WATERFORD — It’s been 15 years since Louise Leonard lived in the Midwest, but when the Waterford native appeared Thursday night during second season auditions for competitive cooking show “The Taste,” the L.A. resident paid homage to her home state.
“I made a beer-braised pork meatball, because I am from Wisconsin and I love beer,” she said Friday. “It is a blind taste test for the judges, and it’s only one bite of food. I was like, ‘Well, I make a savory little meatball. Who doesn’t like that?’ ”
It was a choice that paid off.
By the end of the program, Leonard was chosen from a field of 35 cooks for one of 16 spots on the reality show. Over the next eight episodes she’ll use her cooking skills to compete against her fellow contestants to avoid elimination and perhaps even survive to win the show’s $100,000 grand prize.
When Leonard, 40, who goes by her middle name, graduated from Waterford High School in 1992, she had plans to be a broadcast journalist. Graduating from the University of Wisconsin with degrees in journalism and Spanish, she got a job working for Fox 6 in Milwaukee but it wasn’t long before she felt the big city calling.
Moving to New York at age 23, she quickly learned that the only way she was going to be able pay her bills was by bartending.
Having grown up in family that loved food — her father owned a Shakey’s Pizza in Racine — Leonard eventually decided to go to culinary school.
Rather than getting a low-paying job as a prep cook, a typical first step for culinary school graduates, she ended up working as a chef for the bar she worked for.
After that she did a lot of “private cheffing,” while bartending to pay the bills.
Now a private chef and food stylist — making food look good for everything from cookbooks to TV — Leonard is no stranger to the set of competitive cooking shows. But her appearance as a contestant marks her first time in front of the camera.
Leonard landed a role on the popular program after a friend recommended her to a casting agent for the show. She managed to make it through a nationwide search to become one of the 35 people that appeared on the first episode of the season.
Now instead of styling food for TV, which she said “doesn’t have a lot to do with cooking,” she’ll be back in the kitchen, stirring and tasting. It’s something she says she’s not only good at but loves to do.
“When I auditioned they said, ‘We know how you know to make food look really pretty for camera, but does your food taste good?’ I said, ‘Well my real passion is feeding people. ... As far as I’m concerned my food is delicious.’”
She added that she isn’t really nervous about being in front of the camera either, and is actually kind of excited, pointing to on-camera work she’s done for the YouTube DIY channel called Kin
Now that filming for the show has wrapped and the episodes are airing — she is sworn to secrecy about the outcome — Leonard said she has been blown away by the response she has gotten from friends and family.
"I got up today and looked at my Facebook page, I was like, ‘Oh my God, I have like 100 messages.’ It was crazy,” she said. “My L.A. and New York friends are kind of jaded because we all work in the industry. They were like, ‘Oh, whatever. You’re on TV.’ But my friends from back home were really excited.”
HOW TO WATCH
WHAT: Cooking competition TV show “The Taste”
WHO: Waterford native competes against 15 other cooks for $100,000 prize
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursdays on ABC, Channel 12