The staff of Chez Leon: Still cooking after all these years
Tita Jensen, chef of Chez Leon, tries never to repeat a menu item.
It's Wednesday morning and the staff of Chez Leon are hustling. Four women
scurry between rooms, calling out to each other while chopping, slicing,
peeling, pouring, mixing and mashing. Tita Jensen, chef of Chez Leon--a
Fermilab institution older than the Tevatron--will tell you she has the best
job in the world but, she says, "it's not one for wimps."
"I've never had anything there I would try to make at home," said Marylin
Smith, an administrative assistant in the office of the directorate who has
been dining at the restaurant for more than 20 years. "And I've never had
anything there I didn't enjoy."
When planning the menu, Jensen tries for no repeats "but after 28 years it's
difficult," she says. Each week the menu is a product of many influences on
Jensen. She considers the season--what food is current and what people enjoy
during that time of year. When she travels, she is attuned to regional food
for new ideas. She enjoys leafing through the new cookbooks at the library.
And she must consider the cost of the food to be served.
Jensen, originally from the Dominican Republic, recognizes the sensibilities
of the Midwest in her menu planning: "People like good honest food--I don't
believe in grinding things up and reshaping them. I like to see where it
It's not all meat and potatoes though. With an international audience, "you
can play." Jensen enjoys her freedom, "The best part of my job is that I
have a free hand and I have the best staff anyone ever could. We
all work together on everything."
In the kitchen with her, "hustling," are Konnie Barnes, who began at Chez
Leon 27 years ago--when she was 16, Kathie Lootens, head baker of 25 years, Chivas Makaroplos, bartender of seven years,
and their "new treasure" Veronica Almeraz.
Jensen plans to be cooking with her team for a long time yet. "My husband
recently asked me, 'What are you going to do when you retire?'" she said.
"I told him I don't want to retire. I hope I'm standing at the stove one day
when I fall over. I hope I die cooking."
Chez Leon was profiled in a 2001 issue of FermiNews. To read more click here.
Konnie Barnes (left), Tita Jensen and Kathie Lootens have been cooking together for more than 25 years.