The Food Story of Leah Stuckey

"The macaroons sort of cemented things." - Leah Stuckey

"That's where this Jewish Kosher Retirement Facility came in..." - Leah Stuckey

Generally speaking, Mennonites have never been loners. We travel in hoards, live in little bunches, take over towns, and then smother each other with an excess of whoopie pies and personal questions. Makes sense then that something just audibly clicked in my community-oriented ear the first time I talked to my dear friend and pastry chef, Leah Stuckey, about The Shoofly Project. A lustrous light bulb flashed above my head, heartily smacked me on the back, and then blinked its message directly in my eyes: “You need a coauthor! And not just anyone. You need Leah Stuckey!

A coauthor: As in - Someone who can clean the crap of out of some pig intestines (pun intended), who understands pie crust as high art, who knows the meaning of "Menno" cuisine = Leah
Someone I adore, trust, and can laugh at inappropriate jokes with. Someone who I wouldn’t mind having meal after meal after meal with = Leah.
Someone who is passionate about a challenge = Leah!

So it is my pleasure, with drums rolling in my ears, to introduce you to the one and only
Leah Stuckey… The Shoofly Project’s new coauthor!

I met Leah my first week at Hesston College, standing in the dorm hallway, nervous and probably a bit sweaty (me, not Leah). Immediately I was immediately doubled over in laughter as Leah hiked up her pants and interprets some SNL skit for us. Sold!... We spent that year pretending to be hunched over textbooks at Newell’s diner late at night, but mostly engrossed in our own college dramas and the cheese fries.

Our food bonding was truly cemented a few years later though when we once again joined forces at Goshen College. I had taken a job as a “Muffin Girl” (I kid you not) at the café where Leah was a cook – Bread & Chocolate. Again we hung out at odd hours– circa 5:30am (luckily with less grease and drama) to make breakfast for the good people of Goshen. I was constantly amazed that despite the freezing cold of northern Indiana winter, and despite the dreaded early hour, Leah could still send me into snorting, laughing hysterics over pretty much anything.

As you can see… this journey just got a lot more fun. Soooo with no further ado… Leah Stuckey!
(Note: italicized comments in parentheses are mine.) 

LLB: Leah Loves Bread... or at least wearing it. 

Leah, do tell... how did you get interested in food and cooking?
Honestly, I was never actually into cooking; I was more into art. I grew up in a farming family with a Mennonite background in Somerset, Michigan. So my mom was always cooking at home, but even early on I was much more into the aesthetics that played into food. Like I remember making chocolate tulips with my church advocate one summer and thinking they was so cool, so beautiful - Of course it was summer so they melted immediately. But it was really the aesthetics.

At some point as a teenager my parents said it was time to get a job, and so I started working at the Dairy Queen in our no-stop-light-town in Michigan. I worked the fryer, it was really easy and all my friends worked there.

I was an Art and Art History major at Goshen College, and when I had graduated it was time to work of course… no more school. So I started working at this café - Bread & Chocolate in Goshen, Indiana, and I realized, “Oh, I like this!”  After awhile the café gave me more control over what I wanted to do, and I found myself naturally veering more towards sugar than chicken. I wanted to make cheesecakes and muffins and breads. (Oh my!)

But I really wanted to do this thing right – the food that is, and I knew I wasn’t going to be at Bread & Chocolate for the rest of my life. I also knew I wanted to be out of the country – that was a really big factor. So I decided to move to London and go to school at Le Cordon Bleu.

Leah amongst her artwork

What brings enjoyment from food for you?
In school I was  really excited about doing something right, conquering something that everyone says is tough. You know I come from a Mennonite background which means you don’t toot your own whistle; somebody is supposed to do that for you, and only then are you allowed to say “Thank You” or “I’m proud of myself”. But in London I really was proud of myself – I got distinction (big deal in Cordon Bleu world) – and I said to myself, “Leah – you’re good at this and you like this. That has never really happened before.”

I think as an artist cooking brings a level of instant gratification which can be hard to find in other mediums. I loved art and technically I was decent at it, but I couldn’t always effectively say what I wanted to say. There’s this experience as a visual artist of toiling over a piece for 6 weeks and then just hating it at the end. With food, in only a couple of hours I know if it is good or bad, and I still get to use my art skills.

Where did you start your career after culinary school?
I went to work at Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ontario which is a 5 diamond, fine dining Relais & Chateau and the #1 place to eat in Canada. For some reason somebody thought I was ready to work at this place, and I actually was not ready to work at this place. At that point, for me, it wasn’t art and it wasn’t food – it was conquering personal goals in both of those realms. I remember calling my dad, crying for the first 3 months -  “It’s too much! I can’t do this!” But I stuck with it, and really when you get that deep in and stay, you become more resourceful.

Wedding Cupcakes for Josh (Leah's cousin) and Amber 

I really got to test and prove myself at Langdon… they gave me just enough rope to either hang myself or succeed. And it wasn’t that I didn’t make mistakes but I did do well. That’s what I craved – challenge. For instance, while I was there my high tea service was rated the #1 high tea experience in Canada by Toronto Life Magazine.

I still wanted more challenge though, and I was craving the really intense, high pressure line cooking at night so I did that. Then after awhile I just felt tired of not being able to do anything and always sacrificing my quality of life. I was tired of saying to my friends and family, “No I can’t; No I can’t. I won’t be there for Christmas, or Easter, or Thanksgiving. I can’t make it to your birthday… I have to work.”

Homemade Sugar Sculpture by Leah of her Uncle John

(This where the macaroons come in... ) So I was going through this phase of making giant macaroons; I was obsessed with making the perfectly-crusted macaroon. One day the head chef comes to me and says, “I have a function tomorrow and I need to impress a lot people - I need 200 of something.”  So I made 200 milk chocolate macaroons with a white chocolate avocado cream and a salted caramel center. Do you know those suckers sold out in like 2 seconds!?  And that’s when I realized… “You can do this Leah.”  The macaroons sort of cemented things – my confidence for sure, but also people’s acknowledgment of my ability. After that, I started working more and more closely with the head chef and one day I asked him if he would do it all over again if he could, and he says, “NO!”  So I asked myself: Why am I trying to be this guy then? What am I striving for now? What would make me happy?


After that I decided to move on to Chicago as it was really one of the up and coming places to eat in America. But when I got here (to Chicago), I realized my priorities had changed. I could have worked at a number of fine dining restaurants, but that was the life I was trying to get away from. Why couldn’t I find a 9-5 cooking job? Then I could still have a life! And waaahhh… That’s where this Jewish Kosher Retirement Facility came in.

At Park Plaza I got to de-stress, zone out, do some really fun cooking. I learned to make challah! I’m the pastry chef here – I make all the breads, all the desserts, and my own hours. I get to teach a baking class and a challah braiding class with the old folks every week.

Challah Challah Challah Challah Challah Challah Challah

But now… I’m ready for another challenge (wink wink: coauthor a cookbook). That is one thing I love about cooking – there’s always a different challenge or facet, a different possibility for extending yourself.

Who is your food muse or inspiration?
Bertie Tanaya – hands down. He was a coworker at Langdon Hall. Bertie is basically Indonesian royalty - His father runs this paper company in Indonesia, and Bertie should really be taking over the family business but instead he is absolutely obsessed with chocolate. He is one with the chocolate. He feels the chocolate. His precision and his uniqueness in the kitchen – I totally aspire to be this kid! And it’s not just his flavor combinations, it’s things like, “Why don’t we put a chocolate spear on this?” And I’m going – “This doesn’t go at all!”,  but then it ends up wildly successful. You know chocolate is difficult material, but Bertie can see a kitchen and maybe, let's say, the fact that an oven is slightly open across the room which is going to affect the humidity which thus affects the chocolate, and he can say, “Let’s wait 5 minutes to pour.” - That is on a different level! Really anything that I should have learned in school, but learned later instead – it was from Bertie. I aspire to be as one with anything as he is with chocolate.

Bertie and Leah at Langdon Hall 

But I also find Bertie interesting because he can’t make pumpkin pie! It’s just not part of his tradition. I had idolized him so much and then one day to find out that he can’t make pumpkin pie... It was such a weird, fascinating juxtaposition, but at the same time it made him human, which makes him even better. 

What do you eat when you’re stressed?
Cinnamon Toast. Hands down.
Any particular bread?
Any bread really, but I really like the white, rich bread, like a brioche. I’ve come to really appreciate challah now too. I admit I’m not as big on a sourdough or a French bread. I just don’t like breads that hurt my mouth. You see I have sensitive gums – take your painful breads elsewhere! But I love making them. I love making a nice baguette. I like hearing it; I like thumping it.

Do you have any memories of Shoofly Pie growing up?
Oh yes, my Grandma Stuckey often made it. Or she’d buy them from the The Dough Box in Archbold, Ohio. But I remember not quite understanding the filling, thinking, 'What is this all about?'. I actually understood it more when I moved to Canada because Canadians are crazy about butter tarts and sugar pies, which I think is where Shoofly Pie falls. It’s all just different sugars in a pie.

I also remember going to the Essenhaus (the Mennonite equivalent of ad hoc... sort of.) and thinking, 'I’m at the Essenhaus! They have apple butter in a squeezie bottle… Bring me some more rolls!'

I’m quite lucky – I don’t have fast food flavor memories really. My bank of flavors from childhood consists of the charcoal from an overdone burger on the backyard grill, or a gooseberry pie which was, let’s say it, too runny. My point here is that you can taste nature in scratch cooking. You can really taste the start to finish, and I like that.

Leah's Gateau de Poire

Why agree to coauthor a Mennonite cookbook?
Because it is most definitely a new challenge, and like I said, I’m really ready for one. I’ve conquered a lot of my personal goals and so when you (that's me - Katie) opened the idea of the book – I just loved it. It seemed to click. And there is still that humble part of me saying, “Don’t toot your own horn. You’re still learning.” But of course I’m still learning! I’m also in a comfortable spot, and so it just makes sense. Everything has fallen into place in a way that just. makes. sense.

What are you most excited about in The Shoofly Project?
I love recipe testing! Can we get that down?

I’m also really excited for this book to explain things in a way so that every person can understand them and do them-making things crystal clear. I’d love to do some sort of troubleshooting feature. I am all about approachable.

What recipe will you be sharing in Part 2?
Homemade butter! (Oh Glory!)

Well Thanks Leah! On so many levels... Thank you! Look alive, dear readers, for more posts and updates from Leah. First up is that glorious homemade butter!


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  2. Leah... these pictures are amazing. You truly are an artist! I'm so excited for your collaboration and cannot wait for the book. Cheers to you both!

  3. Wow, these photos are amazing! I am looking forward to your cook book. (And you've made me crave The Dough Box, too! I love everything from there!)

    1. Hi Cissy, Thanks for your glowing comment!! So glad you enjoyed Leah's interview... I got hungry over and over again editing and putting this together... Haha!