By Amy Eddings
For years, Chef Leslie O’Neal expressed his culinary passion privately, cooking for family and friends. The 60-year-old made his living in the oil business, loading refined oil products onto railroad cars for Buckeye Terminals for 20 years.
But his love of cooking, like oil, was always there, under the surface, waiting to be drawn out.
“From Day One, I’ve always been in the kitchen,” he said. “It relaxes me.”
He studied at the hip of his grandmother, standing on a stool so he could reach the countertop. He slowly took over the family holiday meals. His Thanksgiving feasts are the stuff of happy memories and annual anticipation, according to younger sister Denise.
“His turkey and cornbread stuffing,” she mused, “are the best.”
O’Neal said his relatives also press him to make barbecue and fried chicken.
“My family, they’ll say, ‘Les, are you going to fry chicken?’” he said, his voice taking on a pleading tone. You can imagine his siblings making the request, fingers crossed behind their backs, a “pretty please, with sugar on top?” look on their faces.
Something about the man, and the pleasure he gets in recounting these requests, suggested that he doesn’t say no.
Emboldened by his personal success, he set up a little food truck called Smackey’s in 1998, and sold ribs, pulled pork and smoked brisket to an appreciative public for two years.
“I was getting people from the refinery, from the south side of Lima, from the country club in Shawnee, and I couldn’t keep up,” he said. One customer had a standing order of nine slabs of ribs, every week.
The demand got him to thinking. He quit his oil industry job in 2000 and enrolled in what is now the Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach.
“I chose Florida because it was warm,” he said. “I wanted to do something different. People looked at me like I was crazy. ‘I admire you for your faith,’ they said. ‘You’re stepping out on faith.’ And that’s what I did.”
His faith was rewarded with steady work, upon graduation, at several restaurants in West Palm Beach and a stint at the prepared foods department of the natural and organic grocery chain Whole Foods Market.
“My key thing is fresh food, not processed food,” he said.
He came back to Ohio in 2012 for some lucrative freelance oilman work, retiring a few years later. There’s no keeping him out of the kitchen, though. Since his return to the area, O’Neal has worked at a hotel in Columbus, catering banquets and weddings. He’s cooked for residents at an assisted living facility in Lima. He currently assists part time at Marco’s Pizza, also in Lima.
At times, he said, he’s thought of creating a white-tablecloth-and-candlelight-type dining establishment. He’d rather be serving people something hot and delicious from a food truck.
“I just wanted to do the simple barbecue, the street food,” said O’Neal.
The lunch he served this writer when visiting his kitchen was, indeed, simple, but it certainly wasn’t casual. There was filet mignon, seared to a crispy crust on the outside and juicy pink on the inside; roasted baby red potatoes, warmed with a quick stir in a hot cast-iron skillet; and a medley of sautéed asparagus spears, Brussels sprouts, mushrooms and red bell peppers, studded with plump cloves of garlic. O’Neal even prepared the meal dressed in a spotless white chef coat.
There might as well have been a white table cloth and a candelabra. The meal was that fine.
It summed up Leslie O’Neal, a chef who’s deeply serious about food, but whose passion for cooking remains deeply rooted in the intimacy of the home kitchen and the fellowship of the family meal.
LESLIE O’NEAL’S SOUTHERN FRIED CHICKEN
Start to finish: 1 1/2 hours (1 hour active)
The secret to Chef Les’ fried chicken is adding cornstarch to the flour.
“It lightens it up,” he said. “I don’t like it when it gets lumpy.”
He also said he makes sure the chicken drains really well and that he shakes off as much of the flour as he can before frying the chicken, so that a light crust forms.
Two 2-to 2 1/2-pound chickens, cut into serving pieces (about 4-5 pounds of meat)
1 cup kosher salt, for brine
8 1/3 cups water
2 tablespoons sea salt, for seasoning, plus more to taste in dredging flour
1 1/2 teaspoons freshly ground pepper, for seasoning, plus more to taste in dredging flour
2 teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon granulated garlic
2 cups buttermilk, approximate
1/3 cup water
2 cups flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
2 cups peanut oil, for frying
Wash chicken parts. In a large bowl, dissolve 1 cup of kosher salt in 8 cups (1 half-gallon) of warm water. Place the chicken in the brine and refrigerate for 15 minutes. Remove the chicken from the brine and pat dry.
In a small bowl, add the sea salt, pepper, paprika and granulated garlic and stir until well-combined. Pat onto the chicken parts.
In a large bowl, mix the buttermilk and water. Place the seasoned chicken into the liquid and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes. Remove the chicken and place the pieces in a colander to drain.
In a shallow baking dish or gallon-size sealable plastic bag, mix together the flour and cornstarch. Toss or roll the chicken pieces in the flour and cornstarch mixture and shake off the excess to leave a light coating.
Heat the peanut oil to 375 F in a heavy skillet, preferably cast-iron, large enough to hold half of the chicken pieces in one layer so they don’t touch. Add half of the chicken pieces, skin side down, in one layer. Turn the heat to high and cook uncovered until golden brown.
Turn the pieces and reduce the heat to medium-low. Cook until golden brown. The total cooking time should be 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the cooked pieces of chicken and drain on paper towels. Repeat the process with the remaining chicken, being sure to reheat the oil to 375 F before adding the chicken.
LESLIE O’NEAL’S SWEET POTATO PIE
Start to finish: 2 hours (40 minutes active)
Yields: 4 9-inch pies
6 large sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1-inch chunks
One 12-ounce can evaporated milk
One 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
1 cup light brown sugar, packed
4 eggs, beaten
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
Whole milk (if needed)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) buerre noisette or browned butter (see directions)
4 baked pie shells
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
In a large pot, bring salted water to a boil and cook the sweet potatoes until fork-tender, about 15-20 minutes. Drain the sweet potatoes and place them in a large bowl or in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle.
While the sweet potatoes are still warm, mash them with a potato masher or a potato ricer. If using a stand mixer, beat the sweet potatoes at slow speed for 1-2 minutes until smooth.
Add the evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, brown sugar, eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. Blend well. If the custard is too stiff, use additional whole milk (or water), 1 to 2 tablespoons at a time, as needed, to thin custard to to reach a smooth, creamy consistency.
Make the buerre noisette: Slice the butter into a frying pan and melt on medium heat, gently swirling the pan as the butter melts. Continue heating the butter, watching carefully to make sure it doesn’t burn, until the white, frothy milk solids have browned and settled to the bottom; the butter will have a deep golden color and will have a nutty fragrance. Take the pan off the heat to prevent further cooking. Let it cool slightly. Add it to the sweet potato custard and stir to combine.
Pour the sweet potato custard into the baked pie shells and bake for 45 minutes, or until the custard has set around the edges but jiggles slightly in the center when tapped on the side with a wooden spoon. Place on a wire cooling rack and allow to cool completely.
LESLIE O’NEAL’S SMOKED PULLED PORK
Start to finish: 9-13 hours (1 hour active)
Special equipment: 8-12 cups wood chips; foil baking pan; 2-3 bags charcoal; charcoal grill
One 6-8 pound pork shoulder, bone-in
1 cup kosher salt
1/4 cup black pepper
1/4 cup granulated garlic
1/4 cup chili powder
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/8 cup cumin
Prepare your wood chips: Soak mesquite, hickory, maple or fruitwood chips for at least 1 hour in water, beer, juice or wine. This allows them to smoke without burning up. Drain well.
Prepare the meat: Rinse the pork shoulder with cold water and pat dry with paper towels.
In a medium-sized bowl, mix together the salt, pepper, garlic, chili powder, brown sugar and cumin. Rub as much of the seasoning mixture into the shoulder. Let stand at room temperature for 1 hour (do this as you soak your wood chips).
Prepare your charcoal grill for smoking: Let charcoal burn in charcoal chimney until gray; arrange on two sides of the lower grate. Add more gray coals about once an hour.
Arrange foil baking pan (drip pan) in the center of the lower grate, between the piles of charcoal; add water to the pan. Scatter the well-drained wood chips over the coals; replace the grill grate and place the pork shoulder on it.
Close the lid and cook the shoulder at 200 to 250 F for 8 to 12 hours, adding more gray charcoal from the chimney after each hour of cooking to maintain the temperature. Add more drained wood chips (1 cup per hour) to maintain smoke level. Meat is done when a meat thermometer inserted into the center of the shoulder registers 180 F; the meat should be very tender and should pull away easily from the bone.
Transfer pork to a clean rimmed baking sheet and cover with aluminum foil. Let stand until cool enough to handle. Shred into bite-sized pieces. Mound on a platter. Pour any juices from the baking sheet over the pork.