You don’t have to grow up in a large Italian family to become a great Chef, but it doesn’t hurt, either. Chef Justin Leo, of “American Q” Restaurant, has many fond childhood memories helping in his grandmother’s kitchen. “My grandmother was a great cook, and she always made everything from scratch. She made everything for all the family events and get-togethers, and she even started her own small catering business.” Although he worked through high school helping out in this business, he never really considered it a “real” profession. “I decided to go to college and study computer engineering, but it just didn’t hold my interest. I was unsure what to do, and then my mom suggested I study cooking.” Chef Justin was in the first class to graduate with an Associates Degree in Culinary Arts from his college in Buffalo, New York. “It was a great time, a great learning experience. All the instructors were locally renowned chefs, so we were really being mentored in what makes cooking an art form.”
Chef Leo’s first job after graduating was as a dishwasher, just to get his foot in the kitchen. Patience and persistence soon paid off, “One night, the chef didn’t show up to work, and so they asked me to cook… and that’s how I got my start!” Perfecting his trade with “hands on” experience in a wide range of venues, from High End Restaurants, Steakhouses, Casinos, and Walt Disney World resorts, he spent many years in western New York and Central Florida. Finally deciding that Orlando was the place for him, Chef Justin has made Florida his permanent home, and has never looked back.
“Moving to Florida was a natural thing, it is where I wanted to be… and I knew the opportunities I needed would present themselves.” Opportunity did find Chef Justin, in the form of a “Barbecue Concept Restaurant.” “American Q” was such an interesting idea… ‘Barbecue and Beyond’… how are we going to do that?” Deciding that regional fare was going to be the anchor for the menu items started his creative Chef’s mind working. “First off, you don’t have to like barbecue, our menu is an interpretation of barbecue, but the focus is regional cuisine.” So, whether it is Mississippi Catfish, Texas Beef Ribs, Memphis Baby Back Ribs, or St. Louis Spare Ribs, you will find something to suit your tastes on the “American Q” menu.
“We have a great commitment to the Florida Fresh Markets… all the meats are fresh from Florida, they never leave the state.” Chef Justin works directly with the farmers to bring only the best and freshest tastes directly to his guests. “Being a chef is being an artist, but you have to balance that with being a manager, managing the kitchen, the food, the presentations, the cost, and giving the guest the best value for the best price. Quality doesn’t cut corners, and the best way to ruin a dish is to use cheap ingredients.”
What advice does Chef Justin have for those with culinary dreams? “Go get a job in a kitchen somewhere, to see if it is for you. It is not easy, it is hard work, and a lot of hours, so if you don’t love it, you probably won’t survive all the times you feel like you are in a rut.” Chef Justin’s formula is simple: Go, Do, Create. Go to the kitchen, do the work that needs to be done, and then create your own special style or signature. There are no shortcuts. “Shortcuts mean you trade who you could be for who you are now… you can only polish your talent and develop your skills through hard work.”
Putting his preaching into practice, Chef Justin Leo is always searching for new ways to expand his knowledge and find a new horizon. One thing is certain, you will enjoy the passion he puts on display every day at “American Q,” in beautiful Lake Buena Vista, Florida. Come on and give it a try, every dish will be your favorite!