Play with Your Food: David Leathers

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December / January 2013

If asked about his childhood, chef and Mississippi native David Leathers likes to joke, “I had a dad that believed in child labor.”  Beginning at eight years old, Leathers worked in the kitchen of his parent’s barbecue restaurant in Fulton, Miss.

“Even before I became interested in becoming a chef, cooking was always been a part of who I was,” he explains.  “It was our livelihood.”

Leathers attributes the work ethic his father instilled in him at a young age as a contributing factor for his success later in life.  At eighteen, Leathers left small town Mississippi to attend culinary school at the former Pennsylvania School of Culinary Arts in Pittsburg.  He admits the move was a bit of a culture shock, but he would later go on to graduate at the top of his class. During his studies, an instructor gave him a bit of advice that would impact his career path.

“This particular instructor told me to find a specialty that makes you different from all the other chefs,” Leathers says.  He was inspired to take up food carving based on a book he owned by famous food sculptor Xiang Wang.  When Leathers discovered that Wang taught classes at The Andy Mannhart Academy in Luzern, Switzerland, he enrolled himself and was on a plane to Europe.

Where Pennsylvania was a culture shock, the young chef quickly fell in love with Switzerland.

“It is a beautiful country,” he adds.  “I didn’t want to leave.”  He did face one unique challenge, however, that most students don’t usually deal with on their first day of class.  Wang only spoke two languages – Mandarin Chinese and Swiss-German.  While it may seem impossible to take instruction from someone who doesn’t speak your language, Leathers discovered that the language barrier wasn’t really a barrier after all.

“It didn’t matter that we didn’t speak the same language,” Leathers recalls, “It was more important that I was able to observe him and see his instruction rather than hear it.”  His experience would later inspire him to release three instructional DVD’s on the art of food carving.

David’s talents have garnered several TV appearances, most notably on TLC’s Extreme Food Sculptures.  During the show, Leathers constructed a life-sized sculpture of a woman in a masquerade mask to serve as the centerpiece for a charity ball in Louisiana.  The entire piece took 72 hours to construct.

Leathers eventually went on to launch his own brand of merchandise through his company Food Stylin.  The product line includes T-shirts and his own line of kid-safe knives.  Today, he frequently uses his talents to teach kids about healthy eating.  He makes frequent visits to elementary schools throughout the year and hopes to combat childhood obesity by finding ways to make eating fruits and vegetables fun.

“We have become a generation of convenience.  It’s not just about eating healthy food; it’s about eating real food.  Not everything comes out of a package.” he says.  “I had a little girl ask me once what my favorite vegetable was.  When I told her asparagus, her response was, ‘Ew, yuck.  Gross!’ I could tell from her response that this little girl had never actually tried asparagus.  I decided I wanted to visit every school in that community and let every kids try asparagus. Once they have the opportunity to try it, they can make their own decision.”

Leathers believes that by allowing kids to be involved in the meal process, it will open them up to trying new foods.  He hopes to be able to share his message with a wider audience through a children’s television show titled Play with Your Food currently in the works with PBS.

“It’s a tactic I use with my own five-year-old son,” he says.  “By giving kids ownership, they take pride in what they are eating.  The most important ingredient is making things fun.”

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