.
He especially enjoys introducing customers to new ingredients that are indigenous to Panama, yet always being careful to balance it with a southern favorite. Chayote squash is paired with Granny Smith apple slaw and served with a smoked, cured pork chop over grits.
Chef Leo plans to visit Panama with his wife and young son soon, and he will most certainly introduce his relatives there to the foods of Alabama. “I’m looking at it as a research trip. When I lived there, I saw it all through the eyes of a child. Today, I want to experience it through the eyes of chef,” says Chef Leo. He insists he’s a country boy now, an Alabaman. “This is home,” he says. But he’s passionate about introducing people to the flavors of his native Panama and travels throughout the U.S. conducting cooking demos and sharing his unique flavors. “It took me 22 years of experiencing different cooking styles to get here,” he said. “But my style was there all along. I’m simply giving my customers a part of me, a part of where I came from.”
Chef Leo has received the 2011 Chef of the Year award by the Alabama Restaurant and Hospitality Alliance, 2013 Alagasco Good heat Chef, and his latest distinction as one of the Best Chefs America: South
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