Chef Leon had an unsuspecting start in the kitchen

Chef Leon Brunson prepares bread for lunchtime sandwiches.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine
Leon’s at Lake Ella gets 24-hour advertising on a sign outside of the restaurant.
Photo by St. Clair Murraine

By St. Clair Murraine
Outlook Staff Writer

Making enough money to buy gas for a van that his father bought for him while he was attending Florida State University was the only reason that Leon Brunson showed up at a Waffle House looking for work.

He had no experience as a cook but working the line at Waffle House put him on a path he never imagined. It took more than two years for him to realize what he had gotten into had tons of potential.

“That line feeling was so enjoyable to me that I said I’ve got to see if there is a career for this,” Brunson recalled.

Brunson didn’t have to look too hard. He ended up going to a culinary school in his native Panama City Beach, while holding down a restaurant job. Completion of culinary school positioned him to double back to Tallahassee, where he opened his own business.

Leon’s at Lake Ella has been operating from a cottage located at 1611 North Monroe Street. It is there that Brunson and his staff of seven serve what Tallahassee foodies consider some of the best lunches.

That’s only part of Brunson’s story. Next month he will be one of the lead characters in a cooking show on Hulu. He’s also appeared on a cooking show that was part of the Miss America contest. He competed against a chief who represented singer T-Pain, while he worked with Miss America.

Brunson credits his heavy social media presence for the attention he’s been getting, but the cooking gig that will air on Hulu also almost didn’t happen.

“I thought it was a joke,” said Brunson, who gave the OK after doing a little research.

The producers had also done their research on Brunson, discovering that he is the fifth-ranked Dance Revolution gamer.

“The studio was so interested in that part of me that they felt like I have the whole package to deliver a good product,” said Brunson, 28.

As much success as Brunson is realizing, he wasn’t always interested in the kinds of food that he’s mastering. His food of choice was pizza, chicken fingers, fried pork chaps and hamburgers.

These days his favorites include a meatball sub that he said is the result of influence on one of his trips to Japan. He describes it as a curry meatball sandwich that has a tangy, rich taste, with mozzarella cheese on top.

Brunson’s staff is engaged in almost everything he does in the kitchen from baking their own bread and cookies to working on any of his culinary creations.

Kai Varona, who has been with Brunson from the beginning, said what he’s learn from his boss is beyond anything he does in the kitchen.

“We had to install light bulbs around the cottages,” Varona said. “I didn’t know how to do all this, but he showed us the rope and I figured it out.”

Then there is the impression that Brunson is making on the 20-year-old.

“It’s the atmosphere and the kind of energy that he brings,” Varona said. “Just being around him, he motivates me to follow my dreams. He is so committed, focused and driven. I feel like he is bringing everyone around him up.”

A few days each week, Brunson features lunch at Lake Ella. Most items are offered to-go, but he hopes to open up the building to seat about 20 sit-down customers.

Brunson also offers catering, cooking lessons and service as a personal chef. One of his biggest catering jobs was at the Supreme Court for the retirement of Justice Alan Lawson.

Brunson is always in creation mode, but he’ll admit that it’s not just his talent that is driving his success.

“It’s the support of Tallahassee,” he said. “If nothing else that’s what’s gotten us this far. If it weren’t for this small-business support that people have here for me nothing would have gone anywhere.”


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