Leach, 51, is the new culinary arts director at the Link Centre in Tupelo. She began the job in September, replacing Mac McAllister, who left the position in August for health reasons.
“The Link Centre is a very special place,” said Melanie Deas, executive director. “You have to buy into the concept here – the camaraderie, the community. And if we can feed people well at the events we have here, that’s even better.”
And feeding people well is what Leach does best.
One day last week, the Link Centre hosted a Department of Human Services event. Leach and her crew prepared and served baked chicken, macaroni and cheese, green beans, yeast rolls, salad, and banana pudding.
“People wanted to know who had catered for us,” Deas said. “It was that good.”
Leach, a mother of four and grandmother of five, waited until her youngest child was about 5 before she decided to go back to school in 1999. The culinary arts program at Mississippi University for Women in Columbus was brand new.
“Sarah Labensky was starting a new culinary school there and she and I became friends,” Leach said. “She talked me into enrolling at the university and taking all these classes. Sometimes, I’d be in school full time and sometimes part time.”
When it came time for Leach to do an internship, Labensky was instrumental in getting her in at another brand new venture: the Viking Cooking School in Greenwood.
“Martha Foose was the executive chef and I would set up demos for her to do class,” Leach said. “Martha got sick one day and I had to take her class. I was terrified. I didn’t think I could do it, but I did and I loved it.”
Leach would go on to become the kitchen manager at Viking, and she also taught culinary classes at MUW until this past spring.
“I’ve never gone looking for something for me to do,” Leach said. “They’ve always come looking for me. That’s how I got the job here at the Link Centre.”
Toolbox in tow
Leach, who lives in Starkville with her husband, Rob, a chiropractor, comes to Tupelo once or twice a week to teach classes and oversee culinary events. She also teaches cooking classes in her home.
“As much as I’ve taught, I’m always amazed. I’ve come to believe we’re two to three generations out from people who cook,” she said. “Their grandmothers cooked, but their mothers didn’t. So cooking classes are a safe place for students to come and learn and screw up. The first thing I teach is knife skills, so they can make mistakes and keep on cooking.”
Currently, Leach is teaching a 10-week catering class at the Link Centre through Itawamba Community College.
“If they’re taking a catering class, they pretty much already know how to cook,” Leach said. “So we focus on other things: the legalities of catering, plating food, kitchen basics, hygiene.”
And you won’t find Leach teaching anything food-related without her trusty toolbox in tow, which holds everything from knives, whisks, spatulas and cutting boards to kitchen shears, a corn zipper, a box grater and aprons.
“I take it to cooking demonstrations and cooking classes,” she said. “I take it everywhere I go.”
The one thing Leach wants to impress on her students is that food doesn’t have to be complicated.
“I try to take some of the fear out of it for them,” she said. “Food can be fun, especially in the South, where food is such a big part of our culture. I’d love to see families in the kitchen cooking together again – and cooking real, live food, not the processed stuff.”