The contestants on Gordon Ramsay’s TV cooking shows often wax on and on about their past, describing how they learned to cook at their mother’s/grandmother’s/aunt’s apron strings and later cinched plum jobs at fancy restaurants.
Not so with Georgeann Leaming.
The youngest of three daughters growing up in Woodstown, N.J., she did a little of this and a little of that around the house. She preferred to work at her father’s pet store and became a preschool teacher out of high school. She didn’t even start culinary school till she was 22, shortly before becoming divorced.
She moved through the ranks of Atlantic City casino restaurants. When an entrepreneurial bug bit in 2013, she broke off to open the Philadelphia restaurants Suppa and Samwich with her boyfriend, Angelo Polito, right around the time an appearance on the show Chopped gave her a taste of fame. After four years, in summer 2017, the realities of restaurant ownership propelled her back to Atlantic City, to head the kitchen at Gordon Ramsay Pub & Kitchen at Caesars. Less than a year later, she moved to Harrah’s — same company — to open Gordon Ramsay Steak.
But she grew tired of the casino life. Last week, Leaming, 45, started as chef at R2L, chef Daniel Stern’s high-atmosphere American restaurant on the 37th floor of Two Liberty Place in Center City. She plans to commute daily from the Jersey Shore, where she lives with Polito and her daughter, Kirsten, now 21, both of whom work in the kitchens at Ocean Casino.
First off, what prompted this move to Philly?
It was just time for moving on, to look for a better work culture and more opportunities, and to get back into the city where food’s appreciated a little bit more. I mean, Gordon Ramsay’s high quality. It’s great. But it’s also casino clientele. So there are some who are down there, obviously, for the food and for the Ramsay brand, but the other ones, not so much, and it’s just a place to eat. You miss that guest that really appreciates the food and what you’re doing and the effort you’re putting in. When I applied here, it just said “private listing.” I was not too sure what I was applying for. The next day, I got an email and it said Daniel Stern. I’m like, “I know that name. Very well-respected chef.” And I was very excited. I came in, I did my tasting [test] and just immediately just talking to chef and Sue Mahoney [the general manager]. You can talk to them. Sometimes at the corporations, where you have so many levels, you can’t just feel that.
Let’s back up a minute. How did your teaching career end and your culinary career begin?
I was 22. I was just thinking, “What do I want to do? I don’t want to be a real, actual teacher-teacher.” One day, I just decided to go to culinary school [at the Academy of Culinary Arts in Mays Landing]. I still don’t remember why. Everybody asks me, “How’d you decide?” I’m like, “I don’t know.” At the time, Food Network was really just getting going and so everybody wanted to cook, and so I say I’m one of those lucky people that went to school the first time for something and enjoyed it and was good at it. But just coincidentally, that’s when, my first semester, I became pregnant with my daughter [Kirsten]. I was working in the preschool, going to school full-time, and being pregnant up two days before she was due. She was due Christmas Day, but she held out till Jan. 4. I always say she was literally born into the business. Instead of going back to the preschool [after returning to work], I went and started working in a country club so I could start getting experience. And yeah, when I graduated, I ended up working at Harrah’s.
How did you meet Gordon Ramsay?
[Caesars management] presented me to the Gordon team [in 2017], and then I just took over right in the middle of the summer, which is crazy at the Shore. That restaurant still runs on like a thousand [patrons] on a Saturday. And I was going, “What did I get into?” Not long after, we had dinner with Gordon, and that’s when he came in and I met him.
What were your impressions of him?
First off, he’s very tall. You don’t realize how tall he is. My first actual face-to-face meeting with him was when I had to do the tasting for the dinner for him [several months later]. I had put my food all laid out for him to come by and taste.
They got the whole staff and all the managers and all my directors. Everybody is standing there watching my food lined up for him to taste. That was my first meeting. It was “Hello,” and then he’s tasting my food. So I was freaking out a little bit, but I was cool.
What were you worried about? On TV, he’s such a calm and easygoing guy whose name is on the restaurant.
Exactly. He’s actually a really nice guy. He took the time to go down the line and talk to each and every person on their line and shake their hand and say hello, and really made them all feel special.
What did you cook?
The one course I do remember off the top of my head was because that’s the only thing that he’s slightly critiqued. It was sliced strip steak. I think we had three or four smaller pieces and he said to do a lesser amount and do thicker pieces, just so it was more hearty. And that was the only critique out of everything.
How did you meet Angelo?
Just before I left Showboat, he came down from North Jersey to work the buffet. And my first time meeting him, it was the night I had to cover the buffet, because my restaurant was open four days a week. It was a weekend, so it was busy. I think it was a coupon night or something like that. I get put it in there with him, and I’m like, “Who put me in with the new guy?” I’m like, “We’re running around all night.” You know, it was great.
I always make fun of his slick first move. He’s like at the end of the night, “Oh, do you need me to walk you to the parking garage?” I’m like, “No, I’m fine.” He said, “Oh, what about me?” Something like that, being silly. We didn’t actually start dating till after I had left.
Your daughter is in the business?
Like I said, she was born in the business, so when she was little, we cooked a lot together. When I had a catering business, she would have to hang out there, since I was doing the single-mom thing, and she would help make little crab cakes until she got tired and then she would sit out front. When I had my restaurant in Philly, she would begrudgingly work there a bit. Which is funny, because thinking back, she hated doing so much stuff. I’m thinking that when she said she wanted to go to culinary school, I’m like, “Really?" But wow, she’s committed. Since Angelo works at Ocean as well, we’re a household of crazy workaholics.
Tell me about your time in Philly.
Suppa [at Liberties Walk in Northern Liberties] opened October of 2013, which was funny, because I had taped Chopped Oct. 1, and we opened Oct. 23, and then the show didn’t air until April. We had to wait that long. That’s what we were really hoping would help give us a little something. I loved my time in Philly. The collaboration with the chefs and the food scene. We made our little niche. We didn’t get big-time, but we made our niche.
Why did you close?
We opened with very little money and we didn’t have a lot of capital behind us. We were just making it, and to work seven days a week, day and night, just to make it, and we didn’t have benefits — at some point, I was like, “It’s enough.”
Do you think there’s a chance you’d ever open a restaurant again?
I do, but I don’t know. I love that freedom of having your own say and total creation, but it is a lot. It’s a fickle business to be in, and unless you have maybe some better backing capital, I don’t know. I never say no, because you never know what comes up. But I would love to again someday, I suppose. I’m crazy enough. Actually, it was funny. I kept telling Angelo I would love to open a seasonal brunch place in Brigantine, because it has breakfast places and it has brunch, but it’s not like a Philly brunch. Here, there’s so much great food. There, you get your eggs, your omelets, it’s not exciting. I would love to do something, and he just thinks I’m crazy.