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Making a Name in a Famed Food City

Leo Sloan in his restaurant

DEPARTMENTS/
ALUMNI PROFILES

Making a Name in a Famed Food City

By Jarrett Van Meter 

From tossing dough in Leonardo’s Burlington kitchen to Zagat’s “30 Under 30” list a few years later, Leo Sloan’s ascension in the culinary world has been meteoric. After working in some of the country’s most noteworthy restaurants since graduating from UVM in 2012, Sloan decided to set out on his own last year in opening Good Bird, a simple yet elegant sandwich shop in New Orleans’s famed St. Roch Market.

Though his first cooking job was at Leonardo’s, Sloan has been around food most of his life. His father writes cookbooks, and would often bring his son along to test kitchens while exploring new recipe possibilities. “I would just sit up on the counter and watch him prepare all these delicious meals, which really developed my curiosity at a young age,” says Sloan, a New York City native.

The Leonardo’s job only fanned the flame and, upon earning an entrepreneurship degree from UVM’s Community Development & Applied Economics department, Sloan moved back to the Big Apple with a plan. “I knew this was what I wanted to do, so I just decided I was going to jump in, work really hard, and see what I could make of it,” he explains.

His work ethic and passion caught the eye of celebrity chef Mario Batali, who offered him an unglamorous entry position at his renowned pizzeria, Otto. “I was making $7.50 an hour doing tasks like chopping huge piles of mushrooms for eight hours-straight in a basement with no windows, and loving every minute of it,” he says with a grin.

He clawed his way up the line before moving into one of Batali’s other kitchens, Casa Mono. Sloan credits the restaurant’s Spanish menu and innovation-friendly atmosphere for much of the creativity he utilizes today in running Good Bird. “That was where it really started to come together for me,” he says of Casa Mono. “The older guys there really took me under their wing and mentored me. The menu was always so inspired: whole pigs, stuffed lamb belly, rabbit. It was incredible.”

After several years working in the same city he grew up in, it was time for a change. Sloan packed up and headed south to the gastronomic mecca of New Orleans. In no time he had landed a gig at Donald Link’s renowned Peche, and found there was no drop-off from the New York food scene. “I think it’s just as competitive as New York City,” he says of his new home. “It’s not as big of a town, but in terms of flavor and people doing stuff the right way, it’s an incredible culinary city. In some ways it sets itself apart from any other city in America because it has so many roots in French, Creole, and Cajun cooking. It’s amazing.”

Sloan’s plan had always been to split off on his own at some point. When a counter space opened up in the historic St. Roch Market, he jumped at the opportunity and put his entrepreneurship degree to work. Good Bird was born, the idea equal parts artisanal and efficient. Chicken is the base protein for all the sandwiches and salads, with every bird prepared rotisserie-style. Once taken off the spit, the chickens are carved up, placed on fresh, local bread, and ladled with homemade sauces.

Almost immediately after opening, Good Bird was generating positive buzz. Food ratings giant Zagat took notice, naming Sloan one of their “30 under 30: Rock Stars Redefining the Industry” for the city of New Orleans in August. Not surprisingly, the brand is quickly growing. Good Bird now also caters events, pops up at festivals, and delivers to large parties. There are plans to open a second location, but Sloan is concentrated on fine-tuning the baby operation before further-widening his footprint. He envisions finding a place where he can cook the birds over an open fire pit, yet is careful not to get too far ahead of himself. “There are still some things we need to iron out first,” he admits.

Although not quite on par with his hometown or his new city, Sloan readily states that Burlington was a perfect place to not only hone his skills in the kitchen, but also shape his creativity and channel his ambitions. “The state of Vermont has that sustainable food sourcing mindset, which had a huge effect on me,” he says. “Brands like Cabot Cheese and Ben and Jerry’s, those were pioneers. Burlington has a niche as a birthplace for certain culinary stars.” 

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