“I’m in a position where I can help others”: Chef and owner of Amilinda uses restaurant to do good
MILWAUKEE (CBS 58) — Melissa Zygowicz meets Gregory Leon, head chef and owner of Amilinda in downtown Milwaukee, who is using his space to do good.
At the intersection of Wisconsin and Milwaukee, you will find Amilinda, an intimate restaurant in the heart of downtown Milwaukee.
"I tell everyone, Amilinda is like Platform 9 3/4, you gotta know it's there to step into the magic. Otherwise, you can easily just walk by, but you really don't know what exists all back here,” bar lead Blaine Davis Reed said.
The food is inspired by dishes from Spain and Portugal. Every week the menu completely changes.
Gregory Leon is the chef and owner. He grew up in Venezuela before moving to the U.S. when he was 18. His experience living overseas is what inspired him to become a chef and open up Amilinda.
“It's named after my parents, so Amilinda is a combination of their names. It was a labor of love to open this place. Had a lot of friends and family come and help us get it off the ground," Leon said.
Leon has been in the industry for more than 30 years.
“18 of those in San Francisco. Started off as a line cook, pantry cook,” he said.
He moved to Milwaukee after visiting a friend. He had been looking for a new city to open a restaurant.
"Milwaukee was not on my radar. I had to look it up on a map... I came at the end of summer and just really fell in love with the city, and everyone was just so friendly,” Leon said.
Since opening in 2015, Leon has made it his mission to not only make great food, but to also make a difference.
“My parents cooked at home all the time and really showed us that food and cooking is more than a necessity, it was something we can do to express our love for other people or make the community a better place,” he said
And he has certainly done that in his short time here. Leon helped keep dozens of people stay afloat during the pandemic.
"With our friend Pastor Karen, we started a program called Hungry Hearts, where we recruited 10 other restaurants and we had a schedule that every Saturday, three restaurants would cook 100 meals each and in turn, those restaurants would get paid a thousand dollars, and then those meals were distributed to the community,” he said.
More than 100-thousand dollars was raised and given out.
“Not only were we able to feed some people during the pandemic who might of lost their jobs or didn't have resources to feed themselves, but we were also able to give money back to restaurants so they could keep their doors open,” he said
At the end of this month, Leon will also turn over to his restaurant to chefs in Milwaukee who are refugees. He is taking part in the Tables Across Borders series with two other restaurants.
"Tricklebee Cafe and Lazy Susan. There's 9 dinners."It was a started by Kai Mishlove and it focuses on refugees who have been relocated to Milwaukee."
Refugees from countries like Karen, Ethiopia and Afghanistan will take over his kitchen, preparing cuisine from their native country.
"While I'm not a refugee and have never been, I know what it's like to move to a different country and being in a different society and not quite know what's going on,” Leon said. "100 percent of those sales go to refugees so they can get established in Milwaukee."
Leon was also just recognized as a top chef himself.
He is a finalist for a James Beard award.
“The James Beard award is like the Oscars for the culinary world,” Leon said.
He is a finalist for best chef mid-west. This award had always been a dream of his.
"I had always said if I made semi-finals, I would be fine. I'd be complete. That was great and about a month later they announced the finalists and that was quite a surprise,” he said.
While Leon is focused on making great food, he hopes Amilinda will continue to make a big difference.
"I feel like it's a place where people can come in, forget their troubles, enjoy their life and not really worry what's going on beyond those doors,” Leon said.