Chef Dominique Leach: From Humble Beginnings to Culinary Stardom

Chef Dominique Leach saw her dream go up in flames a few years ago. Yet, it didn’t die. 

Leach started a food truck in July 2017 that caught fire months later. The signs pointed to arson, but no one was ever arrested.  

After watching the fire settle that night, she opened the doors and discovered that everything on that truck had been destroyed, save for one item: a foam poster board.

That board had her name and bio of achievements. It was given to her by organizers of an event she was featured at, and Leach took it everywhere. 

The fact that the poster board, an enduring reminder of all she had accomplished to that point, was untouched by the flames was a sign.

“I used it as inspiration,” Leach said. “Whoever thought they were gonna stop the trajectory of what I have in mind, this is proof that this is just another obstacle that I’ll have to get through and will get through.”

Leach got through and then some. 

From the proverbial ashes rose her dream of making a mark in the world of cooking. Her now brick-and-mortar Lexington Betty Smokehouse restaurant, which she founded with her wife Tanisha, is further proof. It has fans from all over the region and around the country who crave her luxurious smoked meats and “soulful sides” like gouda mac and cheese, brisket baked beans and collard greens. 

Let’s not forget about her line of Wagyu beef hot dogs sold at regional supermarkets like Mariano’s and available nationally online, or her memorable TV appearances on popular Food Network contest cooking shows like “Chopped” and “BBQ Brawl,” which she won in Season 4.

“I’ve always been the youngest one, the hardest working one, the only Black one. And in a lot of cases, a lot of times, I was the only woman. But I always knew I was the best.” – Chef Dominique Leach

Indeed, the fire couldn’t extinguish Leach’s dream, which persists because she learned early on that she had to keep fighting, working and showing up — to become a thriver by necessity. 

And her own “fire,” which manifests as a tireless desire to succeed, was inspired by two things from her childhood: family gatherings at her mother’s house and peanut butter cookies.

Making a Way Out of No Way

The July 4th holiday was noteworthy at the Humboldt Park home where Leach grew up. Relatives, including her aunts, uncles and cousins, would come over to her mother’s house, where a celebration of food, family and fellowship would commence.  

“I could picture kids running around. The smell of the first batch of meat hitting the grill. Chaos in the kitchen, everybody trying to find whatever bowl or pot they need to get whatever side or dish they’re responsible for making all together,” Leach recalled. 

“Cars pulling up, pulling out. Shuffling in and out of the front of the building. We all trying to get situated. And there is anticipation, for the next couple of hours, and once we get settled and can start the prep work, that it turns into hanging out and a lot of love in the room.”

Chaotic yet beautiful is how she described those times. For her, the Independence Day holiday was especially more joyous because her birthday was the day after. 

From those gatherings, Leach learned the importance of providing hospitality and how a good meal could satiate the body and fortify the spirit, especially for relatives on an extended stay at their house.  

Leach also said those gatherings were where she acquired a grownup’s taste for food.

“Hot dogs and chicken wings came off the grill first. That’s what they passed out to us as kids, but I always wanted to see what that steak or rib tips was tasting like,” she said, laughing.

Eating those foods was like experiencing luxury to her because “it wasn’t something that we ate regularly.”

And during the summer, when Leach wasn’t helping herself to those prime fixings or playing basketball, she was dabbling with a cookie recipe imprinted on the side of a large can of peanut butter. She started doing this at 12. 

“It was just a black and white can of peanut butter and a peanut butter cookie recipe on the side,” she said, “I would just throw the recipe together, and sometimes it would be delicious, and sometimes it’d be too much flour and chalky.”

What captivated her were the reactions of her taste testers. 

“I gravitated towards that feeling of how people felt about the finished product, ‘Like man, these are real good! You made these?'” she said. 

She kept making peanut butter cookies until she perfected the recipe.

“That was really the only recipe that I can remember doing for a long time because we didn’t have cookbooks in the house or anything like that,” she said. 

Something else dawned on her as we spoke at a table at her Lexington Betty restaurant.

“Now that I think about it,” she said, “That was the beginning of me just wanting to be great at whatever it was that I did.”

That became her modus operandi — to make a way out of no way, especially when times got tough. And they did.   

‘I Had to Embody This Hustler Mentality’

Leach came out to her family when she was 16, and not too long afterward, in her senior year at William Howard Taft High School, she began to grapple with what she wanted to do with her life. 

At the time, Leach didn’t want to go away to college, believing she would struggle because her family would not be able to help her financially.  

She admitted that differences with her mother over her decision to identify as a Black queer woman helped her make a crucial decision early, one many people don’t make until they’re well into their twenties. 

“I said, ‘I gotta take care of myself’ because of the differences that we were going through in the house. It was already clear that I was going to have to just figure things out on my own,” she said.

“I had to embody this hustler mentality.”

So, Leach sold Italian ice at her first food industry job and did whatever she could legally to get by.  

She eventually answered that larger question about what to do with her life. 

“I decided that cooking was one of the few things that I can think of that inspired me, and I could get paid off of,” she said, “But it wouldn’t necessarily have to feel like work. It was something that I looked forward to doing.”

After graduating from Taft, she eventually enrolled in culinary school at the Illinois Institute Of Art Chicago, earning an associate’s degree in Culinary Arts in 2006.

From there, she went to work at some of the most prestigious restaurant kitchens in Chicago under the guidance of renowned culinary figures like James Beard award-winning owner and chef Tony Mantuano and Executive Chef Sarah Grueneberg of Spiaggia, a Michelin-starred Italian restaurant in Chicago. She collaborated with award-winning author and chef Raghavan Lyer at The Art Institute Museum.

By then, Leach was a chef’s chef, classically trained and fluent in various culinary traditions and working in a world dominated by White men with funky hair and tattoos. 

And in school and those kitchens, Leach had to show and prove her value every time. 

“I’ve always been the youngest one, the hardest working one, the only Black one. And in a lot of cases, a lot of times, I was the only woman.” 

“But I always knew I was the best,” she said.  

No Role Models

Chef Dominique Leach

Leach had to bear the burden of being a trailblazer with no role models or mentors to help guide her through a craggy journey littered with tests, obstacles, disappointments and closed doors.

She was equipped to excel in those fine dining kitchens, but the opportunities weren’t there. Eventually, Leach branched out with her wife to form their own catering company in 2016 called “Cater to You Events & Drop Offs.”

Though the catering company did brisk business and provided a broad menu of items, Leach yearned to do something different, to narrow her focus to a particular specialty that appealed to her community and spoke to her upbringing. That answer came in a notepad, where she scribbled ideas for a barbecue restaurant concept. 

From those notes, Leach determined she would feature smoked meats like brisket, smoked chicken and pulled pork. 

All she had to do was determine the sides, a critical element for barbecue restaurants, which are judged not only by their meats but also by the quality and uniqueness of their sides. 

“I took my sides from my soul food catering menu and incorporated it with this barbecue concept that I had written down several times,” Leach said. “And I came up with smoked meats and soulful sides, and it took me a few weeks to figure out what the name would be. And when I figured it out, I thought it was perfect.” 

All that was left was to give it a name. What would this barbecue joint be called?

The smells from the kitchens of her youth came to mind, especially those of her grandmother, Betty King, who hailed from Lexington, Mississippi, a small town with a population below 2,000, about a good hour north of Jackson. 

After recalling those memories, she came up with a name.

“Lexington Betty.”

Her barbecue food truck was born. Before the fire happened, the truck was a success. Finally, Leach found a niche that spoke to her sensibilities and married her classic training with the food she grew up cherishing. 

But watching her truck burn in the parking space by her house after only having it for a few months was devastating. 

“If I ever felt like my dream was threatened, it was in that moment,” she said.

“But fortunately, you know, somehow I found strength from it.”

In 2022, the brick-and-mortar Lexington Betty Smokehouse opened, taking over the One Eleven Food Hall, an incubation space for Black food businesses at 756 E. 111th St.

Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives, the nonprofit running the food hall, contacted Leach about moving her business there. The organization offered her a $35,000 grant to renovate the restaurant, and Leach used her money to reconfigure the space.

The stone gray and muted orange interior greets you when you walk through the doors of Lexington Betty Smokehouse. Large tables are arranged around the restaurant, lending it a family cookout vibe — much like the ones she attended in her youth. 

The walls are lined with laminated food reviews and feature stories about the restaurant. They hang by photos of Leach. There is even a cardboard cutout the chef flashing her vibrant yet hard-earned smile near the front of the store.

The Humboldt Park native has been featured in numerous publications, including People, Food & Wine and HuffPost. Good Morning America named her restaurant “Best Barbecue in Chicago.” In addition to being featured on Food Network, she serves as a judge on Food Network Canada’s Fire Masters. Even renowned chefs and bonafide barbecue pitmasters are seeking her out. 

Chef Leach accomplished it all through hard work, consistency, imagination and endurance. She is genuinely self-made as someone who “got it out the mud,” which means to rise from humble circumstances and make your way to the top.  

“The adversities I had to face, finding my authentic self, will tear anybody down, but I just kept going,” she said, tears running out from behind her shades. 

Finally, I asked her, right there in her restaurant, what she would tell the younger version of herself about this very moment, of going from those family cookouts and making peanut butter cookies to being a nationally recognized chef and trailblazer out of necessity.

“Consistency really is key,” she said.

“I never waited for validation from anybody. And now I got people looking up to me, depending on me. It was just because I kept going.” 

“So, I would just tell her to keep going.”

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