Leonard McNab, 42, is better known by friends and fans as Chef Lenny. A Western troubadour-turned-mule-wrangler-turned-chuckwagon-cook-turned-reality-TV-star, Chef Lenny has a personality that’s exceeded only by his cooking. Associate editor Lauren Feldman caught up with Kessler Canyon’s cowboy cook to learn more about the man behind the dinner bell.
You grew up on the East Coast and went to culinary school in Germany. What started your interest in Western life and cowboy cooking?
Growing up, I watched John Wayne and Gunsmoke, and I always knew deep down in my heart that I needed to be out West. I knew that life on the East Coast—with all those fishermen and hippies—just wasn’t for me. I decided I was going to learn country music, so I left New Hampshire and headed to Nashville—just me and my guitar and about $400 in my pocket.
I set up on Broadway where all the honkytonks are and I played on the street where Merle Haggard, Hank Williams, and Waylon Jennings all got their start. That was my first taste of Western culture—through the music.
How did you end up going from busking in Nashville to working as a chuckwagon cook at the O RO Ranch in Prescott, Ariz.?
I still wanted to experience authentic cowboy life, so I jumped in my truck, hopped on I-40, and headed west. My truck broke down in Williams, Ariz., and it took all the money I had to fix it. I was broke and looking for a job. I visited a friend in Flagstaff who took me to the Grand Canyon, where I just marveled at the beauty. Then I saw there were these mules taking tourists up and down the canyon. So I went over to the mule barn and I dang near got down on both knees and begged for a job. And I got one. And that’s how I became a mule wrangler at the Grand Canyon.
I’d been working there about five years, when I met up with this cowboy who told me about a cattle operation in Prescott that needed a chuckwagon cook: the O RO Ranch. It’s a 270,000-acre cattle ranch and one of the few ranches left in the United States that still runs a chuckwagon.
What’s it like to feed a bunch of hungry cowboys from a chuckwagon?
I’d follow them in the spring and fall, for about three months each stretch. I’d sleep in the chuck truck and the cowboys would pitch tipis. I drove that wagon through some of the worst roads you ever saw. And all I had to cook with was a Dutch oven and grills over the coals. I sure learned a lot about cowboys and the cowboy way.
They were some of the most sincere, honest, genuine, and gracious folks I’ve ever been around. I literally could have deep-fried a cow patty, put it on a plate, and those boys would have said thank you.
One day after work, all the hands were around the fire swapping stories and an old cowboy named Cisco and I were sitting on the chuckbox playing a game of cribbage. In between hands, I asked him, “Cisco, do you think that when I’m done with this trip I can call myself a cowboy?” Well, he just grunted and went back to playing cribbage. Then about four hands later he said, “I think when you’re done with this job, you can sure enough call yourself a chuckwagon cook.” I’ll take it.
What is your favorite part about Western cooking?
The tradition. I’m a big advocate of cooking in Dutch ovens and cast iron; I have some really old cast irons that have been handed down through generations. In my mind, when I’m cooking with them, I’m cooking with the pioneers. I’m cooking with the folks who rambled across this great country, enduring amazing hardship. And they put their beef into this pot just like I’m doing now. There’s a nostalgia and connection in Western cooking that really sets it apart.
You now work as the executive chef at The Kessler Collection’s Kessler Canyon, a luxury hunting resort in De Beque, a beautiful—and remote—part of Colorado. Where do you get your ingredients?
Since the ranch spans across 23,000 acres, most of our ingredients come straight from the property. We have a fantastic garden. There’s 27 different vegetables growing in it. I also forage from the creek, watercress for example. Watercress is so bright and peppery; it’s delicious with a coffee-crusted elk filet and a cabernet demi-glace with some wild mushrooms.
And most of my menu is wild game—everything from elk and mule deer to turkey and pheasant. And when things are feelin’ froggy and I want to jump a little bit, I’ll cook up some mountain lion! And then sometimes we’ll have some black bear, which is very good out here in Colorado where the bears eat a lot of berries. I made bear gyros with apple tzatziki sauce the other day, and oh man…
Congratulations are in order! You recently won Food Network’s cooking competition, Food Network Star. Tell us about that experience.
I still can’t believe it! I thought they’d send me and my goofy shirts and wild rags home the first day. Everyone there was so wonderful and I can only say great things about Food Network.
The night I won was incredible. [Fellow contestant] Luca Della Casa and I had become really good friends, and when the owner of Food Network came out to announce the winner, I thought for sure it was going to be Luca. He’s such an incredible cook and just so dang handsome. Then they showed my picture and I just buckled and thanked the good Lord for seeing fit to put me in this position.
It was a touching moment when you gave celebrity chef and judge Alton Brown your buckle after your win. What’s the story behind the buckle?
I got that buckle while working at the O RO. Every summer the boys entered a ranch rodeo, and one summer I entered in the team roping as a heeler. Well, the ranch won the overall, and we all got a buckle. I wore that thing religiously.
On the show, Alton was mesmerized by it and I told him he could have it if I won. Alton just beamed when I gave it to him. To me, the most important things in life are the things I can share, whether it’s a buckle or a good meal.