Photo: Julie Foskett of Foskett Creative

Fishermen are the original hustlers. Patiently grinding away every day on their boats, casting lines and nets out into the sea and waiting for their next paycheck to take the bait. Food doesn’t fall into their laps on dry land. They have to wrestle it out of the vast deep blue. It’s either go out and get it or stay home and go hungry.

This overarching philosophy is shared by landlubber Danielle Leoni. “My mom always told me, if you really want something, you better do it,” the chef says with a laugh.

Leoni is the executive chef and co-owner of The Breadfruit and Rum Bar, a restaurant and bar concept she runs with her husband, Dwayne Allen, in downtown Phoenix. An Illinois native, Leoni has quickly made a name for herself in both the Arizona culinary scene and beyond. She’s garnered recognition from the James Beard Foundation, which awarded her a fellowship for their Women’s Entrepreneurial Leadership program as well as a Seafood Sustainability Seal after she participated in their Smart Catch seafood program.

Photo courtesy of Chefs For Fish

Leoni was invited to be part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Blue Ribbon Task Force, a group of chefs and culinarians dedicated to instigating and influencing meaningful dialogue about conservation and seafood sustainability across the nation in conjunction with the Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program. Leoni is even part of Slow Food USA’s international Slow Fish campaign, which “aims to elevate good, clean and fair seafood; honor fair compensation for our seafood harvesters; and promote the long-term health of our planet.”

Considering the success of Leoni’s restaurant, her impressive list of awards and credits, and her deep involvement in advocating for sustainable food, one would imagine that she must have an extensive formal pedigree as a chef. But the truth is the opposite: Rather than learning her trade in a university or culinary institute, she developed her chops the old-fashioned way – in her family’s kitchen. When she and Allen opened The Breadfruit in 2008, Leoni had no formal culinary training or experience running a restaurant.

Not only did Leoni fall in love with a Jamaican man who would become her husband, she fell in love with the food from his culture as well. “The food that I cook represents an island nation,” Leoni says. “I’m really trying to pay homage to traditional Jamaican cuisine, using cooking techniques that Dwayne’s great-great-grandmother and great-grand-aunt taught me.”

During Leoni’s many trips to Jamaica, she developed a profound affinity for the local cuisine. But it took a few years before Allen’s family started sharing their culinary secrets with her – eventually initiating Leoni into a culinary heritage that continues to inform her professional growth and passion as a chef.

“The more I became immersed in Jamaican culture, the more I started learning the real nuances of the cuisine,” Leoni says. That intimate knowledge is reflected in many dishes on The Breadfruit’s menu, including fish cooked in banana leaves, bammy flatbreads, jerk shrimp and pork, coconut curries, roasted plantains and more.

Whereas many well-regarded, “prestige” restaurants opt for sprawling, ostentatious settings, The Breadfruit’s humble size makes it feel like the kind of hole-in-the-wall establishments that Allen and Leoni must have frequented during their time on the island. The attached Rum Bar carries a vast selection of rum that would bring a tear to a pirate’s good eye. The establishment even has a cigar lounge, offering patrons a chance to unwind after their meals by puffing on a rich Montecristo or Cohiba.

But Leoni isn’t interested in merely reproducing the cuisine Allen’s family taught her. She wants to bring the relationship islanders have with their food to the mainland. “In Jamaica, you go to the market and see the person that grew your produce, and you know the fisherman personally,” Leoni says. “It’s very tight-knit.”

As one can imagine, this is a marked contrast with the relationship most Americans have with their food. We are often alienated from what we eat, unsure of where it came from, who made it, how fresh it really is. While the growing popularity of the Slow Food movement and community supported agriculture has helped connect people with what they eat, for many the who/what/where behind the food on their plate remains a mystery.

Photo: Dwayne Allen

For Leoni, the interconnected communal approach to food was something she wanted to bring to The Breadfruit’s tables. “I just started looking harder and harder at our menu and thinking, maybe I can do this. ‘Can I get access to conch?’ I started taking on seasonality. ‘Should I be serving red snapper now?’” Wanting to adopt a more true-to-life menu that varies with the seasons can be challenging when your food sources are so far away.

“Coming to Phoenix, I thought, ‘I’m landlocked! I live in the desert and the nearest body of water is three hundred miles away,’” Leoni sighs. “We’ve had good relationships with our farmers for years, so we understood what it meant to have high-quality ingredients, but for some reason that didn’t extend to fish. So several years ago, we started making better choices.”

Working with organizations like Jet-Fresh and Sea to Table, Leoni and Allen began building closer relationships with the people who supplied their seafood, which now makes up almost eighty percent of their menu. That dedication to quality also spurred Leoni to become more embedded in the culinary world.

When the James Beard Foundation launched a new program in 2016 called Smart Catch, Leoni reached out to the organization. Her enthusiasm and willingness to dive into the subject led to Leoni helping to vet out the pilot program. “I worked with their consultants, seeing what worked, what was difficult, how to locate sustainable sources. I collaborated closely with them for a month and it was an intense learning process.”

Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Blue Ribbon Task Force

Leoni’s take-charge attitude also landed her a position with Monterey Bay’s Blue Ribbon Task Force. “I emailed Sheila Bowman, the woman who heads up the program, and she was like, ‘Who are you?’” Leoni says. But Leoni’s knowledge of Jamaican food and her advocacy efforts (like doing television spots about seafood sustainability for Channel 3) impressed Bowman, who invited her to join the Task Force’s exclusive group of 65 culinary experts.

Leoni is also one of three local chefs (so far) who’ve signed the Portland Pact for Sustainable Seafood. As part of that pact’s Chefs For Fish campaign, Leoni is among a group of food professionals who’ve pledged to support U.S. fisheries that comply with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The MSA is a law that governs fishing in U.S. waters that helps to rebuild overfished stocks, increase long-term economic and social benefits, use reliable data and sound science, conserve essential fish habitats, and ensure a safe and sustainable supply of seafood.

While she’s working with national organizations, Leoni is also spreading her zeal within the local community. Since graduating from ASU’s School of Sustainability with an executive master’s degree in sustainability leadership, she’s been educating other Arizona chefs one-on-one about adopting sustainable, eco-friendly practices.

Danielle Leoni and husband/partner Dwayne Allen

“Restaurants can make small changes today that require little to no money or time to implement. For example, at The Breadfruit and Rum Bar, we have a company that composts our pre- and post-consumer waste. This service cost us twenty dollars per week, but there is much greater value gained than the money spent,” says Leoni.

The depth and breadth of Leoni’s accomplishments would put most “establishment” chefs to shame. When asked if her lack of formal credentials has ever been an issue with organizations like the James Beard Foundation, Leoni just laughs. “Even though I’m not classically trained, they really respect and honor how I’ve bootstrapped my business,” Leoni says. “I went to one of their food summits last year. We were all drinking champagne on a rooftop, and one of them turns to me and says, ‘How did you end up here?’ And I told them what I told you: I just filled out a form. It was as simple as that.”

While The Breadfruit and Rum Bar will remain Leoni and Allen’s crown jewel, they’re also planning to expand their culinary empire by reestablishing the Leoni’s Focaccia concept (tipping their hats to Danielle’s Italian roots) in a Phoenix location in the near future. Their original incubator space in Scottsdale closed last year in order to make way for a much more complete concept slated to open on Roosevelt Row. While sandwiches will still be a big part of the concept, it will be more of a full-service focacceria, salumeria and gelateria, with a wine bar on top of that.