In their own words, chefs Johnny and Helen Jo Leach are “a family package.” Where one goes, they both go, along with their five-year-old daughter, Perri. At the beginning of the pandemic, the trio moved from Portland, Oregon, to Kansas City so Johnny and Helen could work at the new restaurant inside Hotel Kansas City, The Town Company.
Johnny is the executive chef and Helen is the executive pastry chef of the hotel’s signature restaurant – a modern Midwestern eatery that spotlights seasonal produce and local staples – as well as Hotel Kansas City and El Gold, its cellar saloon slated to open this year. Helen also bakes the breads and pastries sold at the hotel’s coffee bar and market, including a rich chocolate cookie that Perri helped her name, Boom Chocolata. The collective talents of this culinary family are already impacting the city’s food scene, and we expect they’ll leave a lasting impression on you as well.
How did the two of you meet? We first met working at Del Posto in New York City. The chefs from the line were always coming into the pastry kitchen to borrow a cup of sugar. Everyone who worked in pastry asked [them] to replace what they borrowed, but none of them ever did. One day, they sent Johnny down to borrow a cup of sugar from me, and he promised he would replace it. I gave it to him assuming I would never see him again, but he came down the next day with a cup of sugar to replace what he had borrowed – that’s the way into a pastry chef’s heart. From there, we started a friendship, and over time, we became a couple; we’ve been together ever since. –Helen Jo Leach
What was your inspiration for the menu at The Town Company? Helen and I have always worked very collaboratively, so when we talked about what we wanted The Town Company menu to be – both on the savory and the sweet side – we knew it should be really, really simple and delicious. We let the seasonal ingredients found here [as well as] the wood-burning hearth be our guide. –Johnny Leach
We are both serious cooks, but we want to have fun with the menu and the food we serve. We are both a little goofy and nerds at heart, and we want that lightheartedness to show in our food; we want it to be approachable but unexpected. –H.J.L.
Now that The Town Company is open, what are you working on next? We will continue to dial in the dishes we are currently serving, and we also have things we still want to do, like starting our reserve steak program. –J.L.
I’m really looking forward to working with our white oak-burning hearth within my pastry program. Having live fire means I can grill and smoke fruits and vegetables like apples and parsnips to bring out or deepen their flavor for my desserts. I also like to experiment with different savory flavors within my desserts, like the touch of pink peppercorn that I have in my apple pie crust. –H.J.L.
What has surprised you the most about cooking in Kansas City? Realizing that the local farmers would be able to supply produce representing four different seasons. We have always worked closely with local farms when building our menus, but in Portland, we have fall weather about eight months out of the year, so being able to have access to so many different ingredients depending on the month of the year is something I am excited to wrap my head around. –J.L.
We were able to go on some local farm tours when we first moved to Kansas City, and we were so impressed that there are farmers who are willing to grow ingredients for us to use at our restaurant. That level of collaboration between farmer and chef is a dream. –H.J.L.