One look at Chef David Leathers and you know he is a true original. Clad in Converse Chuck Taylors, skinny jeans, and a T-shirt that reads, “Friends Don’t Let Friends Eat Fast Food”, Leathers, 33, takes an avant-garde approach to his life and work. He is a highly skilled artist, but he doesn’t work in oils or clay. The Fulton native and renowned food stylist sees food, particularly veggies and fruit, as his blank canvas.
He has transformed squash into monkeys, watermelons into drum sets, and cantaloupes into cartoon characters—all using his imagination, two hands, and one blade. Leathers, a kind of culinary celebrity, has been featured on the TLC TV series, Extreme Food Sculptors, and is currently traveling the country dazzling spectators with his creative carving demonstrations. He has done thousands of carvings. In fact, he can carve a watermelon into an intricate bloom in an astonishing two minutes, seven seconds, and he carves an image of Elvis into a watermelon every year for the Tupelo Elvis Festival. But, how did he develop this impressive and unique talent?
“My dad believed in child labor,” Leathers said. “My father opened his catering service when I was five years old, so I was always fond of cooking. But, it wasn’t until later in life that I thought, ‘I really enjoy this. I think I want to go to culinary school.’”
At the age of 18, Leathers hit the road and headed north to attend Pennsylvania Culinary, where he graduated valedictorian of his class.
“About halfway through culinary school, I had a chef give me probably the best advice I have ever been given,” Leathers said. “What he told me was, ‘Find something that makes you different than every other chef—something that gives you that little extra spark.’”
That influential chef suggested Leathers combine his love for food and art, and that’s exactly what he did.
“It was a long process,” Leathers said. “It took a lot of practice.”
He honed his craft at The Andy Mannhart Academy in Luzern, Switzerland. Leathers, who has a mix of savior-faire and Southern charm, has traveled a lot over the past 15 years and loves to talk about his native Mississippi.
“I’m very proud of where I’m from,” he said. “I like telling people about all of the influential people that have come from Mississippi. People that have changed certain genres, like Elvis did to rock-and-roll, B.B. King to the blues, Oprah Winfrey to talk show hosts, Jim Henson to children’s programming, William Faulkner to literature.”
It is fair to say the considerable contributions of those notable Mississippians are what inspired Leathers to become an advocate of change in the way Americans, particularly Mississippians, eat.
“We are the most obese state in the country again, for the seventh year in a row,” he said. “We have got to do something about this. We’ve got to get away from highly processed foods, additives, preservatives and eat the way that older generations did—a lot of fresh vegetables, a lot of fresh fruits.”
Leathers puts it simply, “The reason why we have so many health problems these days, comes from the foods we eat.”
He thought the best way to shift the state-wide sentiment regarding food was to start with the kids. “Kids will say, ‘Yuck, I don’t like asparagus, but a lot of kids have never had the opportunity to actually try asparagus and develop an opinion on whether they like it or not,” he said.
It has become his mission to introduce kids to healthy, new, foods. He now educates and entertains Mississippi elementary school students with his carvings.
“Fruit and vegetable carving is know-how,” Leathers said. “Once you learn basic cuts and how to properly hold your knife, then it becomes imagination.”
And it’s his vivid imagination and ability to execute what he envisions in his head that captivates kids. Leathers can swiftly sculpt watermelons into Sesame Street characters. Pineapples become parrots and bell peppers become bright red flowers, all in a matter of minutes. He wants to turn picky eaters into proponents of fresh produce, and plans on doing so, “one kid at a time.”
Leathers and his wife Juliet are raising a fruit and veggie fan of their own. They have a 4-year-old son named Presley, who may be a third generation culinarian-in-training.
“If you ask him what he wants to be when he grows up, he’ll tell you that he wants to be a chef,” Leathers said proudly.
Ambition and determination must run in the family.
“People tell me all the time that I look at the world through rose-colored glasses, but I’m going to make a difference in this world and if I don’t do it in my lifetime, I have a legacy that I can hand down to this kid,” Leathers said. “Maybe one day, he’ll change America.
Leathers currently has a children’s television show in the works and a tour planned to promote his set of instructional DVDs and line of knives. He is optimistic about the future and all that lies ahead, and he should be, he’s genuinely cut out for the job.
Photos by Adam Robison // Story by Beth Argo