Chef Justin Leo of American Q in Orlando. (Photo: Rafael Tongol)
As Orlando’s culinary scene evolves, the faces of the chefs behind the cutting boards also change and develop, learning from one star chef and one celebrated restaurant and then moving on to eventually helm their own kitchens. Chef Justin Leo, the engine behind American Q, is one of those fresh faces. Here, chef Leo Talks about his background, his food philosophy, and what he loves to do on his days off (when he takes one, that is).
What is your philosophy and point-of-view when it comes to cooking?
I believe in simple, clean flavors and on putting a creative twist on classic dishes, while executing them as they were ‘meant’ to taste. For example, anyone can make a grilled cheese, but the magic is in how you make that grilled cheese extraordinary.
What inspires you in the kitchen?
Classical cooking inspires me. I am constantly thinking about how I can improve a classic dish to fit today’s palate. Regional cuisine is also another spot from where I draw inspiration. The United States is such a melting pot of diverse cuisines that you can pull from many different regions to create a unique taste experience.
What do you do outside your restaurant’s kitchen that inspires you?
In my spare time I enjoy fishing and woodworking. Both are ways for me to show creativity in very different ways. Fishing helps me stay connected to the products we use in the kitchen, and helps me focus on sourcing local, sustainable ingredients for our menu. Without understanding sustainability, we will lose so many important ingredients. As for the woodworking, there is such detail to making the perfect joint or finish that this translates into executing a dish in the kitchen with flawless presentation.
Who is your biggest culinary influence?
My college chef instructor, Mark Wright. He saw something in me and spent some extra time and made me realize what a great career I could have. He warned me of the challenges and was transparent about his challenges from which I was able to learn. His positive attitude is also something that I keep with me whenever things get a bit crazy.