The Truth About Bon Appetit's Brad Leone

Brad Leone is one of the breakout stars of Bon Appétit's YouTube channel (via Spoon University). His first show, "It's Alive," helped introduce viewers to home fermentation, but even more than that, it introduced Leone as a new kind of cooking host. Unlike the polished, professional food hosts of the past, Leone isn't afraid to show that he makes mistakes in the kitchen, and his bumbling, affable persona has earned him legions of fans. He has helped make home food preservation seem like a less intimidating project for amateurs to try out.

However, he hasn't always been able to avoid controversy. As Gawker writes, the same lack of precision and loose approach to food science that made him a loveable food host have also led to some incidents where he promoted recipes that could make people sick (or even worse). From his humble origins in New Jersey to his rise through the Bon Appétit test kitchen to his recent botulism-related scandals, this is the untold truth of Brad Leone.

Brad Leone grew up in New Jersey

As you can probably tell the second he opens his mouth, Brad Leone is a New Jersey native. Specifically, he grew up in North Jersey, in a rural part of the state. He told Wayward Collective that his childhood home was close to the New Jersey section of the Appalachian Trail and to a ski resort.

His rural upbringing influenced how he spent his leisure time as a kid. He says in an episode of his YouTube show, "It's Alive," that he grew up going bird hunting with his father and that his family had a bird dog.

He held many different jobs before he moved to New York City to pursue his culinary dreams. In an interview with Imbibe Magazine, he says that he was a union glazier (a glassworker). He also mentions to Wayward Collective that he worked a variety of other manual labor jobs as well, including carpentry, roofing, and paving.

He bounced around the culinary world before landing at Bon Appétit

Brad Leone's first cooking job was in New Jersey. When he was a teenager, he worked at a deli owned by someone he describes as an "ex-uncle" (via Imbibe Magazine). After his time working in construction-related jobs, he took a chance and moved to Brooklyn to try to make it in the food world. He had to take out a loan to finance the move. Once he landed in Brooklyn, he began attending The Institute of Culinary Education, according to Fashion Week Daily. He didn't have a high opinion of the school, telling Wayward Collective it was "an 'eh' culinary school."

Leone worked for a variety of restaurants and catering companies during his early years. He told Fashion Week Daily that he didn't enjoy working as a sauté cook for the Stand Grill, but he learned a lot during his time as a chef at MS Catering. The most important gig he got during culinary school was as a Bon Appétit intern.

Brad Leone worked his way up from the bottom of the Bon Appétit test kitchen

According to Brad Leone, he was basically a dishwasher during his internship at Bon Appétit (via Imbibe Magazine). He eventually earned a paid position as a test kitchen assistant, but his job still involved cleaning dishes, keeping the kitchen tidy, and shopping for ingredients.

By 2014, his job title was test kitchen manager, according to Fashion Week Daily. The job had a lot more responsibility than just washing dishes. In an interview with Bon Appétit in 2015, he said "I'm in charge of sourcing all of our ingredients and kitchen equipment. I also manage the budget, help out on photo shoots, and generally coordinate all the moving parts to keep our kitchen functional."

While he had ascended the ranks at Bon Appétit by 2015, he was not yet the internet food celebrity he would become. The first episode of "It's Alive," which showed Brad making kombucha, didn't air until October of 2016.

It's Alive was a new kind of cooking show

On an episode of the YouTube interview show "Hot Ones," Brad Leone said that when he started at Bon Appétit, the brand's YouTube presence was minimal. The videos that were up were basic cooking demos that lacked the personal flair that Bon Appétit would become known for.

When Bon Appétit decided to try focusing more on video content, it hired a woman to give the chefs some media training and shoot test videos. Leone's video, which was shot solo in a kitchen set, was by his own admission not very good (via Uproxx).

Sensing that there was something compelling about Brad despite his disappointing screen test, Bon Appétit decided to try a different approach. The company had a cameraman shoot footage of Brad in his natural environment, running around the test kitchen making kombucha. Bucking cooking show conventions, the finished video left in his mistakes and verbal flubs. Even though Leone didn't like it because he thought it made him look foolish, the first episode was a hit, launching a successful show that has produced over 100 episodes.

It's Alive: Goin' Places gets Brad Leone out of the kitchen

The original version of "It's Alive" is a cooking show set in Bon Appétit's test kitchen. The show focuses on Brad as he works on various fermentation projects. Although it's Brad Leone's original claim to fame and the show that helped launch Bon Appétit's YouTube channel as a major presence in the food media landscape, it's not necessarily Leone's passion project. The show's style can really be attributed to Matt Hunziker, a video editor who put together the first episode (via Uproxx).

The success of "It's Alive" allowed Leone to make another show that's more attuned to his vision: "It's Alive: Goin' Places." The show is a travelogue that features Brad journeying to far-flung locales and talking to local food producers about how they make their products. It has glossier production values and a slightly more serious tone than "It's Alive." The show lets Brad learn more about food, which is something he treasures. His Instagram bio reads "Let's never stop learning."

Not everyone is impressed with Brad Leone's schtick

Of course, we can't talk about the Bon Appétit YouTube channel without talking about the infamous Bon Appétit test kitchen shakeup. Three people of color who appeared in videos for the company — Priya Krishna, Rick Martinez, and Sohla El-Waylly — decided to stop making video content for Bon Appétit, alleging pay discrimination. El-Waylly posted Instagram stories saying that she did not get compensated for her video appearances at all (via Popmatters).

Brad Leone initially reacted to the claims with a message of support on his Instagram, saying "I didn't see the microaggressions that I have never experienced and I apologize for that." He, along with several of the other white chefs at Bon Appétit, agreed to stop producing videos until their non-white colleagues were compensated fairly. However, Popmatters notes that after a hiatus, he started making videos again.

In addition to unfair pay, El-Waylly also didn't appreciate that she, a chef with years of experience at the highest levels of the profession, was put in a lower-ranking position than people with less experience than her. Leone was one of those people. In a Vulture interview, she said of Leone, "For some reason, people like watching a big dumb white guy. But why? What does that say about the audience? Why do you want to watch this incompetent white man?"

Bon Appétit had to take down an It's Alive video over botulism concerns

In addition to the controversy about Bon Appétit's alleged pay discrimination, Brad Leone has also gotten into hot water because of unsafe food handling practices. The Washington Post reports that in 2021, Leone made an episode of "It's Alive" that demonstrated a potentially dangerous way to can fish at home.

The video showed Leone and Charlotte Langley, who runs a canning company, simmering jars of seafood in a pot of boiling water. While this method is safe for high-acid foods, canned seafood and meat need to reach 240 degrees Fahrenheit to ensure that the bacteria that cause botulism are eradicated. To attain this high temperature, you need to use a pressure canning method rather than a water bath. Although Bon Appétit initially tried to allege that the water bath was just for show, the brand eventually removed the video from the internet.

Botulism is no joke. The toxin produced by the bacteria can make your muscles weak and potentially kill you, according to the CDC.

Brad Leone's pastrami recipe caused another food safety fracas

Apparently, Bon Appétit didn't learn from the seafood canning debacle, as Brad Leone's pastrami recipe, which he released in 2022, also drew fire from people who claimed it was unsafe.

According to Gawker, traditionally, pastrami is cured with a solution that includes sodium nitrite. This preservative kills off botulism bacteria and helps ensure that the meat is safe to eat. The sodium nitrite also gives cured meat its characteristic bright red/pink color.

Leone's pastrami recipe uses a mixture of celery juice and sauerkraut juice to preserve the meat. While celery juice contains nitrates, which can be used to make nitrites, a food expert told Gawker that the quantity of celery juice used in the "It's Alive" video would not be enough to make the meat safe. Many comments on Leone's Instagram post about the recipe echo this critique and also mention that the pastrami's brown color is a sure indication that it's not properly cured. Twitter had a field day discussing one comment on the post that claimed that a Leone fan experienced serious gastrointestinal distress after making the recipe.

Brad Leone has many eccentric hobbies

In addition to his obsession with fermentation, Brad Leone has many other hobbies that bring him joy. A perusal of his Instagram shows that he has a passion for duck hunting and trout fishing. Of course, he cooks the animals that he catches and shoots. He also mentioned in a Bon Appétit interview that he likes going crabbing and enjoys forging metal.

In another Bon Appétit piece, Leone says that he spends most Sunday mornings doing woodworking projects, crafting handmade furniture and cutting boards. As if the hunting, fishing, woodworking, and crabbing weren't enough, he also likes to go surfing. He told Wayward Collective that "Surfing is one of the best things I've ever done. I love it. I didn't pick up surfing 'till I moved to NYC, oddly. I grew up spending tons of time on the ocean but never surfed. A buddy of mine from Omaha bought some logs and we taught ourselves how to surf."

He has his own brand of pork roll

Pork roll might be an unfamiliar product in most of the country, but it's a beloved staple in New Jersey and the surrounding areas. This bright pink breakfast meat is made from a mixture of minced pork, seasonings, and preservatives. It's sugar-cured and smoked before being packed into its familiar circular log shape. In New Jersey, it's a popular breakfast meat that shows up in egg-and-cheese sandwiches across the state.

Although most pork roll fans are satisfied with the original Taylor pork roll that's been made in the state since 1870, Brad Leone decided to take a crack at marketing his own version. He teamed up with the Portland-based meat company Olympia Provisions to release Leone & Sons pork roll, an upscale pork roll made with pasture-raised pigs. The New York Times says Leone's pork roll tastes great as a breakfast meat or as an hors-doeuvre. The Olympia Provisions website says it's a limited edition product, so it might not be around forever.

Brad Leone lives with his wife and two children

Despite his status as a food celebrity who travels across the country for work, Leone also likes to spend time with his family. His wife, Peggy Marie Merck, frequently posts pictures on Instagram of her, Brad, and their two kids on family outings.

Brad Leone particularly enjoys cooking for his family. He told Bon Appétit that on Sundays, he starts "cooking dinner early. Big braises. Sauces. Low and slow stuff that takes all day to cook." He also made very elaborate baby food for his son Grif. To feed Grif, he would just mince what the adults were eating into small enough pieces for the baby. Grif got to eat gourmet fare like lamb shanks, venison, and salmon belly.

Leone teaches his children how to catch and prepare food as well; in one post, you can see him grinding meat with one of his kids, and in another, he's fishing with Grif. He's clearly trying to pass his love of food on to the next generation.